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Chi Lives: how to start a zine without really trying


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Chip Rowe started the pop-culture zine Chip's Closet Cleaner in 1989 when he graduated from Northwestern's journalism program. "In college I had this yearly ritual where I would clean out my closet. So when I graduated, I filled a newsletter with a lot of cartoons I liked and articles I'd saved and sent them to my friends."

A couple issues later Rowe had completely cleared out his closet of found and saved texts. He even published the rejection letter he'd gotten when he was ten from Stone Soup, the magazine for and by kids, notifying him that they only published stories with happy endings: "It didn't seem right to us that the farmer should live happily ever after, even though he had killed a man out of greed."

A chance trip to Guild Books led him to FactSheet5, which reviews zines from around the world. "I remember looking through FactSheet5 and going, "Ohmygod! Ohmygod!' I suddenly realized that that's what I had been doing." Chip's Closet Cleaner had been a zine all along.

In the zine tradition each edition of Chip's Closet Cleaner was reproduced on the sly at his employer's expense. "At the last magazine I worked, I xeroxed like 100 copies for issue nine at the office after hours. The publisher saw me xeroxing, and I was so brazen I just said, "You want one?' and gave him a copy."

Rowe says that the zine slowly got more sophisticated. "I included more work of my friends and I abandoned the found text aspect of it. I thought it was also a great way to get my stuff out. I was writing and having fun writing these things."

Eventually Rowe, who was having to print larger and larger press runs of the magazine to meet the demand, grew tired of guerrilla publishing and had issue 11 printed professionally.

With 300 unsold copies still in his closet--he had 1,000 printed--Rowe decided to make the next issue digital and place it on his home page.

"There are more things I like about the on-line version. Graphics. Color photos. I could put my voice on it. I got a Playmate--I work at Playboy--to say "Welcome to Chip's Closet.' You can't get that on paper."

Past features in the zine have included "In Defense of Swear Words," "How to Get Out of Jury Duty," and "Photos of My Girlfriend Wearing My Favorite T-Shirts," as well as a three-month index to the Weekly World News.

The electronic version of Chip's Closet Cleaner has been criticized by the more Luddite zinesters. "One guy who does a zine out of Detroit called New Philistine ripped into me, ranting because I excluded poor people who don't own computers. Well, it's going to cost them three dollars to get the paper copy."

Still, Rowe is thinking about creating his next issue in both paper and digital formats. "Paper is still more convenient and accessible. And it's still much more fun to have something you can hold in your hands. I do my zine because it's such a joy to put it together, and it's really cool to get it back from the printer. And if you like it, fine. And if you don't, whatever."

Rowe will be selling issues 10 and 11 of Chip's Closet Cleaner at "fire-sale prices," as well as copies of his new fanzine This is Spinal Tap, A to Zed, at the Underground Press Conference this weekend at DePaul University's Lincoln Park campus. He will also be part of the panel What Is a Zine? And How Do I Make One? at 10:30 AM on Saturday. Registration for the conference begins at 8:30 AM that morning at the Schmitt Academic Center, 2320 N. Kenmore. The conference will also include open-mike readings and a Saturday Night Underground Ball at 10 PM at the Bop Shop, 1807 W. Division. For more information on the conference, call 486-0685. Chip's home page is at

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Randy Tunnell.

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