Lyz Bly cuts the lights in the basement of Guide to Kulchur before making her way upstairs. It’s still unfinished with cement floors and overhead pipes and still ten degrees cooler than the air above ground on what might be one of the first warm nights of Cleveland summer. She’ll spend a late Tuesday with her husband, Rafeeq Washington, sorting, organizing, and planning for the opening of their new book store and zine making co-op. They will sift through hundreds of their own collections, donations, and thrift, estate, and consignment sale purchases.
“The idea is to have as many materials for zine making as possible. Collage materials, typewriters, a computer,” she ticks off with each stair. “As much as we can for making text and using images. Some drawing materials. Hopefully a mimeograph machine.”
She carefully sidesteps staggered piles of books, mostly paperback, that crowd the store’s corner. “And Sharpies,” she says, “always.”
Guide to Kulchur’s floor level is a narrow room, much longer than it is wide, with a slender, handmade shelf that slices through its center. Beatnik lit from the pioneers of chapbooks are scattered through the shelves, a biography of Sonic Youth sits in one of four black makeshift crates that hang from the far wall.
In time, Bly and Washington hope to collect thousands of national and international zines and, even more so, represent Cleveland’s own. Zines may be more difficult to track and trace than the digital evolution of blogs, Tumblrs, and online publications, but have still managed to capture the interest of institutions, from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum’s new Library and Archives cataloging fanzines to the launch of a slew of academic libraries dedicated to their study.
And for rightful reason: zines have long been the uncensored historians of counter and popular culture, activism, self-expression, and challenging the status quo.
“What was really compelling to me was seeing how you could pull out a zine from Columbus and then you would pull out one from Tempe, Arizona and the same themes were showing up over and over across the country. When you start seeing these personal reactions over and over you can start thinking, what’s happening politically on a larger scale?” says Bly. “And that’s always been what’s most interesting to me. To not only look at them but use them as these documents to show social change and social activism in a very personal, tactile way.”
Bly has a low voice, articulate with well thought-out pauses and an emphasis on certain words that is skeptical but never strays into self-doubt. A Kill Rocks Stars logo tattooed across her forearm peeks out from a shawl as she reaches down to pull out a thin, woven bound paper zine from a bag by her feet, which are covered in candy-striped red and white knee-high stockings. The letters “Pink Toes and Beasts” are sprawled like a ransom note across the cover and inside is first an interracial love story and second a lesson in sociology. It’s Lyz Bly and Rafeeq Washington’s love story and it’s told through anecdotes of media critiques and cartoons, of crash courses on terms like Astro Blacks and Riot Grrls
“Riot Grrrl music was always so much about claiming the stage,” she says. “That’s my generation and my entry to not just self-publishing but becoming an activist and becoming engaged and interested in making things your own. “
In 1991, the only way to read the new wave zine wielders Bikini Kill declare their Riot Grrrl Manifesto was to find it in print. Today, it takes a quick 30 second search to find the entire Manisfesto on a dot com. You can follow Kathleen Hanna on Twitter.
“Zine making can be real personal, it can be real subject specific, but it can also be like the idea of how we do our Instagram and Twitter. Just kind of going off the spot,” says Washington. With grey Converse crossed at the ankles, he can safely lean one arm against the handmade shelf through the store’s dead center and his other against the opposite wall as he speaks. It is a very narrow room. “Just riffing. Searching through images, tearing, pasting, and seeing what happens. I want to have that energy involved, too.”
Guide to Kulchur is directly next to Gordon Square’s Capitol Theatre and while Bly and Washington talk by the door, groups of friends and couples pace past their storefront. An older gentleman stops in and asks if they’re accepting donations. He tells them he is excited about a new book store in the neighborhood. Guide to Kulchur is, by all means, centered in a bourgeoning district of small businesses and independents eager for new homes for the creative arts.
“We really wanted a space that you can just come and have a conversation with ideas in the air and on the page. As someone who’s spent a lot of years in school while I was getting my doctorate, I obviously have a lot of respect for that kind of learning,” says Bly. “But I also have respect for the kind of learning that’s self-driven, where you’re walking into a space, picking up an idea, and figuring it out on your own. Having a physical space where that can happen is really important to both of us.”
Washington jokes about the work by Ezra Pound that serves as the store’s namesake, how he began collecting and giving away copies of the tongue-in-cheek Guide to Kulchur that Pound claimed summed up everything taught in higher education without ever having to go. He pulls books off the shelf and openly talks about his heroes.
“I want my stuff to connect to [Charles] Bukowski or [John] Updike, or any of these in a way, so you can see a lineage, as a way to write yourself in, to identify with your heroes,” says Washington. “Do it that way instead of just walking around with a Bukowski t-shirt. I’m going to try to crack a sentence better than his, funnier than his. And if I can’t, at least I tried. That’s what you’ve got to do to motivate yourself as a young person. What about when you get older? You start a bookstore. And you hope they’ll listen to you. They’ll buy stuff or they won’t.”
Bly points out, “Or they’ll make stuff.”