Out here on the screened porch, I'm drinking iced coffee and wondering what kind of purple flowers are planted in the little fenced-in garden among the sunflowers. Maybe I haven't spent enough time outside, but I consider this a mild summer. At least for Richmond.
I grew up here, spending most of my time throughout high school studying and rehearsing for plays and listening to Neutral Milk Hotel. I wanted to write more and I wanted to share my writing. I wanted to hear more music and learn how to play music and start a band. But I didn't know how, so I blamed Richmond. I promised myself I'd leave and never come back.
I moved to Charlottesville and started listening to Waxahatchee and Beach House and St. Vincent. I went to a house shows and wrote about them. I made a book of poems about a road trip to Texas that I later realized might count as a zine. I met folks who liked all kinds of punk and we traded CDs. Then I moved to New York and started listening to Perfect Pussy and Hop Along and the So So Glos. I wrote honestly about how certain albums made me feel like I'd transcended every variety of sadness, or just made me feel slightly less alone. I understood feminism more and more every day. I stayed up late with my best friends, talking about feelings and the future.
I fell apart for reasons I can't talk about now.
So I moved back to Richmond, even though I remembered how I felt when I was sixteen. I've been listening to Told Slant and Martha and Christi. I've seen Christi twice since June. They're an all-girl surf rock band from around here, and they've got me thinking that I should finally try starting a band.
I picked up a zine recently called Spider Sisters, which includes photos from local punk shows as well as bits of feminist ephemera. I've been going for long bike rides and writing in my journal almost every day and learning how to feel better about my hometown and my place in it. I'm trying to spend less time hiding in my bedroom and more time exploring.
july 8 - oregon hill
An old red newspaper box labeled FREE BOOKS stands just outside the purple and blue front door. I hang out on the porch for a minute, leafing through a pamphlet addressed to high school students who walked out of class back in April to protest dismal conditions in Richmond public schools. The writers express solidarity and encouragement.
When Nathan lets me in, he shows me a room filled with books and decorated with flyers. Sofas pushed up against the wall offer perfect spots to sit and read. I collect a pile of zines from the coffee table, including Life Without Laws, Accomplices Not Allies, and A Short Instructional Manifesto For Relationship Anarchy.
Nathan and I wander into the kitchen, soon joined by Mara, Ellen, and Jeremy, all of whom call this house, Flying Brick, home. We sit around a wooden table, drinking water out of tall mason jars. A few weeks earlier I noticed zines hanging from a towel rack on the wall of a local coffee shop, and I picked up A Short History of the Flying Brick Library. Since 2003, the library has functioned as a mainstay in Richmond's radical community, housing hundreds of books and periodicals on topics ranging from feminism to environmentalism to race to economics to poetry and more, and each week they host open hours, when anyone can stop by and spend time exploring the collection.
Ellen describes the library as a springboard and resource center, a place where folks can not only hang out and read, but also meet up and organize. They've put on shows, lectures, and movie screenings, and for years, they hosted meetings for Richmond's Industrial Workers of the World as well as for the Richmond Reproductive Freedom Project. Earlier this year, Flying Brick hosted a story share fundraiser for Richmond Reproductive Freedom Project, and recently they hosted a prisoner letter writing night for a new chapter of the Jericho Movement, an organization that seeks to raise awareness and support for political prisoners in the United States.
I want to learn about the radical community outside of Flying Brick. Mara tells me about Richmond Zine Fest, as well as a community print shop called Studio Two Three, and Open Minds, a program associated with Virginia Commonwealth University that offers poetry classes to prisoners in Richmond City Jail. Jeremy mentions Food Not Bombs, which has been going strong in Richmond for twenty years, as well as Southerners on New Ground.
Nathan mentions Broken Window Press, a new group that writes political pamphlets and turns important articles into pamphlets. "We've also got free literature boxes throughout the city," Nathan explains. "It's sort of an extension of the idea of this place. People don't got to libraries that much anymore, like they don't seek out books as much anymore, so it's the idea of putting a hard copy of something in somebody's hands and maybe they'll be more likely to read it and take it in, instead of just the Tumblr feed style of reading that happens so much now. Actually sit there and read it and think about it and discuss it with friends face to face."
