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Interview: Atomic Books [Zine store in Baltimore]

June 11, 2016

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1] I don’t know much about Baltimore, but Atomic Books seems to be on every online list of where to buy/send zines that I’ve ever seen. How did you get so well known?
To learn all you need to know about Baltimore, just watch the HBO series The Wire. It’s exactly like that. Also, John Waters’ Pink Flamingos. It’s exactly like that too.
Atomic first gained notoriety after the multiple homicide, but we agreed to participate in this interview under the condition that we would not have to talk about that.
The store has been around since 1992. The store was selling books and publications online before there was an Amazon. It’s always been a place that’s been welcoming to zines, small presses and independent voices. We like weirdos with something to say.
2] What is your best-selling zine? My money’s on Cometbus…
Over the years, we’ve had a good number of great-selling zines.
Cometbus is a great guess. It as been a perennial best-seller and when a new issue comes out, it’s like a major event.
Other best-selling zines over the years have included Answer Me, Beer Frame, Ben Is Dead, Burn Collector, Chunklet, Crap Hound, Dishwasher, Doris, Found Magazine, Monozine, Murder Can Be Fun, Smile Hon You’re In Baltimore, Thrift Score, and a good number of others. But in the entire 25 year history of Atomic Books, the all-time best-selling zine we’ve carried has to be How To Talk To Your Cat About Gun Safety. It has cats. It has guns. It has solid advice. The perfect formula for a hit.
3] I live in Hong Kong so I can’t get to most zine places [actually, I can’t really get to any; HK is not famous for zines]. All I can do is send e-mails, and 8 out of 10 places never respond for various reasons. You guys did. Are you actively looking for weird sci-fi zines from HK or do you take zines from anywhere, anyone, anytime?
Hong Kong is not famous for zines, yet. YET! You’re the first step.
It can be tough. Really, the ideal is to be in a town that has a vibrant zine culture (and some times this “culture” can be comprised of one, two or several incredibly creative and prolific people. But the problem with that too is that the zine culture can come and go. Washington DC used to have a very active zine scene back in the early ’90s, now, not so much. New York has a decent zine culture. Chicago has a great zine scene. Portland has a vibrant zine scene. Right now, Australia seems to be developing an interesting zine scene.
Here in Baltimore, like most of our arts scenes in general, it ebbs and flows, which is weird because we have a number of universities and great art schools, our music scene has been pretty lively lately, we have a lot of political issues we need to work out, we have a growing publication festival in the city called the Prints and Multiples Fair and the Small Press Expo just a 45 minute hop over to Bethesda and we have a couple stores willing to support zine makers – so Baltimore has all the ingredients for a vibrant zine culture – but with a few exceptions, there’s really not a lot going on right now.

Atomic doesn’t have an open zine policy (meaning we don’t take everything that people send us). We tried that years ago, and it created a lot of consignment management issues (when you have hundreds of zine vendors, it takes a lot of employee hours to manage it, and when you make so little off zine sales, it starts to cost you money just to carry zines – so it’s always been a labor of love for us). And when you look at a zine where it was clearly just someone copying their face on a Xerox machine, stapling the pages together, and then wanting to sell it for $5, we realized we didn’t need to try and carry everything. So we review zines first, but yes, we take zines from anywhere. If they’re interesting to us, we’re pretty sure they’ll be interesting to our customers, it doesn’t matter if they’re from a block over from the store, from the West Coast, from Hong Kong or Australia.
I mean, c’mon, doesn’t “weird sci-fi zines from Hong Kong” sound intriguing? Well, you might be the wrong person to ask.
4] Do you focus on political zines, perzines or catdog fanzines?
Nope. We carry all of the above. But please, no poetry chapbooks.
5] Joan Severance once said, ‘the best way to keep a zine-book shop in Baltimore afloat is to either co-star in erotic thrillers with C Thomas Howell or hold events.’ Do you follow this advice?

Nice reference. We’ve done all sorts of unspeakable things to keep Atomic afloat. Largely, we’ve gotten lucky.
6] Zines usually have a small but loyal following. Do many people come to your shop? Do they just look around or do they buy?
Because we are in a popular neighborhood, we get a lot of walk in traffic. But we are also very much a community book store as well as a destination spot for zinesters, comics fans, and others. A lot of people come and browse, but enough buy to keep the doors open.
We also get people who come through the door, look around, and then ask, “What kind of store is this?” Usually, I tell them we are a haberdashery. That seems to confuse them.
7] A lot of small press books seem quite successful online but then you find out that they don’t sell very many copies. Maybe it’s the same for all publishers now. What’s the situation like in your shop? Do you sell many small press books?
Yes, that is the “Small” part of being “small press.” We do sell small press books. Some small press books sell better than others. Some small press books sell better than larger press books. I don’t think it’s really a matter of the size of the press for stores like ours. We find smaller presses tend to do more interesting things, so that makes those titles easier for us to sell. But that doesn’t mean one should be all like, “Hey, I’m a small press book. You should carry it.” If you have a small press book about actualizing the inner you, it’s still a crap book, regardless of the size of the press behind you.
We sometimes get inquiries from people that think we should carry their title just because they are small press. It doesn’t work that way.
I also find that things look one way online and a very different way in real life. The internet is very good at distorting reality.
8] If I came into your shop looking for Mongolian science fiction, could you help me?
I’m not sure there’s anyone who could help you, but that has nothing to do with the very specific sort of sci-fi you’re looking for. Zing! Kidding, I kid!
It depends on the day and what we have in stock at the time, but we’d certainly try to help you. Why, how often do new issues of Psycho Holosuite come out?
9] Actually, what I really want to know is, would a Mongolian science fiction writer come to you or do you hunt for these kinds of books?
Both. We look for interesting things. And sometimes interesting things look for us. Part of the fun of this is finding things, the hunt!
Lately, I’ve been encountering this trend where I’ll see an awesome looking zine, but the zine maker isn’t really interested in distributing it. They are simply making zines for themselves and their friends to trade and sell themselves online or at a zine show. I think that limits the growth of the zine community, and makes it far too insular and isolated. And as a seller, it’s really frustrating and disappointing to discover something you think is awesome and want to share it with your customers but get told, “No, I don’t distribute.”
Recently, I posted a picture of this awesome publication I found at a festival on Instagram, just saying how awesome it was. Big mistake. The maker isn’t distributing it. I was able to buy one as a customer, but I couldn’t get any for the store. And every day since then, for the past few weeks, I’ve gotten customers asking me if they could buy this zine.
10] To me, zines are the one creative form that has true diversity as anyone can do them, yet there doesn’t seem to be many sci fi or horror zines out there. Where are they all?
Well, historically, some of the earliest examples of zines were sci-fi and horror fanzines. Trends come and go for a variety of reasons. To try and answer your question, traditionally, sci-fi and horror zines were created to build a community for fans of sci-fi and horror talk to other fans of sci-fi and horror. Technology has given these sorts of people other options – online communities, discussion boards, etc. Perhaps there aren’t many sci-fi and horror zines because the people who would make or purchase such zines are too busy talking online. But also, there just aren’t as many zines as there used to be in general.
11] We’re always looking for new, decent places to put our zines. Can you tell us any other places you know of that might take a zine called Psycho Holosuite?
There are a very small number of other shops like ours, we consider them bookstore pals. There’s Quimby’s in Chicago, Reading Frenzy in Portland, and Floating World in Portland. You might also try Desert Island in Brooklyn.
There are also a good number of zine and small press fests, zine “distros” and of course, Etsy.
Where to find you:

Atomic Books
3620 Falls Rd.
Baltimore, MD 21211
atomicbooks.com
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