Quimby’s Queer Store is no ordinary bookstore. Browsing in it can make you dizzy. “My goal is eventually that when people walk in they’re just overwhelmed: like, ‘Oh my god what is this.’ I want them to be stunned,” says proprietor Steven Svymbersky. You might have been more than just overwhelmed had you walked in off the street on a certain Friday night last September. You would have been witness to the sight of Svymbersky stripped to the waist, strapped to a bookshelf, getting 33 birthday lashes from dyke dominatrix Bliss, who was wielding a leather cat-o’-nine-tails–while Wiseacre riffed away on music from Jesus Christ Superstar.
If you looked a little closer–and if you were highly Star Trek-literate–you might have noticed the tattoo on Svymbersky’s arm: Mr. Spock’s symbol for “Infinite diversity in infinite combinations,” otherwise known as the IDIC, which pretty well describes both the store and Svymbersky’s worldview. You would have been treated to all the beer you could drink, a few more bands, and a half dozen raffle drawings. Svymbersky was celebrating the occasions of his birthday and Quimby’s third anniversary. It might have been a little overwhelming at first, especially compared to what goes on in other neighborhood bookstores, but as Svymbersky says: “I like the store to look wild.”
Svymbersky came to Chicago from Boston in 1991 and stumbled across a space for rent in Wicker Park. “I wanted to be where all the artists were but the main reason for moving in here was because the rents were cheap. I was really lucky to get this location even though I didn’t know it at the time. I didn’t know what was going on in Wicker Park.” Very quickly what was going on in Wicker Park included Quimby’s Queer Store. Svymbersky says “The reception was unbelievable. I did as much money in the first half month I was open here as we did in a good month in Boston. And now I’m doing five times that.”
Svymbersky grew up in Peoria, so part of the reason he came to town was to be near his family. The store itself was made possible in part by a loan from his mother who “just cannot understand how I’ve managed to succeed. The same goes for my brothers and sisters–who are younger than me, so it’s not an age thing.”
Svymbersky himself can’t understand why some people don’t take him and his business seriously. “It makes me mad when I hear these people say ‘Oh, you’ll grow out of it…’ This guy wants to see my tattoos….He says, ‘You’re gonna be so sorry, you’ll end up getting a real job.'” Svymbersky rolls his eyes and flexes his “fuck you” finger. (The one next to it has a brand-new gothic Q tattoo.) “I was like, you don’t know that, how can you possibly make that judgment….Just because you gave in, just because you bit it, doesn’t mean I’m going to. That’s so pathetic.”
Even on a non-holy day Quimby’s can make you stop and look, starting with the big Q that hangs over the door and the ornate, remotely tribal decorations that outline the entrance–all painted by local artist Philip Cooper, who also designed and painted the interior of Earwax. Inside, around the doorway are more of Cooper’s distinctive and vaguely threatening illustrations, reminiscent of sideshow posters. On either side of the doorway stencils of Mike Gamus’s characters Goofus and Gallant run colorfully from floor to ceiling. A mural featuring twisted anthropomorphic marine animals painted by comic grotesque surrealists Gary Leib and Doug Allen dominates the space over the counter, and Deb Brody’s murals explode over the piercing jewel display.
But the store definitely has more going for it than just atmosphere; it also offers a solid introduction to covert literary culture, with a broad selection of books, zines, comics, and magazines. You’ll have to go elsewhere (I do) for Martha Stewart’s Living or the French edition of Macworld or the latest issue of the British teenybopper fortnightly Smash Hits. But you will find some slick stuff, like the information-age rags Wired and Mondo, and upwardly mobile zines like Monk and the gleefully caustic Answer Me! There are plenty of zines that specialize: Murder Can Be Fun Svymbersky calls “the best 45-minute read of any magazine or zine in the store.” There’s a good selection of queer, lesbian, gay, and bi-oriented rags (I recommend Diseased Pariah News and Holy Titclamps), as well as catalogs, newsletters, and monthlies on piercing, tattooing, “modern primitives,” erotica, S and M, and bondage (including, among an amazing array of spanking periodicals, Strictly Speaking Spanking and Firmhanded Ladies). The political roster is also quite full–though it sports predominantly left-of-liberal viewpoints–and so is the list of music mags, which includes Industrial Nation, Seconds, Source, Option, Roller Derby, and the venerable MaximumRocknRoll, perhaps the archetypal do-it-yourself zine.
Naturally, local zines are well represented. Dig around a little and you’ll find Pussy Boy, David Breed’s charming detourned xeroxed homage to fagdom, Susan Partridge, and, in a recent issue, feet–in a photo essay entitled “Happy Feet With Terrence Smith AKA Joan Jett Blakk.” Nearby is J. Friedrich’s Candy, an anthology featuring her own photo experiments among contributions from Georges Bataille and local performance artists Panthersahib.
Conventional retail logic might dictate that the eclecticism of zines, their sometimes obtuse solipsism and their low production values (“If people can’t get past the fact that it’s xeroxed, that’s sad”), would translate into low sales, but in fact Svymbersky’s zine sales outnumber his mainstream mag sales five to one. Lack of interest has forced him to drop standard left-of-center fare like the Village Voice and the Whole Earth Catalog.