Jeremy's lived in Richmond the longest, and he's noticed that the level of radical activity often depends on the presence of national movements and urgency of local issues. Ellen mentions transience, explaining that people often live here for a few years, then leave after graduating college or finding a new job or moving back home to another city. Yet, no one ever leaves Flying Brick and forgets about it, because it's such an instrumental space within the activist community, welcoming newcomers and old friends alike.
"That's my favorite thing I think, the people," Nathan says, and he explains that a certain camaraderie exists between everyone who's ever been involved with Flying Brick, and that he's met each of those people at least once. Mara liked spending time here and getting to know everyone before she moved in last year. "You never really knew what it was gonna be like," she says. "Because sometimes there'd be a lot of people hanging out, and sometimes there'd just be one person. You can read and be quiet and drink coffee, so I kind of like that it can be either one of the two and I can be happy."
Jeremy jokes about how some people refer to Flying Brick as "the anarchist retirement home," though such a description embodies a very real feeling of refuge. It's different from other radical spaces Jeremy has lived in. "Everybody has very strong politics, but it's for when you want to calm down," he says. "There's not a whole lot of stuff that's in your face, so it does give the sense of the need to relax when you're busy, like to take personal space where you can just sit and be quiet and think. I feel like it's important to hold that sensibility. It gives off more of a sense of kindness instead of rushed or reactionary, and I feel like that's a positive thing, because reactionary politics are needed, most certainly, at times, but you need the opposite as well. More thoughtful, long-term things."
I can't help but imagine afternoons spent hanging out on the front porch, reading and learning, maybe brainstorming. There's no pressure, and that's a nice feeling.
"I would say my favorite part has been developing relationships, also living in a space that's open and prioritizes people being safe from racism and sexism, and just knowing that I can always bring people here and it'll feel positive for them," Ellen says. "Just knowing that there're always going to be people who stop by, meeting new people, and that I can feel 100% confidence in the people around me to be friendly and welcoming."
A dog scratches at the back door. Nathan tells me about a friend who crashed at Flying Brick for a few months and became a sort of intern, which meant he gathered perfectly good discarded sherbets from the grocery store and did bad kid stuff, like walking into a sports bar and changing the channel from the game to a soap opera. We all joke about the possibility that Richmond has more cute people per capita than any other city. Ellen makes tofu scramble, and Nathan mentions that house dinners need to happen more often.
july 16 - the fan
I meet Celina and Mara in a little park by a coffee shop, and I meet Brian through email a few days later. They're all local zinesters who help organize Richmond Zine Fest. 2014 marks the eighth year of Richmond Zine Fest, and even though it's still a couple months away, on October 4, Mara finished printing all of the flyers back in June. She made patches too, and she gives me one with pink lettering and a drawing of golden roller skates. "It's just like one of those things where people go once and they're like 'this is fucking awesome,' and then they come back." This year, Celina hopes they'll be able to set up a steamroller letterpress in the parking lot.
Celina, Mara, and Brian tell me all about last year's Zine Fest. They talk about tabling at a zine-themed art show at Studio Two Three the night before Zine Fest and finishing up their own zines right there for everyone to see. They list a few of last year's workshops, including zinemaking 101, consent, and beekeeping. Celina led a discussion group about zinester regrets. She explains last year's Makers' Space, which featured papermaking and letterpress demonstrations and a zinemaking area, complete with paper, sharpies, and scissors. "It helps to make things more hands-on and all-ages friendly," and she mentions Duncan, a little kid who tabled by himself with his very own zines last year, one called Cat Vs. Dog and another about a ninja. Brian bought both of them. "I wish I tabled at a zine fest at his age!"
Last year the organizers implemented a safer spaces policy for the very first time, as a way to direct general focus toward creating a respectful and supportive environment and to discourage potentially oppressive situations and interpersonal drama. "Having a policy like that in place sets the tone of self-government," Celina explains. "You're responsible for your actions, and you're responsible for how your actions might affect everybody around you, and I think that makes people think about things a little bit better." After all, a zine fest isn't a competition. It's a celebration.
