Uncle Fun in Lakeview has long been the place to go for stink bombs, mini harmonicas, dashboard hula dancers, and John Wayne paper dolls. But this weekend the toy store’s upstairs gallery will feature a different set of oddities–zinesters, poets, bloggers, and progressive punk publishers–in a reading hosted by Uncle Fun employee Billy Roberts, who publishes the zines Proof I Exist and Her. It’ll be the first live performance event in the store’s 13-year history.

“It’s a congruent sort of crowd–a lot of the underground, unwashed people are into kitschy culture,” says Brent Ritzel, cofounder of the Self-Publishers Event Council of Chicago, a newly formed group that’s sponsoring the reading. “And that’s the cool thing, because it’s something completely different. It has nothing to do with publications, but it’s very appropriate. When [Roberts] mentioned the idea I was like, ‘That’s amazing. Of course we should have a show there.'”

The longtime editor of both the zine Tail Spins and Zine Guide, a roughly annual compendium of information on more than 1,000 indie publications, complete with an index cross-referencing them by subject matter, Ritzel knows the scene’s tastes and trends as well as anyone. He’s published six volumes of the guide since 1998 and hopes to have the seventh out by the end of March, but he didn’t discover the world of blogs until about eight months ago. Once he did, he says he was impressed by that scene’s activity level, sense of community, and political incisiveness. In November he, Diatribe’s Aaron Cynic, and a handful of other local zine writers (Alicia Dorr, Brandon Wetherbee, Kate Sandler, and Emerson Dameron) formed SPEC Chicago. Their goal: to unite the various circles of independent publishing.

“There’s so much cliquishness and tribalism,” says Ritzel. “Maybe because it is such a huge city, it’s hard to have one coherent scene. What struck me is there’s so much redundant work being done by different groups of people that have a lot of the same ideals….We try to do everything we can to keep people from doing work that’s already been done before, especially in terms of researching, networking opportunities, getting out there to people.”

Under the banners of Zine Guide, Tail Spins, and Diatribe Media, Ritzel and Cynic had sponsored readings, panels, and workshops over the past two years, including regular events at Quimby’s, but SPEC decided to actively seek out new and unique venues for shows. Always staging readings at Quimby’s makes it easy for people to take the events for granted, Ritzel says, adding that some potential participants and audience members are offended by the store’s fetish and erotica sections. “A lot of people actually won’t go to Quimby’s for shows because they have lots of pornography there,” he says.

In December, SPEC put on a show at Urbana’s Independent Media Center, where nine readers were backed by a trio playing improvised jazz and ambient music. For Friday, February 13, the group’s planning a reading at MoJoe’s Cafe Lounge in Roscoe Village. Early this spring they hope to stage a heckling contest, complete with victims, contestants, and “celebrity” judges.

Roberts says the Uncle Fun event came about because store owner Ted Frankel is gearing up to start hosting art shows and workshops in the upstairs gallery that contains his personal art collection. The store doesn’t stock zines, but Roberts–who also runs Loop Distro, a mail-order catalog of mostly local zines and comics–says Frankel let him set up a couple tables last fall when Uncle Fun opened a holiday annex across the street at 1341 W. Belmont.

To fit the setting, the readings will have a loose theme of toys, childhood, and fun. Ritzel, who has shopped at the store for “Halloween baubles” and 3-D glasses to accompany a seven-inch he was releasing, plans to write something original for the show. “It’s probably going to be a lot of reflections back on my childhood, because when I go to Uncle Fun, I’m transported back to the 70s,” he says. “So many large things happen in childhood, it’s good writing fodder.”

Roberts says he’ll probably read something about his current obsession, Chuck E. Cheese.

The reading starts at 7 PM on Saturday, January 10, at 1338 W. Belmont. Besides Roberts and Ritzel, readers include Cynic, Dameron (Kazoo), Dorr (Random Life in Progress, Zine Guide), Sandler (SPEC’s Web master), Andrew Mall (Living Proof), poet Ken Hunt (Perpetually Bad Timing), Michelle Aiello (Indigo), Larry Roth (1544 West Grace), independent writers Julie Larson and David London, and blogger Christopher Barton. There’s a suggested donation of $3; for more information see www.selfpublishers.org.

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