Credit: Sarah Lawhead

Download the Reader‘s first issue—October 1st, 1971. (PDF)

If a publication takes its first breath only when it is picked up and read by a stranger, then the Reader was born at approximately 7 PM on September 30, 1971, on the campus of what was then called the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle. I was present for the birth. I was in the process of delivering the first 12,000 copies to come off the press and was pleased that a couple of students were reading copies even before I’d finished with my first load. I eagerly asked their opinion of the paper, and they responded politely saying something to the effect that they liked it or at least that they liked the effort to do something new.

The elation of the Reader‘s first evening was short-lived. It was 92 degrees the next day, October 1, 1971, the primary delivery day, and I had rented a van with a manual transmission and no air conditioning. Also, I had no idea how small a dent I would make in our press run of 51,000 copies by delivering batches of 25 to 150 copies to various stores, bars, and restaurants throughout the city. By 6 PM, when I had arrived at some singles bar on Division, I was tired, sweaty, frustrated, and covered with ink. My 150 grubby little papers and I were brusquely turned away at the door. An argument ensued. The doorman was not impressed that I had gotten prior approval from the management to leave the papers. My parting shot was that he and his establishment would be sorry, because the Reader was destined to become the Village Voice of Chicago. He scoffed and assured me that my paper was nothing like the Village Voice. He was right, of course.

So the Reader was born, but by rights it should have died within days. The understanding among us original investors was that if the first issue didn’t break even, we’d stop publishing. The first issue didn’t break even, but we kept publishing anyway. We rationalized: the first issue had almost broken even. It would certainly be easier to sell ads in subsequent issues. And besides, we had extended credit to the first advertisers, so they probably wouldn’t pay their bills if they found we’d stopped publishing. Later ads actually proved harder to sell because advertisers weren’t very impressed with our first issue—and because we only had about three days to sell the next week’s issue. We’d been selling the first issue for at least a month. Issue number 2 shrank from 16 pages to 12, and with issue number 3 we went to eight pages—where we stayed for a long time.

The real reason we kept publishing was that we just couldn’t imagine stopping so soon. We’d been talking about doing it for over two years, ever since Bob Roth saw Boston After Dark in the summer of 1969. The two of us had rented a massive four-bedroom apartment in Kenwood with the idea that it would house the offices of the paper as well as any college friends who might move to town. I wasn’t sure when, if ever, Roth and I would have the energy to actually start publishing. The catalyst was newly graduated Bob McCamant, who agreed to become the paper’s editor.

When I heard that the paper was happening, I was in Maine hanging out with Tom Yoder, who already had a real newspaper job at the Berlin Reporter in New Hampshire. I raced back to Chicago in my VW Super Beetle (it could hold 12,000 of the eight-page Readers). Unbeknownst to us, long before the first issue, we had become “Reader people.” We just had to keep cranking them out every week.

Thomas Rehwaldt is a
Reader cofounder and its first circulation director. After a falling out with his partners, he became a lawyer. He lives in Evanston and is married to Hallie Blanchard, who is also a Reader vet.