Part 1 of a series on “Rituals” that take place in and around Harrisburg. This article will appear in Issue 4.

Blues Jam

Words by Daniel Webster, Photos by Anela Bence-Selkowitz

Every Thursday at a bar not far from Harrisburg International Airport, a crowd of pickers, kickers, and very few city slickers gather at Champion’s Bar in Highspire, Pa. “Damn right, I got the blues,” is plastered across a man’s hoodie, and that pretty much explains this late week ritual. The blues jam kicks off at 8 o’clock not-sharp. Run by the Blues Society of Pennsylvania, the jam got started in more humble beginnings at a bar in Steelton. Most people warmly remember it as “a shack overlooking the train tracks” or talked about the body of a race car serving as the wrap-around bar or Sonny who ran the bar. Champion’s Sports Bar is decidedly more upscale, featuring a well-lighted stage, an ample area for the swing-blues (a type of swing dance), and a pool table lies on its side to make room for family-style tables, constituting the “VIP” section of blues members.

The jam itself is unique in that we have professional blues players in central Pennsylvania, not really known to the greater public as a breeding ground for soulful sounds. But more curious is the operational set-up. Marianna Doherty, President Ex-Officio of the Blues Society, said “most blues nights around the country have a house band,” but “we have the sign-up board.”

The stained white board is gridded, the rows a list of categories from vocals to guitar to harp, the columns marked 1-6 with the host in the upper left hand corner, a high-ranking blues society member. This particular week was Don Johnson’s turn. Yep, that’s his name. Don is a venerated guitarist in the area, who is one of the only members who makes his living off the blues.

The host master is charged with grouping the musicians and vocalists on teams, the sole captain of sorts. It’s a crucial and stressful tasks, because some musicians work better than others, and that was confirmed after almost every interviewee described blues night as hit-or-miss.

Juan Meijas, the jam’s only and long-standing flutist, used an apropos analogy. “It’s like pick-up basketball. Sometimes people want to work together as a team, other times they don’t.”

Certainly, its equal opportunity to strut your stuff or showcase your wares, even, whether on-stage or taking part in the dancing. And Juan’s analogy makes more sense as an audience member. The game is on-stage, the dancers are like less-obnoxious cheerleaders, and the fans, mostly the graying population, sit back at the family-style tables catching up, critiquing the playing, but what’s very obvious is that everyone is enjoying themselves.

The bands play on until midnight, however, the crowd starts to wean away at 10 p.m. After all, it is a week night.

You’ve been Kinfolked or Why so Smug Independent Magazines?

 

In a flash, Local waxes and wanes. It’s waxing time, another grind-out weekend with a few newbies and old-heads. While I often just allow our wandering souls to well, wander, we often get to commune over coffee or in front of our screens. I’d like to admit that these chats are always interesting intellectually, but more often, they spill into comedic commemorations of the day or year, maybe too tongue-in-cheek for our humble blog.

Sometimes, we also watch Kinfolk videos or consider spinoffs for the fast-rising “Vogue for hipsters.” Chinfolk, Sinfolk, Winfolk, Finfolk (don’t ask), Blingfolk, Ginfolk, Cringefolk, Burr-lin-folk (again don’t ask). It usually takes on an air of an all-out lampoon with suggestions of videos we should undertake to make fun of such an artsy-fartsy periodical, but sometimes we scratch greater questions like, “Why are indie mags so smug?”

First, off, the vague “independent magazine” label is basically anything that is non-traditional, and we are all complicit in our uppity ways, even here at Local. Most indies won’t compromise their core being, because small presses are gifted with a beautiful, niche concept that, if lucky, people will latch onto in sustained numbers (e.g. Kinfolk). Most of the time, we fail. I’m not so interested in telling those tales, as I am the thematic movement of the independent magazine trend, in general: brand-focused, design-centered, and esoteric (purposefully or unintentionally wrought in that manner).

Because of the legitimate design beauty found in new independents, there is this one-sided conversation that seems to indicate this uptick in high-end and well-designed magazines is inherently good and/or impressive given the economy for publications and the larger macro move away into digital. And it is. My experience though in both reading and reviewing these publications, to both improve my own mag and stay current, is that I’m only mildly impressed by the anti-gloss movement as I call it. Nice photos, check. Cool theme, check. Writing, fair-to-middling. What is it that’s missing though?

