Liz Mason of Quimby's shares the latest zines, comics, and graphic novels on Instagram. Credit: courtesy Quimbys/Instagram

In May 2020, the Quimby’s Bookstore Instagram started going live with a New Stuff This Week video. Store manager Liz Mason sits next to a stack of zines, comics, and graphic novels. The colorful Quimby’s shelves spread behind her. As she holds new titles towards the camera, comments start rolling in: “Miss you,” and “Love Quimby’s,” and heart-eye emojis.

“It fills the void that is left by not being able to look at zines in the store,” Mason says. “Not just drumming up sales, but continuing to create the community that we love with zines.”

No thanks to COVID-19, all Chicago zine fests and events are canceled. Quimby’s Bookstore—a hub of zine culture in the city—is open for limited hours, online orders, and curbside pickup. From hand-stapling bindings to trading minicomics across festival tables, zine culture exists in physical ephemera and thrives in real-world interactions. Zines provide a space to explore outsider art, counterculture, niche fandoms, and pretty much any obscure subject under the sun. And as the simplest human interactions go online, zines also provide a way to spread information off the grid. So how are zinemakers existing in the pandemic world of Zoom meetings, delivery apps, Facetime calls, and endless scrolling? In Chicago, they’re adapting new ways to create, teach, connect, and share their art and writing.

Andrea Pearson self-publishes the autobiographical comics series No Pants Revolution, and she had a busy summer of midwest zine and comics fests scheduled. When those plans derailed, she started interacting with digital zine fests through hashtags—posting her work, leaving comments, and trading and selling zines through the mail.

Chicago Zine Fest usually takes place at Plumbers Union Hall, but this year the fest went digital on May 15 and 16. That weekend, Pearson left minizines in Little Free Libraries all over town and posted their locations to the #czf2020 hashtag. “I hope people find them and get a good chuckle out of ’em,” she says.

Still, a lack of zine fests was a hit to Pearson’s productivity. “The first two months of this were so paralyzing,” she says. “My normal way of making zines is, ‘Oh, I have to get this done by Chicago Zine Fest.’ Without that motivator, it’s been a little tougher.” She plans to release No Pants Revolution 5 in August.

Since March, more zine events have turned to a digital existence. Zine Club Chicago, which is hosted by Cynthia Hanifin and usually meets at Quimby’s, has been meeting over Zoom to discuss zines on themes like “Fun-Sized” and “Power to the People.” Saturday Night Drink ‘n’ Draw, hosted by Alex Nall, had several digital drawing events—including a figure drawing session where a model posed over webcam.

Local comics artist, teacher, and activist Bianca Xunise put on a Comics as Resistance workshop for Believer. The digital format drew a huge audience—around 500 people tuned in—but it also allowed for white supremacists to crash the event.

When Believer asked Xunise if she wanted to pause or end the event, she said she wanted to keep going. “I know for non-Black people it may be shocking to experience [racism] when it’s not part of your everyday,” she says. “But, at this point in my life, I’ve learned to not give it power and just keep going.”

After the workshop, participants posted their work with Xunise tagged. As for her own work, Xunise is glad for the chance to slow down. Staying home means she saves money and has more time to consider which jobs she really wants to take. “Between COVID and the Black Lives Matter protests, it’s forced a lot of Black creatives to ask: What do I really want to be saying?” she says.

And for shoppers who miss zine browsing in person, Quimby’s has a creative solution. For $25, online shoppers can buy a “Qustomized” Quarantine Zine Pack curated and mailed out by Mason herself. At checkout, customers can list their interests to guide her selection. The most requested subjects? Cats, pizza, and “witchy stuff.” One request shared anonymously on the Quimby’s Instagram included “old horror movies, vaporwave, history, VHS, […] The Velvet Underground, uhhh I also eat a lot of pierogis.”

Zine packs provide some counterculture reading materials, of course, but they also help a small business and keep the community alive. “People post their zine packs and say, ‘I feel so seen,'” says Mason. “It was this really therapeutic moment for them, and for me. It feels like the pinnacle of my almost 20 years of zine training.”   v