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On a late May evening when it felt too hot to move, a bunch of mostly young media and literary types gathered in a dim showroom at 92YTribeca. They had come to hear adolescent make-out stories, read from a new zine edited by Marisa Meltzer and Elizabeth Spiridakis.
Meltzer, whose second book, Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution in Music, came out in February, said hers was at The Rocky Horror Picture Show in 1993. ("He just sort of ate my mouth," she recalled, widening her jaw to mimic a sloppy wet teenage saliva exchange.) New York Times pop music critic Jon Caramanica rattled off a list of excuses for first kisses that never happened, with Roxette's "It Must Have Been Love" playing in the background. ("Because you were a publicist;" "Because you only email me when your boyfriend's band is on the road.") Emily Gould, straight off a tour promoting her new memoir, And the Heart Says Whatever, narrated a recent Facebook message from the lucky guy who was the first to plant one on her back when they were 9. And Vice magazine co-founder Gavin McInnes wandered through an X-rated diatribe that managed to incorporate some terms probably unfamiliar to Spiridakis' parents, who were in the audience, before Spiridakis intervened.
"The kiss!" Spiridakis shouted from stage right, where she and Meltzer were sitting cross-legged in orange-patterned lounge chairs. "The first kiss, Gavin."
"Well, that's in the zine," McInnes replied. "Do you really wanna hear about that?" (Um, yes? Teaser from the zine, titled First Kiss: "I could tell she was ready to get her fucking face Frenched off so I went in for the kill without a moment's hesitation.")
Earlier that day, a debate had erupted on Tumblr over the price of First Kiss, a 68-page booklet photocopied on 20 lb. sheets of paper bound by staples and a slightly heavier cover stock: five dollars at the event (the ticket cost $12), or nine dollars in the mail.
It all started with a single undermining comment posted on Meltzer's blog by Tumblr user renurenu:
a zine for 9$ or 15 eur? in the time of internet? ... how different from what zines used to be. the whole idea was to publish them primarily in order to spread thoughts, information, discussions, etc. which could have otherwise not been spread. so, what can be the motivation for creating a zine for a price which is not affordable for some, if a free online access could simply do it?
Others chimed in.
Great, but is that the motivation behind THIS zine? No. Since, like you said, everything is now online, things in print have to be extra special. And this zine is — there’s something more personal about reading a bunch of people’s first kiss stories in a zine than online. I think that $9 for something like that, of which there are only 800 copies, is reasonable.
Zines used to cost two dollars because it used to cost two dollars to photocopy and ship them. That was ten years ago. Meet inflation. Meet reality. Meet deal with it and keep doing what you’re doing because it means something, regardless of how much it costs.
Eventually, one of the anonymous bloggers of Young Manhattanite offered the following:
People are still doing ‘zines? Hell, if the internet had been around in 1990, we sure as shit wouldn’t have gone through the effort and money of printing and distributing a physical ‘zine. What’s the matter with you kids!?
BACK IN THE '90S, PEOPLE MADE ZINES BECAUSE it was the only way to get other people, to get strangers, to read what they had to say. And the premium was on saying things that weren't being said, or couldn't be said by anyone but the author. A whole zine about hating Evan Dando, or how you were in love with Morrissey, or about "My So Called Life" or a road trip you took.
It was intensely demotic, even proudly antiprofessional: slap together several sheets of 8-and-a-half-by-11-inch paper and fold in half and saddle-staple. It cost about three cents a page at Staples. Then the sophisticated infrastructure for distributing these zines took care of the rest. You could send your zine to other zines, famous zines, like Maximum Rock 'n' Roll and Factsheet 5, that would review it and list your address or P.O. box so people could trade copies of their zines for some of yours. You could mail a bunch to "distros" that would in turn compensate you whenever they sold one. In New York, you could get See Hear Fanzines on 7th Street, which is now closed, to carry your zine, or for a while even St. Mark's Bookshop or some of the now-gone downtown record stores. Or you could donate it to the zine library at ABC No Rio, which is still active, where other zine-people might just read it.
But even that kind of scale started to look inefficient by the time easy-to-use blogging platforms started showing up. Bottom line: It doesn't take much these days to amass a large devoted online readership, especially not for web-native 20- and 30-somethings who live in New York and work in the media.
And yet, 20- and 30-something web natives who live in New York and work in the media are the ones spearheading this modest zine revival.
"I went to like, two zine release parties in the last month," said Meltzer.
It was the week before the First Kiss reading, and Meltzer, who is 32 and lives in Prospect Heights, was sitting in a bar in Soho sipping a Diet Coke. She was wearing a pin-striped shirt with sleeves that ended just above the star tattoos wrapping around her left elbow. She pulled at her curly blond hair while reminiscing about discovering zines in the early '90s while reading Sassy, the iconic indie glossy teen magazine about which she co-wrote her first book in 2007.
"I've had so many conversations with people over the last few months, and it would always be like, 'We should start a zine!' So yeah, I've definitely been feeling for the past year like I've had all these, you know, sort of late-night drunken conversations where by the end of the night, everyone decides they're gonna do a zine together."
Until First Kiss, Meltzer, who grew up in Santa Cruz, hadn't made a zine since she was 17. It was a one-off called And She Whispered Secrets In My Ear. The cover was Xeroxed from a National Geographic photo of a Sicilian prostitute. "I grew up reading them," she said. "I can't really remember when they stopped being a part of my life, but certainly the Internet took over. I was a pretty early blog reader."
Meltzer and Spiridakis got the idea for First Kiss, which includes about 50 bylines, on the way to a holiday party one night last December. It grew out of a conversation about "formative adolescent sexual experiences," Meltzer said. A few days later, they put out a call for for submissions on Tumblr, Twitter and Spiridakis' blog, and then spent the winter and spring compiling and editing it in their spare time. They made 800 hand-numbered copies, complete with typos, spelling errors and handwritten notes, for a little under $1,000 at Kinko's.
"We definitely could have done something like this online, but zines are special, so we got way more submissions and people took it more seriously than I think they might have if we just put it online," said Meltzer. "Somehow I think people rose to the occasion a little more."
"People are tired of having to make everything professional, to turn everything into either a trend story or some piece of cultural criticism," she said. "When you're a writer, there's such an instinct to monetize all your interests and turn them into work in some way. So a zine is one nice way to feel more casual, more off the grid. I'm not a proponent of rejecting the Internet, or rejecting paid work or anything like that. I just think in these times, when everyone has to hustle for stories to get their names out there, it's nice to have side projects."