Celina Williams was in elementary school when she put together her first zine. At the time, she didn’t know exactly what to call the thing that she had created. “As a kid, I wanted to write books,” she told me while seated at a wooden picnic table at the Lamplighter café on Morris Street. “I just stapled some pieces of paper together and made one.” Those creative impulses were rekindled when she attended the first Richmond Zine Fest in 2007. Inspired by the event, Celina started making zines again (this time she knew what to call them) and, upon graduation from VCU, joined the festival’s team of organizers.
With the ubiquitousness of blogs and social media, it’s easy to dismiss zines as the self-publishing format of a bygone era, but their popularity has actually grown in the digital age. Tangible handmade artifacts like zines are something to be treasured, not just bookmarked for later consumption. Creators get more out of the process as well: that visceral feeling of satisfaction that comes from building something by hand can’t be replicated by the click of a “post” button. There’s also an intimacy that many zine authors crave. Knowing that their audience consists of only a handful of truly appreciative readers, rather than the entire internet, allows them to speak in the most honest, vulnerable of terms.
It should come as no surprise, then, that events like the Richmond Zine Fest have come to hold a special place in the self-publishing landscape. As one of the longest running conventions in the country, it attracts zinesters from all over seeking the chance to trade their wares, discover new authors, and make friends. The Richmond Zine Fest has even inspired organizers in other cities to start their own events. “You can blame Brooklyn Zine Fest on us,” Celina joked.
Sitting with Celina is Brian Baynes, one of her fellow organizers and a DIY show promoter. Wearing a faded orange t-shirt and shorts, he possesses an infectious sincerity that makes me want to describe him as “baby-faced” despite his full beard. “My definition of a zine is that it’s a self-publication made to spread an idea without the goal of financial benefit,” he explained while offering me the pickle that came with his sandwich. “The word zine came around in the late 70s or early 80s. It came out of underground comics when people thought, ‘No one wants to publish my weird sexual adult comics ...’”
“... so I’ll publish them myself!” Celina declared, finishing his sentence.
Holding a zine is so different than making a blog post, and you’re not really sure what it is, but we can all admit that it’s there.
Channeling that do-it-yourself ethos, the event seems to have come into existence through sheer force of will. Celina recalled, “The original organizers thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if Richmond had a zine fest?’ and they just did it.” Brian joined the team under similarly spontaneous circumstances, saying, “I saw a Facebook post asking if anyone wanted to come to a meeting to help organize Zine Fest.” He glanced at Celina as the two share a warm, goofy laugh, then continued, “I was the only one that came to the meeting, but it’s definitely one of the coolest things I’ve done in Richmond,” finishing with an aw-shucks grin. Celina echoed his sentiments, “I think that’s something really amazing about the city of Richmond: while it’s laidback and Southern, there’s also this very self-driven spirit. People are aware that if you want something, you’ve just got to do it.”
The success of Richmond Zine Fest relies on the passion and dedication of its volunteers. Celina wryly described it as a “no-profit” organization: all funds earned by the project go directly back into making Zine Fest happen again the next year. While the organizers have historically put the bulk of their funds towards renting the Gay Community Center as an event space, this year they won’t have that expense as they are moving to the Richmond Public Library. “That freed up our time to concentrate on other things like workshops,” Celina explained, “but it also brings things that we have to plan for in a new space. The location is more accessible and I think we’re going to get more foot traffic, too.” On the whole, moving the fest’s location is a welcome change. “It’ll be a little nerve-wracking the day of,” said Brain, scratching the back of his neck, but, still smiling added, “this year, we’ll be hustling.”
An important element of Richmond Zine Fest’s mission is introducing newcomers to zine-making as a form of self-expression and making publishing resources accessible to the community at large. In an effort to reach as diverse an audience as possible, this year’s event includes a Safer Space policy for attendees. “It’s intended to be a welcoming and supportive environment free of oppressive actions, behaviors, and language,” Celina explained. “We didn’t add that explicit policy until recently, but it was always implied.”
As our conversation continued, the sun lingering below the horizon, Brian told me about the children’s zine-making workshops that he’s been leading at the Richmond Public Library in advance of the festival, calling to mind those first zines that Celina made years ago. It’s clear that Brian is committed to introducing a new generation of authors to the genre. Paraphrasing the thoughts of Raven Mack, another prominent Virginian zinester, he explained his zeal by saying, “Holding a zine is so different than making a blog post, and you’re not really sure what it is, but we can all admit that it’s there.” He grinned again, a toothy pale streak in the dark, “There is something different. It’s not really important to know exactly what, but we all know.”
The Richmond Zine Fest will be held at the Richmond Public Library on Saturday, October 10 from 11 AM to 4 PM. An after party concert featuring zine-maker bands will follow at Gallery5 at 6 PM. For full schedule, visit richmondzinefest.org.
Photography by Nicki Stein