I ask everyone about their own zines. Brian makes a quarter zine called Time Shifting, which covers movies only released on VHS. He writes spoiler-free reviews and sometimes includes interviews too. Topics include Punk, Rock and Roll Horror; Children's Films; Richmond; and soon, 1970s Trucker Films. Celina writes a few different zines, mainly a personal zine called Mean Girl. "I was planning to make a zine where I just went to town on what's nice and what's mean, and it kind of turned into this personal zine of me cataloging different experiences and complaints." She also does Instaku, a photo zine made of Instagram pictures with haikus written under each one, and she's planning a couple fanzines about Beyonce and Kristin Stewart, examinations of their popularity as well as varieties of judgment directed toward each of them. Mara makes a few different zines, personal zines and art zines, some consistently, others not really. "Most recently I've been doing poetry and drawing and using different printmaking methods," Mara says. "I'm just trying to make prints and make them accessible. Zines just seem to be the perfect medium for the kind of art I want to be making."
They're working on a distro too, for their own zines and other local zines. It's called River Rat, and they haven't started mailing anything out yet; right now it consists of a shelf just for zines at Velocity Comics. Still, it answers a question they hear at Zine Fest every year: "how can I get your zines when there isn't a zine fest?" Celina explains, "I feel like a lot of what has helped Richmond Zine Fest are those local connections, and that kind of DIY indie press spirit." It's an act of building and expanding a feeling of community beyond that one fall day in October.
I wish I could talk about my own zines, but for now, I've just got a few poems and unfinished essays and pictures I've cut from vintage copies of National Geographic. Sometimes I worry that no one would care about what I might make, but I'm not worrying about that now.
Celina and Mara burst out laughing while recalling some of their favorite moments from last year's Zine Fest, and I can't help but laugh too, because after hanging out with them for over an hour, I'm just as excited about this year's Richmond Zine Fest as they are. "I think just that day of the fest is my favorite part," Celina says. "It's like being at a big party where you can get zines and learn things and catch up with people, and it's just so much fun." She's already thinking about the tenth anniversary of Richmond Zine Fest in a couple years.
The year before I started organizing the zine fest I tabled by myself for the first time, and I'd made my own zines for the first time," says Mara. "And I just had such a positive experience showing my zines to people and getting really positive feedback. I wanted to make sure that kept happening."
A few days later, I stop by Velocity to buy zines. One from the Open Minds program that Mara mentioned at Flying Brick. And the second issue of Mean Girl. And Instaku. And the punk-themed issue of Time Shifting. And Heal Repeat, an illustrated poem made by Mara. I've been reading them over and over and remembering the enthusiasm and nearly electric creativity that I felt at the only zine fest I've ever attended. I'm starting to feel that all over again, only I'm in my hometown, and that's cool.
july 22 - scott's addition
It's 4:49 p.m. Eleven minutes before open hours at Rag and Bones Bicycle Co-Op, and folks are already hanging around outside, waiting to come in and learn how to fix their bike or build a new bike or buy a bike or donate a bike. Aaron and Robbie are two volunteers here, and they tell me that Rag and Bones not only facilitates bicycling as a means of alternative transportation or recreation, but that it also emphasizes empowerment.
"You see people's lives change," Aaron says. "You really do, and it's kind of amazing." He tells me that they've provided bikes to folks who stop by the co-op at odd hours because they need a way to get to work. Volunteers and visitors look out for each other. Robbie says that once he saw a guy he recognized from Rag and Bones hanging out near McDonald's on Broad Street, and when he stopped to talk to him, he learned that someone had stolen the bike he'd been working on, so Robbie gave him a ride home. "If I hadn't known that he should've been on a bike right then, then I wouldn't have known that he needed a ride."
Aaron tells me about the WTF workshops that another volunteer, Sera, leads on the first Thursday of every month. WTF stands for Women, Trans, Femme, and Aaron explains that they hope the workshops provide a safe space for those who may have previously felt unwelcome in bike shops and to dispel the idea that bike shops are exclusive, male-dominated environments. I notice a poster outlining an anti-oppression policy hanging on the wall right next to the front door, establishing a space defined by respect and accessibility.
I think about my own bike, a bright aqua beach cruiser that I can't ride up steep hills, and I remember how I had to ask a friend to replace a tube once, because I didn't know how. I still don't know how, but in this moment, I don't feel embarrassed about that.
"My favorite thing is just having a space I can come to where I feel pretty free to learn about bike stuff," Robbie says. "I like working on bikes maybe more than I like riding bikes, and I can freely test out my mechanical intuition, if there is any, and make mistakes but also teach people. I thoroughly believe that empowering the working poor, and using bicycles is one of the most important things to me."
