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There’s a reason mechanical typewriters, turn-tables, vinyl records, and Polaroid film are trendy these days. What most people don’t know is that their appeal takes root in the zine: old-school, often hand- made, self-published booklets, which anyone with access to a Xerox machine and something to write about can create.
In an age of ailing print media, zine creators—or zinesters, as they are called—refuse to limit themselves to the screen-bound world of the burgeoning blogosphere. “There’s a sense of intimacy—it’s about the completeness,” says Jenna Freedman, a Barnard librarian and founder of the Barnard Zine Library, which holds over 4,000 zines and is always looking to shelve more. “Zines are a finished thing that are written and edited, whereas blogs are something you continue to update.”
On April 15, zine enthusiasts from near and far celebrated this medium at the annual Brooklyn Zine Fest, a decisive moment for people working to keep alive our old-fashioned preoccupations. Eric Gordon, zine fest exhibitor and co-creator of Vinyl Vagabonds—a publication advertised as containing “anything about the triumph and tragedies involved in vinyl music”—transitioned from a blog format to zines. “I figured I could make it a little more artistic,” Gordon says. “The blog is just type and photos. This is more hands-on and pretty, and records are hands-on. I think it meets the medium better.”
Sarah May, another exhibitor and creator of the Go For Broke Collective, based in Reno, Nev., expanded on the importance of paper to the telling of a zine’s story: “There’s tactility to zines. You can hold onto it. The paper medium adds to someone’s involvement in the story, or it can illustrate more about what’s happening in it.” May uses the example of fold-out images: Each, in its literal unfolding and spreading out, involves the reader in “such an active process that you can’t get from clicking on an image on a screen. What you do with the paper lends itself to strengthen the contents.”
In addition to being desirably tangible, zines are also able to stay afloat in the digital age because they cost next to nothing to produce. The Barnard Library, for example, provides Freedman with roughly $500 a year, which she finds sufficient to support the zine collection.
The Brooklyn Zine Fest, though potentially an opportune moment to make a hefty profit, quickly proved quite the opposite: Zinesters don’t create zines to make money but rather to express themselves. Josh Schafer, editor in chief of Lunchmeat, a zine devoted to an adoration of VHS tapes, says he makes just enough money making and selling zines to break even: “It floats itself. It allows me to make this magazine. I don’t charge a lot for stuff—I don’t do advertising in magazines. I just want to have content.”
The zine, budget-friendly and quick to produce, has also caught the eye of students with minimal time and even smaller budgets. Barnard junior Jordan Alam, for example, makes zines in her spare time—which, as most students understand, is a rare commodity.
“I kind of do it haphazardly,” Alam says. On display at the Brooklyn Zine Fest were zines summarizing her past year and zines about a friend’s breakup. Alam says that she tries to produce new zines every six months.
Though most zines aim to avoid mainstream topics, a large portion of the zines exhibited at the festival were dedicated to women’s sexual and political rights. “I would say that just about all zines produced by women are implicitly feminist, if not explicitly,” says Freedman, who includes only female-authored zines in the Barnard Zine Library.
According to Freedman, zines traditionally focused on science fiction and gradually shifted toward the punk genre—until the ’90s, when more female zinesters surfaced and merged the zine’s appeal to the personal with its political potential. “Women completely changed the zine landscape,” Freedman says. “There were girls saying, ‘Hey, we’re here too—this is what we have to say.’ And they didn’t just transform the movement—they revolutionized it.”
Even the zine cannot escape the perennial reverence for old-fashioned methods. Nostalgia was a prevailing theme at the zine fest—and, in fact, it seems a surefire path to a successful zine. The Brooklyn Zine Fest was chock-full of similar zines supporting vinyl records, public libraries, independent bookstores, and anything else considered antiquated by today’s fast-paced, digitized standards.
A love for VHS drives Schafer’s Lunchmeat, who remains undeterred by the popularity of DVDs and streaming movies online. “In the modern days of digital breakthrough and the wizardry of the internet, it seems as though more and more people are neglecting [print media],” he writes on lunchmeatvhs.com. He makes a case for why his magazine can only be experienced via print. “We wanted to create something that you could hold in your hands, smell the ink breathing from the pages, and give you that lost excitement of turning a page.”
The zine movement does much to celebrate and sustain cultural phenomena that are withering into extinction or might otherwise go undetected. Though the zine is steeped in an underground, grassroots tradition, zinesters have no doubt that this obscure and generally unprofitable art form will prevail in the digital age.
“I think we’re all a little bit stressed out by the Internet age,” Freedman says. “I think there will always be room for zines.”
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