It was the first weekend of October in 2012, when I carried my boxes into The Kosmos, which was then only performance space and artist studios. The cardboard of the boxes was already ripped and worn from rough handling and being forced into the back of my sedan to move the thousand miles or so to Albuquerque. I found my table and spread a piece of woven brown-and-gray fabric over it and set to arranging my zines. The titles included a collection of essays called The Joy of Dry Humping and a small illustrated companion to dog ownership called A Good Dog Isn’t Hard to Find. All were written, typed, illustrated, bound, and lugged through the door by me. It was ABQ Zine Fest 2, I was new to town, and that day changed the shape of my life in Albuquerque for all the years that have followed.
Making turns around the room were other zine-sters, the instructors of the various workshops that were scheduled throughout the day, community members, and a healthy number of curious passersby. People showed up on bikes, in band tees, with board games and things to trade. I met dozens of people and felt a welcome to the city extended that I hadn’t received in the preceding months as I went to concerts, bars, and coffee shops on my own. In the years that followed, several of the people that I met that day became my closest friends, and they connected me to many more people in the city that have constituted something crucial to feeling at home here or anywhere—a sense of connection and community.
“People are craving this, there’s kinetic energy that makes these spaces feel fun and a little dangerous. You can try things you hadn’t anticipated being able to do. And everybody shows up.” —Marya Errin Jones
“We need places like this where we feel safe to be who we are,” Marya Errin Jones, the founder of ABQ Zine Fest, said as we each nursed a beer at Sidetrack in late July. She described how at zine fests people lay bare their thoughts, words, and art in handmade book objects. “We’re all exposed,” she summarized. That vulnerability necessitates a safe-space policy (“There’s an agreement that we’re all going to be cool in this space, so we can all be weirdos”), but it also lays a foundation for connection. “There’s no cosplaying here: you are you. It’s a different vulnerability—small-scale, printed yourself. You fucked up some pages probably, but you still believe this thing is valuable.” In that space you can share your values and passions with other people; they might be visiting from out of town, or they may live a few miles away, but if you are in that space together, you already share something in common. “We’re all potential friends in this room. How you got here, how you suffered to make this thing—that’s a common denominator,” she explained.
Zine Fest 9—produced with co-organizer Liza Bley and to be held this year at the National Hispanic Cultural Center on Saturday, October 5—is a flashpoint in the city landscape, acting as a slice of local culture for all to enjoy, as well as a catalyst for culture and community-building outside of the event itself. On the corner of Tenth Street and Park Avenue, something similar is happening. Here, Red Planet Books & Comics’ painted façade faces foot traffic and the slow roll of downtown Albuquerque traffic. The small space is not just home to Native Realities Press and a hub for the planning and execution of Indigenous Comic Con, but it is the only Native American comic shop in the world, offering visitors comics, books, pop art, and games created by Indigenous writers and makers from all over.
“I think there is a need for physical spaces to inspire and impress,” said Dr. Lee Francis IV, founder of Native Realities, Indigenous Comic Con, and Red Planet, outlining how physical space lends credibility and importance to the work displayed on the shelves. “But even more,” he continued, “there is a need for a gathering space for people to interact.” And so he has ensured the space is an arts and culture center, hosting readings, watch parties, book clubs, and pop-ups. “Digital media is about convenience but not wonder. That’s still reserved for the brick and mortar spaces,” he said. And wonder is something that’s often amplified when it is shared. Indeed, sometimes it is only generated as a result of many people gathering in the same space with a shared purpose.
The discussion of the existential plight of bookstores and the endurance of print media has been going on for well over a decade now, with the emergence of e-readers and web retailers again and again said to spell the end of print and its traditional distribution. But those arguments no longer reflect the most recent evidence—that e-book sales dropped for the third straight year in 2018 while hardback and paperback book sales increased. To boot, membership in the American Booksellers Association, a trade group for independent bookstores has also grown, adding more than two thousand new locations to its roster as of Spring 2019. Even Amazon has opened brick-and-mortar bookstores in more than ten states.
There’s something to be said for the tactility of books—words printed on bound paper, containing the wisdom of millions of writers, poets, historians, critics, and creatives. The way these physical objects can be passed from hand to hand, offering an escape that staring into the screen of an e-reader—only slightly removed from the computers and smartphones that occupy our eyes most of the day—can’t seem to give us. Even more so, the experience of buying a book and stepping into an environment that celebrates print media is what weaves comic book shops, bookstores, and events like ABQ Zine Fest into the very fabric of the city.
“People are craving this,” Jones said. “There’s kinetic energy that makes these spaces feel fun and a little dangerous. You can try things you hadn’t anticipated being able to do. And everybody shows up. It’s like The Breakfast Club: there’s all these different kinds of people. But more people of color and LGBTQ folks. We update that shit.”
There have always been things vying for our attention, pulling us away from our open books and zines. Just so, small bookstores and comic shops have long faced fierce competition from corporations more able to grab large slices of the market. Yet, printed matter—whether book, zine, or comic, and the spaces that grow up around them—is distinguished from those other places and from digital media. “Books and zines and things have a communal sense about them,” Jones said. The opportunity to engage with others is what has allowed them to persist. In fact, it has made them necessary.
“It’s an exchange,” Jones continued. “People love that, and it’s really not costly, but when you do it, you are affirming that that person exists. Really, you’re affirming that their voice is meaningful.” And through ABQ Zine Fest and spaces like Red Planet, we give our attention to the definition of our values, as individuals and as members of our communities.
ABQ Zine Fest 9 happens on Saturday, October 5, at the National Hispanic Cultural Center (1701 Fourth Street SW) from 10 am to 5 pm. Find out more about Red Planet and their upcoming events at redplanetbooksncomics.com. Mark your calendar for the new iteration of Indigenous Comic Con, IndigiPopX, happening in March 2020.