A couple minutes after five, Aaron and Robbie open the door, and Rag and Bones immediately feels busy. I take a few zines before I leave, and I recognize a few printed by Broken Window Press, as well as a few that I picked up at Flying Brick a couple weeks earlier, and I'm reminded of Brian's answer to a question about Richmond, about why he likes living here and what makes it unique. "It's small, but in the underground community as far as music, zines, and more go, we're right on up there with any other city. There is something great happening somewhere every night. The sub-communities are small, but that forces them out of their bubbles and to all work together on certain things. All of Richmond's beautiful small communities, from punks to noise-freaks to anarchists to bike kids and whomever, are all overlapping in a really wonderful way. If I go to any event, I know I'll know a friendly face there."
july 30 - very close to vcu
Sometime back in June, I saw The Cales play in an art gallery, and now I'm listening to their EP, Slasher Rock, thinking about how they sound like The Velvet Underground meets Thee Oh Sees meets Priests.
Julius plays drums in The Cales. He says their sound might depend on how they're feeling and that it's somewhere between groovy bass lines and wailing guitars, simultaneously punky and not punky.
Jordan plays guitar and sings in The Cales. He cites 80s punk, hardcore, and indie rock as influences. He says they mostly describe their sound as rock n' roll, because they all like rock n' roll.
Maggie sings and plays bass, and Brennan plays guitar, but I'm getting coffee with just Julius and Jordan. We discuss subject matter, how The Cales tend to write songs about love and politics. They want to talk about people and ideas, but they want to do so subtly, without rhetoric.
"I wrote a song about being fired once," Jordan says. "That's a political song. About how an employer can have a stranglehold on your life and your mental wellbeing." The song's called "Soup," and it's a two and a half minute act of rebellion, calling out people in positions of authority for fucked up behavior.
We all agree that it's pretty fucked up to work at a restaurant where you aren't allowed to eat anything.
Julius and Jordan both came to Richmond for school, and Jordan says that when he moved here in 2009, house shows were getting busted all the time and that often the cops would show up and bust a show before some of the bands had even played. These days, not as many spaces for house shows exist in Richmond, and the ones that do tend to pop up a bit more out of the way in Church Hill and Venable. Still, it's risky, and not as many bars want to host shows either, because the city's sound ordinances make it tricky. "You kind of just have to work on your own music and your own ideas," Jordan says. "But we have a lot of likeminded people in the city, which is good."
We talk about the scene in Richmond, how it's rooted in hardcore and metal and how bands experiment with those sounds now. I don't admit that I recently skipped a hardcore show because I got nervous about what it meant to "ask a punk" about the show's location. If I'm not a punk, then am I some kind of outsider? And does that mean I don't have any business going to shows in the first place? Or am I thinking about it too much? Does it even matter?
Julius explains that he feels disconnected from local music. "There're so many different bands here, which is awesome, but as far as working together, I don't know to what extent that's working." Perhaps it has to do with Richmond as a college town and the inherent transience of any college town. Folks show up for school, play music for a bit, maybe host a few shows, then pack up and leave after graduation. Perhaps it has to do with Richmond's size. Everyone knows each other, and there's inevitably drama that can inhibit collaboration. Perhaps it's a kind of ambition that outgrows the city.
"Richmond is small, and it's a city where you can do very little and get by," Jordan says. "And I think people don't like getting stuck in that. They feel cramped because it's so small, whereas in a big city, you can put yourself in a million places, and there's always new places to explore, but the longer you live somewhere, like a place like this, it gets smaller and smaller and smaller."
Still, despite few and scattered venues and despite so many people constantly coming and going and despite feelings of disjointedness, there is a community. "At the end of the day, I feel like everyone does go to each other's shows," Jordan says. He might be starting a new band with Maggie. Something surfy and noisy. He makes music by himself too, working with overdubs and samples to make sound collages. Julius plays in Dos Cabezas, and he's working on a solo album of covers called The Whiskey Sessions, where he sings as though drunk and sad. "Sometimes I am," he says.
I've heard that everyone who's from Richmond and leaves Richmond will eventually come back to Richmond, and that used to bother me, because I figured it meant returning to complacency. I've also heard everyone who's not from Richmond talk about how they've heard Richmond is cool, but no one ever says anything beyond that. At this point, I'm mostly an observer, but I have a million thoughts, and a desire to keep reading about radical ideas. I want to learn how to make prints, and I want to start a series of writing workshops. And for now, it seems that Richmond is a good place for these sorts of projects.