By Kelly Shortandqueer
A zine—derived from magazine—is an independently or self-published booklet, often created by a single person. Zines are customarily created by physically cutting and gluing text and images together onto a master flat for photocopying. The end product is usually folded and stapled.
The first time I went with my then-partner Jamez to his PO Box, I didn’t understand why he was getting so much mail. Who was sending him these little booklets of poetry, stories and art? It was 2002 and I had never heard of zines.
I began reading Jamez’s zines and was mostly drawn to the personal stories, especially those about identity: race, gender, sexuality, ability, etc. There was normalization of experiences that I didn’t see reflected in mainstream media, which was both an education (regarding identities I didn’t share) and a validation (regarding the ones I did).
I came to look forward to our trips to the post office and was always thrilled when he would let me open some of the envelopes to reveal goldmines of paper, stickers, and
In 2003, I created my first zine about redefining “family.” I was proud of my handwritten and hand-drawn work but wasn’t sure what to do with it. So Jamez and I started attending zine fests across the country, where there were rooms full of zinesters selling and trading their work and facilitating workshops. One of the first things that struck me was both how accessible the zinesters were (i.e. you could get directly in touch with the authors without having to go through a publishing house) and also how personal and vulnerable the zines themselves were. In some cases, people disclosed experiences of assault, which was my first access to reading a survivor’s perspective. It politicized the way I would later come to understand and talk about trauma.
Jamez had collected about 2,000 zines by this point and had been talking about opening a zine library for years. In the summer of 2003, when we moved to Denver from Washington, D.C., we decided to start making this dream a reality. We soon discovered The Breakdown Book Collective.
In its heyday, Breakdown was a Capitol Hill staple and gathering space for folks who shared progressive/radical politics, and who mostly seemed to be young and punk. It was a storefront on Ogden Street between 14th and Colfax Avenues, furnished with donated and dumpstered furniture, walls lined with political books and zines for sale, and space for community groups to meet and for traveling musicians to play for a cozy audience. It was there that we planted the seeds that would grow into a new radical community space: the Denver Zine Library.
For months we talked about lending policies and cataloguing systems. We asked our friends to save cereal boxes, which we cut at an angle to create zine holders. (To this day you can tell which boxes in the collection were in that first batch because of the Kellogg’s logo hiding beneath a collage of stickers.) The music section of DZL was largely populated by Paul Kane when he was running Double Entendre, an indie music store that used to be on S. Broadway. And our comic section was made up of donations from Denver cartoonist John Porcellino. One cold December night in 2003, we gathered some musicians and zine readers and held the Denver Zine Library grand opening in a tiny, unheated garage in our Baker neighborhood home.
I don’t think I ever would’ve imagined that a decade and a half later we’d be the DZL that exists today—or that it continues to exist at all. Over the years, we’ve watched other creative or DIY projects emerge and disappear. As an all-volunteer run organization that’s moved locations several times, it feels improbable that this analog archive and lending library is stronger today than ever, especially in the age of digital media. With constant access to more voices on the internet, it’s not quite as difficult to find some of the perspectives I’d first encountered through zines.
So, what’s kept me rooted in the zine community?
Accessibility: Anyone can create a zine. If you have access to paper and pens/pencils/markers, you can create something to share. It might be a one-of-a-kind zine, like the one my stepfather made called “Tofu Is Yucky,” where he discovers a block of tofu in the fridge after one of my visits. (Spoiler alert: in the last page he admits that tofu is delicious.)
It might be a zine that only has a few copies in circulation, like the ones created by a college class in Alabama, where students made only three copies: One for a grade, one to keep, and one to donate to the Denver Zine Library. It might be a zine that has many copies in circulation, like the iconic zines Doris or Cometbus. There are no rules when it comes to zine making.
I’ve used zines when working with young people in classrooms as a way to communicate that they all have something important to say.
Community: While many zines are written by one person as an independent process, zinesters have found ways to connect with each other and build supportive and vibrant communities. These communities have been some of the most generous and welcoming groups of people I’ve ever met. When Jamez and I would take road trips together, it blew my mind that almost anywhere we went, there was a zinester who was willing to take us in with open arms, offering a couch, bed, floor, or even let us camp in their backyard.
For years I’ve said that once there’s no longer support for the DZL, that’s when we’ll close our doors. And somehow, against all odds, we’ve had both the local support of people who value the organization as a community resource in Denver, as well as the financial support of folks across the country.
Identity Development: The world of “perzines” (personal zines) can be so intimate and vulnerable, inviting readers into spaces to which they wouldn’t otherwise have access. As a queer and transgender person, I have been able to speak my own truth when I felt like my experiences weren’t being represented well (or at all) in mainstream media. I processed my gender transition through writing and from the unexpected responses of people who were navigating the world in similar ways.
Community Resource: In the years since the DZL opened, we’ve seen lots of changes in Denver—people moving here, neighborhoods being gentrified, projects and organizations coming and going. Two of the three buildings that once housed DZL have since been demolished. That is, until 2014, when we moved to The Temple, a space that houses artists like Dylan Scholinski and projects like Sent(a)Mental Studios. Whether you’re browsing the zine shelves, sitting in our big comfy chair, or spreading out at the shared table, we’re a place where people can meet each other, or get out of the cold for some quiet time.
We continue to extend our love of zines to others in the Denver area by facilitating zine-making workshops and offering community events such as Zines and Cereal and Denver Zine Fest. Although I continue to believe that the DZL will only exist as long as there’s community interest and support, we plan to keep offering our labor, passion for zines, and commitment to DIY creatives to the Denver community for as long as you’ll have us. And we don’t see the DZL going away anytime soon.
If you’re interested in finding out more about zines, come check out our collection on Saturdays and Sundays from 11am-3pm at 2400 Curtis Street. And if you’re looking for an exciting way to immerse yourself in zines, be sure to come to the Denver Zine Fest on Sunday, June 23 from 10am-6pm at the McNichols Civic Center Building. With over 100 exhibitors, this will be the biggest Denver Zine Fest yet!
For more information, check out the DZL at denverzinelibrary.org
Kelly Shortandqueer is one of the co-founders of the Denver Zine Library, a volunteer-run nonprofit organization that boasts over 20,000 zines in the lending collection. He has been publishing his zine series “Shortandqueer” since the early 2000s, with each issue focusing on a different theme through the lens of his queer and transgender identities. His live storytelling has been featured on The Narrators and Mortified podcasts. Kelly is also a drag artist, performing under the name Olive de Bottom. Since being crowned Honky Tonk Queen of the International Association of Gay Square Dance Clubs in 2014, he has performed at several local and national venues and is always looking for new excuses to make appearances.