But sales aren’t exactly Svymbersky’s primary preoccupation. “I hope people are inspired to do their own zines, to put out their own books because that’s where it’s at. That’s one of the reasons I do it,” Svymbersky says. “I know how hard it is to get them in stores; I know how hard it is to get an audience.” His own ventures in self-publishing have included a long-running series of comics anthologies: Quimby Comix, Quimby Magazine, and Quimby Extra. Svymbersky admits that he’s been publishing “since they would let me,” having passed the de rigueur journalistic high school trial by fire when he was suspended and almost got the faculty adviser fired for publishing “bad things” in the school paper. At that time he wrote occasionally under the pseudonym Burf Quimby, a name that’s “always been with me.”
Love underground comics but hate going into comic shops because someone might think you’re buying SpiderMan? Svymbersky says those stores “never had what I wanted anyway or were out of their one copy,” though you can count on them to have “geeky kids running around.” So Quimby’s carries all the most influential underground titles: former Chicagoan Daniel Clowes’s Eightball, Roberta Gregory’s Naughty Bits, Peter Bagge’s Hate, Julie Doucet’s Dirty Plotte, the Hernandez Bros.’ Love & Rockets, Robert Crumb and Aline Kominsky-Crumb’s Weirdo, among many others. The store also has two full sections of soft and hardback comic compilations ranging from Li’l Abner through Crumb and Feiffer to Tardi and Skip Williamson. Perhaps the most fun section for comics is the display set up for “mini-comics,” strange and succinct (usually five or so matchbook-size pages) self-published visual essays by comics’ weirdest (Clowes, Leib, Allen, Terry Laban, Chris Ware), with such titles as “Butts,” “Sissy,” and the frequently requested “Acid.” You probably won’t know what to make of them at first but their queer charm grows on you, and at 50 cents a pop, why resist?
Svymbersky is still working on the bookshelves. His strategy so far has been to plumb the depths of literary weirdness while stocking underground and counterculture classics (Kerouac, Ginsberg, Bukowski, Burroughs, Genet) as well as newer additions to the unofficial canon like Kathy Acker, Rollins, and the Re/Search volumes.
Each book section is labeled with a single-panel comic featuring characters from the work of a longtime friend and coconspirator of Svymbersky’s known only as D.B. It’s worth roaming section to section to read these hand-drawn placards alone. At the section labeled Kooks and Conspiracies, a tongue-lolling mutt whispers to his mysterious homosexual doctor friend: “Psst. Yellnick McWawa mutilates cows. Pass it on.” Other sections require little embellishment: Drugs and Erotica are self-explanatory. The True Crime section includes not just the usual but how-tos like The Complete Manual of Pirate Radio. There’s a section for Politics, but Anarchy gets a full section as well. That’s where I found a pamphlet I’d been looking for since I discovered socialism my freshman year in college: Cornelius Castoriadis’s “Workers’ Councils and the Economics of a Self-Managed Society.” Also in this section, inexplicably, are several issues of that great office-workers’ zine Processed World.
But Svymbersky says this is just “the tip of the iceberg as far as bizarre literature and magazines and comics….There’s so much more that I can get and that I will get eventually. I want to expand to fill the shelves to the point where there is no more room.”
In the meantime, extra space is filled up with ephemera and miscellanea like little skull beads from India for a quarter apiece, bleeding-performance-artist videos by Ron Athey, piercing jewelry by Body Circle, colorfully painted Polish religious icons, Mexican lotteria games, awesome fully-assembled Big Daddy Roth models, Speed Racer and H.R. Giger calendars, Freaks and Pocket Pin-Ups trading cards. . . Whew!
Perhaps the whole store can be said to proceed from Svymbersky’s youthful encounter with punk. He insists with only a small degree of self-deprecation that “’77 changed my life, man….All the cliched things you can say about it and the punk aesthetic, DIY, whatever. I’ve always felt the most comfortable in outsider groups….You can do what you want to do and there’ll be a community there to support you.” After the cutthroat corporatism of the 80s Svymbersky feels it’s important to emphasize that “it’s possible to succeed on your own level.” Working with two guiding principles–“Everything I like is generally not very popular” and “Everything in the store I have at least a passing interest in”– Svymbersky has managed to construct a living, growing example of a paradoxical and even oppositional level of success. Sometimes it just cheers me up to walk in and look at the place.
Besides putting every cent back into the store (and the occasional in-store party) Svymbersky’s plan calls for getting back into publishing. As a first step, he and his partner and girlfriend Sherri Gionet have put out the first Quimby’s Queer Store Megamaga Doggylog. This 42-page mail-order catalog, sold at the store for two bucks, features comics by the aforementioned D.B. along with zine, book, and magazine reviews by Svymbersky, Gionet, and some disembodied character called the Head of Burf Quimby, who tackles a Tom of Finland anthology, among other things. Page 32 bears a full-page drawing of the infamous flogging and the facing page (33) has the list of important events and people associated with the number 33 read by Svymbersky on his 33rd birthday just before he received his 33 lashes. Any patron who fails to sign the statement of age on the order form “may receive a spanking instead of the naughty books and magazines you want.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Philin Phlash.