Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
On a frosty night last January, noisy, skinny-jeaned crowds pressed into cocktail bars and dance clubs around Chicago's Wicker Park. Meanwhile, inside a small brick neighborhood storefront, about 20 young people sat at tables, laboring to express their visions, their aesthetics, their whimsies, or their true selves with pens, paper, and scissors. Many had brought sleeping bags and pajamas, planning to spend the night. With luck, whatever they produced would soon be displayed for sale on the shelves around them.
Manager Liz Mason calls the annual slumber party her favorite event on the packed calendar of Quimby's Bookstore. "It's a bunch of cute, nerdy, zine-ster and comics kids. They work in total silence or just whisper to each other," she says. Quimby's holds the event in January, she explains, "because it fuels your creative fire when you still have that New Year's resolution to put out another issue of your zine."
The zines Mason refers to are self-published print magazines. They flourished in the 1980s and -- weirdly, wonderfully -- may be even more abundant in the digital age. Personal and idiosyncratic, zines range from the artistically provocative ("Crap Hound" uses clip art to test the boundaries of fair-use doctrine) to the smartly snarky ("How to Talk to Your Cat About Abstinence" is part of a series for a hypothetical audience of right-wing pet owners). Someone looking for a specific title may have a tough time. Amazon fodder this isn't. Fortunately for zine fans, almost all fetch up at Quimby's, which stocks thousands.
And zines are just the fringiest of the fringe goods carried by Quimby's. The business also traffics in books, comics, and ephemera related to "outer limits, carnies, freaks, conspiracy theory, lowbrow art, miscreants, mayhem, that kind of stuff," explains the website's FAQ, written by founder Steven Svymbersky. "The material was a reflection of my own taste," says Svymbersky, who now lives in Amsterdam, having sold Quimby's to entrepreneur Eric Kirsammer in 1997. "I was always interested in subject matter that was scandalous or aberrant or disturbing. I liked horror movies. I read anarchist texts. I identified with the beatniks and the hippies. I was very into punk rock."
Svymbersky understood that when outsiders find someplace that treats them like insiders, they respond with gratitude and loyalty. Quimby's has never made much money. But it is a magnet for artists and iconoclasts, the freethinking and the curious. By contrast, conventionally minded folks often feel intimidated or uncomfortable in this outré environment. "The frat boy types will wander in and say, 'Awesome!'" says Kirsammer. "Then they really look around. Blink. Blink. And they say, 'Yeah, I'm going to go now.'"
For small presses and self-publishers, Quimby's can be the skewed trellis up which they clamber. "There's this wonderful synchronicity between our community and their community, and so we grew together," says Joe Biel, the founder of Microcosm Publishing, whose books include Crate Digger: An Obsession with Punk Records and Hot Pants: Do It Yourself Gynecology. Although based in Portland, Oregon, Biel periodically brings authors to do signings at Quimby's, bunking down at Mason's house on more than one occasion. "The magnitude with which they promoted our titles is incalculable," he says.
Going underground in Chicago.
Alas, the origins of the Quimby name are lost. Writing parodies for his high school newspaper in Peoria, Illinois, Svymbersky adopted the nom de plume "Burl Quimby," but can't for the life of him remember why. In 1985, while working in a record store in Boston, he launched The Quimby Quarterly, a zine showcasing work by local artists and writers. To help support themselves, Svymbersky and some fellow zine-sters created the Small Press Alliance, which held benefits and organized group purchasing. One member opened a diminutive zine store called Primal Plunge to address the perennial distribution challenge.
In 1989 Svymbersky took over Primal Plunge. But "I could never make any money off it," he says. "I thought Boston being a big college town would be good for zines. But the students weren't really interested." Chicago was a larger city, and Svymbersky had family there. In 1991 he packed up the contents of Primal Plunge and moved to a storefront in Wicker Park. "It was very cheap and kind of dangerous," he says.
Svymbersky opened Quimby's in a former bodega, which at the time was surrounded by pretty much nothing. Within the first week cartoonist Chris Ware -- now famous, then largely unknown -- came in. Coincidence #1: Ware lived around the block. Coincidence #2: he had created a comic strip starring Quimby the Mouse: a two-headed rodent that suggests what might happen if Mickey went skinny-dipping near The Simpsons' nuclear plant. "I immediately asked him, "How about you do my sign and my business cards?'" Svymbersky says. The mouse became the store's logo.
