Tuesday, October 20, 2009

How Small Press Traffic Got Started

I want to correct a couple points in Nikki Thompson’s article on the history of Small Press Traffic in San Francisco, which is currently posted on the SPT website.

Small Press Traffic was organized late 1973 by myself alone, and it found its first home at Paperback Traffic at 544 Castro Street, where Nirvana Restaurant is currently located. At that time my friend Steve Lowell was organizing his book store, the first of a succession of book shops in the Castro, as a place to buy and sell used books. Since it takes quite some time to build up a repository of used books if you’re starting up, it was not too difficult to persuade Steve to donate (not rent) a substantial amount of shelf space where I was able to display a number of selected small press titles received on a consignment basis. I named it “Small Press Traffic,” a stepchild of "Paperback Traffic." My thought at the time was to expand this kind of operation to rent shelf-space at several different book stores in San Francisco, using contributed funds to do so.

What happened next was beyond rational expectation: I met Denise Kastan at the Food Stamp Office at 1365 Mission where we were both employed as eligibility workers and active in Local 535, SEIU. To my great pleasure, Denise immediately turned on to the Small Press Traffic concept; and with the help of a connection of hers, the Vanguard Foundation of San Francisco provided a huge amount of money to establish our own small press book store. (CCLM funding had nothing to do with this.)

After several months of planning, Small Press Traffic appeared on 24th Street near Church, as an independent, non-profit book store. Initially we wrote to every single small press publisher we found listed in Len Fulton’s Dustbooks Small Press Directory, offering the opportunity to retail virtually anything they wished to send us in our San Francisco store. The response was enormous: we received and displayed a few thousand small press books and magazines within a year, and probably amassed the largest collection of American small press materials then gathered under one roof.

It was of primary importance to us that the small press publishers could put up for sale whatever they wanted, instead of the book store management selecting the materials to be sold, as the case with commercially-oriented small press distributing agencies. Liberated from the profit motive, all was meant to proceed on a democratic eyeball-to-eyeball basis. But it was not just a matter of ideological emphasis. After all, if we ourselves had chosen and ordered the titles we wished to display and became financially successful, then the organization would have to relinquish its non-profit status, and additionally the grants that supported it.

More importantly, what inspired the book store on 24th Street (on the 1st floor, not the second) was to create a model for small press distribution across the country. Similar operations replicated in other American cities might have done much to resolve the primary problem faced by small publishers, namely how to get the books out to the small number of people interested in reading them.

Our original plan, namely to rent out shelf space from local booksellers and to place there, with foundation support, a selection of small press publications, was always a present concept, but beyond the original operation at Castro Street and due to the demands of running the new store on 24th Street, time could never be found to implement it.

Small Press Traffic of course has developed in entirely different directions. Associated with a local college campus, it functions today as a "literary arts center," dedicated, it appears, mainly to performance. That this development is in wild variance with the intentions of its originators--namely to create a practical means to advance small press publication distribution across the country--will be apparent to anyone who was around at the outset. The reason is that successive SPT managers gradually became more interested in running the book store as a convenient venue for workshops and readings, conducted by themselves and their friends. Volunteers were happy to tend the store, but barely involved with distribution work.

I won't argue here that this change of interest was wrong, but the impression gained from Nikki's article, namely that a gradual drying-up of foundational support for distribution programs was somehow responsible for whatever followed, is simply misleading. The persons who worked long and hard in the 80's and 90's to keep SPT from collapsing certainly deserve admiration, but I'm not aware of any serious grant proposals or other efforts undertaken during that period to reform or invent more effective methods of small press distribution. I doubt seriously that it was even on anyone’s mind.

And the fact that we are in San Francisco if anything worse off in 2009 than 35 years ago shows how little progress has been made to make small press materials available to that small number of readers in the population anxious to see them. Which is why my own press, Ithuriel's Spear, places most of our titles on Google Books for all to read.

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