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After 25 years, Quimby’s is an Ever Evolving Bastion of Freakdom

The local destination for independent zines and comics brings back its original owner for a visit and publishes an oral history on its silver anniversary.

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On September 15, 1991, Steven Svymbersky opened the Wicker Park zine and comic-book shop Quimby's (named after the local-art mag he'd created six years earlier in Boston) on the corner of Damen and Evergreen. Vegetarian haven Earwax Cafe had opened in the neighborhood just a year earlier, indie coffeehouse Urbis Orbis was going strong, and artists were taking over warehouses in the then run-down part of town. According to Svymbersky, in that environment it took just a few weeks for Quimby's to attract a following.

"People found me right away," Svymbersky says. "Dan Clowes of Eightball and Chris Ware, they all lived within blocks of the store. They walked in within the first days of our being open and introduced themselves."

Since then Earwax and Urbis Orbis have closed, and Svymbersky has moved to Amsterdam, but Quimby's has moved into a larger location on North Avenue, where it continues to thrive. Svymbersky will be returning to Chicago to discuss the history of zines, comics, and the store itself during the Quimby's 25th anniversary celebration on Thursday, September 15, complete with videos and photos from the original space and slide shows of independent publications from the 80s and 90s. The event will also feature the debut of Quimbrew, a pale wheat ale created in collaboration with Marz Brewing; a commemorative print by Chris Ware; a special T-shirt designed by author and artist Gabby Schulz; and the release of the book Ever Evolving Bastion of Freakdom: A Quimby's Bookstore History in Words and Pictures. The oral history features contributions from longtime customers and employees along with people who are now well-known in the industry, such as Anne Elizabeth Moore, Davy Rothbart, and original patrons Clowes and Ware.

"We're first releasing it in an ashcan edition," says Liz Mason, who has been a manager at Quimby's for 15 years. "It's black and white, it's pretty scrappy, it's zine style and saddle stitched—which really just means stapled. We want to have something to tell our story in honor of our anniversary."

Many of those interviewed emphasize how necessary Quimby's existence was (and is) to the survival of the local zine and comics scene. When Svymbersky first opened up shop, publishers weren't accepting zines, so there were few places for independent artists to sell their work. His philosophy—one that the store upholds today—was that anything would be accepted on consignment. And for many artists, the exposure paid off.

"Jeffrey Brown consigned a hand-bound duct-taped version of Clumsy here, and then it got published by Top Shelf Productions," Mason says. "The next thing I know he's appearing on This American Life and got published by Chronicle Books. It's really amazing to see somebody grow into their style and discover their own voice."

The digital era has made it much easier to find, create, and share work, but Quimby's still serves as a meeting ground for local emerging artists because of its specialized products, workshops, and events. Current owner Eric Kirsammer is looking forward to the 25th anniversary celebration as a reunion of sorts for the community that has grown around the shop since it opened. He jokes that he's a terrible businessman—he owns both Quimby's and Chicago Comics during a time when independent stores are more often shutting down than not. But when he thinks about the future, especially on the cusp of a big anniversary, all he can picture is "Quimby's eternal."

"As there are fewer independent bookstores," Kirsammer says, "it makes the ones that remain more vital." v

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