To promote Quimby's, Svymbersky prowled Chicago's pulsing alternative scene -- concerts, gallery openings, tattoo shops. "I went anyplace that had the smell of being underground, and I would always have flyers with me." Ware and Dan Clowes, another now-famous cartoonist who also lived nearby, acted as heralds. "They immediately told all the other underground cartoonists in Chicago, and within a couple of weeks I knew everybody," says Svymbersky. "We had signings right away. I had their original artwork on the walls."
Not far from Quimby's, Earwax Café was the gathering spot of choice for underground artists. Three or four would sit around a table, taking turns drawing surreal images on pieces of paper they'd cut and folded into multipage booklets. They donated the booklets to Quimby's. "I Xerox'd them and sold them for 25 cents," says Szymbersky. "I sold zillions of them."
Meanwhile, Quimby's was becoming an editorial center in its own right as the part-time home of Lumpen, a kind of zine riff on the Utne Reader. "Quimby's was the nerve center where we could sit for hours reading about all the other underground cultures across the country," says Ed Marszewski, publisher of Lumpen. "If you hung out at Quimby's you would meet every artist or writer or person who cared about this stuff."
Seedy, scary Wicker Park was the ideal backdrop for an edgy business like Quimby's. It was less ideal as a place to raise a baby girl. After six years during which he was robbed multiple times, Svymbersky accepted an opportunity to move his young family overseas, where he now works as a theater technician for a popular improv show. "If my wife hadn't wanted to leave so much I would probably have kept doing Quimby's," says Svymbersky. "Eric buying the store from me was a godsend."
Eric Kirsammer isn't ashamed to admit he still likes superhero comics. They are a mainstay of his first business, Chicago Comics, which is about 3.5 miles from Quimby's and considered its sister store.
But Kirsammer also appreciates the less mainstream, edgier titles, which he carries at both locations. He bought Quimby's in 1997 as much from principle as from passion. "At that time you had bookstores dictating what goes on the cover," says Kirsammer. "Authors and publishers couldn't get into stores because they didn't fit some definition of 'acceptable.' For someone who is a creator and who values creators' rights, it was scary."
Svymbersky required any buyer to keep Quimby's largely the same, and Kirsammer readily agreed -- but not without a leg tug. "The first time I met with Steven he wanted to know what my plans would be for the store," recalls Kirsammer. "I said, 'Picture this... Disney!'"
You won't find Nemo at Quimby's today. Over 18 years, Kirsammer's changes have been largely cosmetic. He bought a building a few blocks away and moved Quimby's into it. The space is larger, a little brighter, and lacks the sexualized imagery painted on the original location's walls. There's still plenty of disturbing art though, some of it created by Kirsammer himself, a graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago. There are also a few new sections, including one for children featuring such bedtime-worthy titles as Stay Stolid! A Radical Handbook for Youth.
What hasn't changed is the quirky business model that Mason, the manager, dubs "Quimbynomics." The store takes roughly a quarter of its stock on consignment: zines and comics and even books self-published by writers and artists from around the world. For each sale, Quimby's keeps 40 percent and remits 60 percent to the creator. Many of those creators immediately turn around and spend all their earnings (and more) buying other people's zines. "Some people are like, 'I am getting my money, and then I have to leave immediately or I will spend it,'" says Kirsammer. "A lot of times they don't make it out of the store."
Most of the zines and some other titles arrive at the store unsolicited. Creators print consignment forms off the website and pop their glossy or grubby children into mailing envelopes. "Every day is Christmas," says Mason, describing the always-surprising experience of opening the mail. Almost everything Quimby's receives goes out on the shelves, except for screeds preaching hate or the mistreatment of children (very rare) and zines assembled so poorly they threaten to leave bits of themselves all over the store (less rare).
But if life inside Quimby's goes on much the same, the world outside looks very different. Wicker Park is gentrifying, with hipsters replacing hookers and strollers replacing needles. Quimby's, along with a handful of tattoo parlors and book and record stores, is among the last of the old guard. "Quimby's maintains the analogy of Wicker Park being a kind of neo-Bohemia," says Lumpen's Marszewski. "I am so glad it's still there."