When I was 16 I discovered subculture and went at it voraciously. I wanted to send away in the mail for every zine. I wanted to buy every 7-inch record of every band I heard and liked on WNYU’s New Afternoon Show, or on Terre T.’s show on WFMU. To find those records, I wanted to hit up every record store mentioned as a sponsor on NYU, and I think I made it to most of them (my favorite was Adult Crash on Avenue A). I wanted to go to every all-ages show I could get away with going to at Maxwell’s in Hoboken and, eventually, at venues in the City like Under Acme, the Cooler, and Dumba.
The weird thing was, though I had been a committed reader since forever, my quest for the best of the indie world did not extend to books. In fact, I remember thinking, until well into college, that it was too bad that there didn’t exist similarly DIY subcultures around the publication of literature, that there were no punk rock presses or bookstores where you could go specifically to find the books not everybody knew about. That’s not to say that I didn’t feel self-satisfiedly obscure in my love for Even Cowgirls Get the Blues or for colored girls who have considered suicide… but what moved me was what was inside of those books, not the objects themselves. There was no underground glamour to their means of production.
The fact that I didn’t realize that cutting-edge, punk-rock small-press publishing existed was even weirder because I actually spent a fair amount of time right in the midst of it, at St. Mark’s Bookshop. I think I’d been taken there first by Phil F., the possibly lecherous older stoner who worked at Pier Platters and had befriended me by saying, the second time I went to the shop, “I was just thinking about you earlier today. How did you like that Grifters record?” Or maybe I went there first with Douglas W., also older but definitely not lecherous, just so enthusiastic about music that he made monthly mixtapes of his favorite music and passed them out to all his friends, or jumped up in the middle of dinner to declare we were going right now to get me a copy of Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions… or Can’s Cannibalism because it was actually inconceivable that I should go another day living without having heard them. I wish I could say I remember what either Phil or Douglas had taken me into St. Mark’s to show me, but all I remember is that I went back. It became a regular stop on my circumscribed wanderings through the East Village, before a show or on a weekend afternoon, always done in time to catch the last bus back from the Port Authority.
So what was I doing at St. Mark’s if not soaking up the vitality of the independent literary scene? I think I was looking at magazines. The racks at St. Mark’s were full of music and culture magazines I had never heard of, or had only heard about. And while glossy, non-xeroxed magazines didn’t have the talismanic appeal of the zines I mailordered, they offered testaments that the bands I loved existed, that the queer punk and riot grrrl scenes were made up of actual people who could be interviewed and photographed. At St. Mark’s I bought Chickfactor, Ben is Dead, Raygun. I felt more comfortable standing in front of the magazine racks than I did elsewhere in the store, maybe because elsewhere I didn’t know what else I was supposed to be looking for. St. Mark’s wasn’t a warm, cozy, cats-and-eccentric-salespeople kind of store. It was sleek and austere and very, very cool. I didn’t feel at home there, but at home was the last way I wanted to feel.
Over the years my engagement with literature deepened, and I learned about Soft Skull and Semiotext(e) and the Feminist Press and all the other incredible small presses that I guess I just wasn’t ready to know about in high school, and of course I looked for and found those books at St. Mark’s. It felt like the most perfect serendipity a few years ago when I discovered, in the window of St. Mark’s, a volume of stories by Denton Welch and Jane Bowles, two of my favorite writers, put out by Four Corners Press. When I heard that the shop was about to go under because the rent had been raised a gazillion percent, it seemed, at first, impossible—how could such an institution disappear? Luckily, their community of book lovers who felt the same way rallied, and the shop survived and moved to a new location. I don’t live in New York anymore and I haven’t made it to the new spot yet. I’ll try to go the next time I’m back east. I hope the new shop makes me feel the same way the old one did: a little nervous, out of my element, on the verge of discovery.
Sara Jaffe is a fiction writer living in Portland, Oregon. Her short fiction and criticism have appeared in publications including Fence, BOMB, NOON, Paul Revere’s Horse, matchbook, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. She coedited The Art of Touring (Yeti, 2009), an anthology of writing and visual art by musicians drawing on her experience as guitarist for post-punk band Erase Errata. Her first novel, Dryland (Tin House, 2015) published this month.