Bridge Work

Two years after shutting down Underworld Used Books to start a journal of literature and art, writer Michael Workman and artist Marie Walz are showing off the new home of Bridge magazine, which also happens to be their new home. It’s up two flights of stairs and down a long hall in the building at 119 N. Peoria that also houses Bodybuilder & Sportsman Gallery. The previous tenant was Flatfile Photography Gallery, which moved across the street, leaving a roomy event space up front with a retractable wall that separates it from offices and an apartment. There’s a podium, a conference table, a bed behind a screen: all the necessaries for working at the life of the mind 24/7.

Bridge grew out of java-fueled conversations that sprang up in the late Wicker Park bookstore and a ready supply of unpublished material. “Friends would come by to look at the books and discuss what they were reading and writing,” Workman says. “We started talking about putting together a publication that would recognize the connections between disciplines.” Then an undergraduate English major at Northwestern, he was inspired by visiting philosopher Charles Taylor; when he also scored an interview with Kurt Vonnegut in the summer of 2000 and couldn’t sell it, he got serious about starting a journal. He and Walz closed the store in July, and in November brought out the first issue of Bridge. It contained essays, fiction, poetry, and interviews by a “conflation” of established and beginning writers, most of them local. It had 96 pages and sold for $8. They printed 1,000 copies and distributed them nationally to independent bookstores.

Next week Workman, Walz, and their growing roster of collaborators will throw a release party in the new digs for the fifth issue, which has swelled to 240 pages (with color), has broadened to include criticism, music writing, and commissioned art, and looks more like a book than a magazine. The cover price is now $10 and the press run 1,500. Before the party they’ll launch Bridge Online, an electronic companion publication designed by Walz, who also designs Bridge. Workman says Bridge Online will be more timely, with continuously updated book and art reviews.

Workman and Walz, who married a year ago, still haven’t completed the paperwork that would turn their operation into an official nonprofit; they’re moving in that direction but are wary of losing control to a board that may not share their vision. They got this far on sales, advertising, and subscriptions (recently doubled but still only 200) and by digging into their own pockets. Workman, who serves as publisher as well as editor, pitches the ads, mostly to local businesses. He’s been at it full-time since he was laid off as finance assistant at the New Art Examiner, a job that fell to him after that publication was already in deep trouble. The last two issues, he says, made enough to cover costs (about $8,000). Of course, nobody except the printer is getting paid. Bridge Online launches September 10; the Bridge 5 release party is September 13 (admission is $10 and includes the new issue).

Problems in Context

Everyone loves Context but nobody wants to pay for it, says Martin Riker, an editor there. The free literary newspaper is published four times a year by the Center for Book Culture, which has offices on Michigan Avenue and in Normal and also puts out the Review of Contemporary Fiction and runs the Dalkey Archive Press. The Review is a forum for the discussion of “challenging and underexposed” domestic and foreign literature; Dalkey is a publisher that keeps that kind of literature in print; and Context, the newest of the three ventures (started in 1999), is a less academic take on the same subjects. It contains reviews and essays and is distributed through universities, bookstores, and libraries across the country. It’s also available on-line. The first eight issues of Context were fully supported by the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund, but by the time that funding ended this spring Riker had been beating the bushes for new donors for a year without success. “We did two issues without the Wallace funding and thought about just stopping it,” he says, “but so many people called to protest.” He’s been searching for 18 months now, and only the Elizabeth F. Cheney Foundation has stepped up, supporting 2,500 copies of each issue for distribution in Chicago.

Context was created to be donor-dependent. It carries ads, but by policy has no advertising revenue (ad space is donated to worthy causes like other literary publications, including Bridge). “We consider the ads an extension of our editorial mission. It’s a way of letting people know about stuff,” Riker says. “Our mission is to get books read. The challenge is that people don’t gravitate toward things they don’t know.” There’s no charge for the paper because “the point is to reach people who wouldn’t subscribe.” With its current 10,000-copy run, Context is budgeted at $60,000 annually. The Center for Book Culture is committed to another four issues, but unless there’s new support we may be without Context after that. Riker says the lack of interest by local foundations is “a real disappointment. Here’s this foundation in New York [that’s been footing the bill]. Over a quarter of our copies are distributed in Chicago, and I can’t find anyone in Chicago to fund it.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.