Perhaps, it’s the prevailing idea that to replace one trend for another, gloss for thick recycled newsprint (non-gloss)—good on the recycled part—is a step up. That’s piddling in minutiae though. It’s something more abstract. Like soul or missing an authentic connection to place and people (that’s a bit smug even). Now, that might seem like an abstract concept but it isn’t. What I see in magazines like the aforementioned is this ogling “over the creative process,” a semi-exultation of design and expression, and a conflation of calling something “a balanced simple lifestyle” for that of the means to live in a way where you can afford to call yourself a foodie enthusiast. 

My experience in the past two years of making Local is that most people don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. It’s great that there’s a push happening in periodicals to talk about sustainable lifestyles, making clothes and objects closer to home, making magazines less flimsy and more substantial, and focusing on celebrity that’s not celebrity in the traditional sense, but there’s this other side of America that’s struggling for attention and resources. 

Bringing beauty to an ugly world is good, but there’s an ugly world out there that needs beauty. This is what Local tries to navigate, sometimes well, sometimes not-so-well. Most of the former examples just don’t, partially because it’s their mission and partially because they’re con-tent with their self-obfuscation. It’s warming, protective, and comforting to know that others will agree with you wholeheartedly and buy into this “lifestyle.” Yet, as independents, I believe we have a larger obligation to society. We write for the tired reader or viewer, even if we’re tired.

Stay warm,

Daniel Webster Jr.

P.S. Here are some magazines that I’d love to emulate one day. They blend design and stories in a sophisticated and down-to-earth manner. 

New School

Boat Magazine: Probably the periodical closest in likeness to our own, minus the most recent launch of Collective Quarterly, which, no comment. Boat’s editor, Erin Spens wrote this very cool letter recently that encapsulates a lot of similar thoughts to my own at this time.

This Land is a semi-monthly large-format newspaper that brings long form, literary journalism to the community level. It’s like when Warren Buffett and his love for newspapers meets Woody Guthrie lyrics. Don’t know if that made sense. 

Narratively is this grind-it-out digital news presence that tells great human interest stories out of NYC. Noah Rosenberg’s team is super-committed and produce rich, weird, and heartbreaking tales every week. Their “about” is below.

Narratively slows down the news cycle. We avoid the breaking news and the next big headline, instead focusing exclusively on untold, human-interest stories—the rich, intricate narratives that get at the heart of what a place and its people are all about. 

Old School

Orion Magazine: The classy and classic Orion is one of my personal favorites. Check out their mission here

The Sun was started by Sy Syfransky 40 years ago and they commemorated this anniversary with a great interview with the man behind the legendary publication.

Swiped this right from their website:

The Sun is an independent, ad-free monthly magazine that for nearly forty years has used words and photographs to invoke the splendor and heartache of being human. The Sun celebrates life, but not in a way that ignores its complexity. The personal essays, short stories, interviews, poetry, and photographs that appear in its pages explore the challenges we face and the moments when we rise to meet those challenges.

"The splendor and heartache of being human"—what a great line.

A Scream for Sanity, or Happy Anniversary Local!

Today marks the first anniversary of Local’s presence in the world. While there’s much to be said about our progress and our recent release of Issue 3, Asbury Park, N.J., frankly that sounds like boring self-promotion. My attitude toward the glut of masquerading oneself as a vintage, Made in America brand is wearing thin, and the words associated to making this a successful venture,  “marketing” and “social media presence” are almost bile-inducing. That doesn’t mean I’m not culpable to throwing around these terms to fit in with all the entrepreneurial “makers” and “crafters” and “indie publishers”. I just find them rather unspecific and gilded in this notion that the hard work is all spent in snazzy buzz words— “shares”, “engaged users”, “traffic”, “user interface” (oh yeah, I know all of them)—and less to the actual earnest service or product that small businesses provide.

Ours happens to be the old-fashioned printed word and soon an app—the new shovels of our generation or something like that. This tale, however, will be less about “content” and more about “contexualizing” the experience of running a small business.

***

As I finished a long work day of shoveling magazines out of my car to potential stockists in Asbury Park and Red Bank, N.J. with some success (see my piece on slinging magazines here, “link and retweet”), I began to drive back to my friend’s house, where he has let me sleep on a mat dozens of times since July (Thank you Silverman family). However, about 10 minutes from my destination I had this strange, neanderthalic feeling creeping from my gut at the red light in Allenhurst, N.J. that I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs, but before I released my primal power, history spake to thee.

"Yeah, he used to scream at the top of his lungs on the way home from work in the early days," said my dad, referring to my grandfather or “Pappap” as we called him.

"Isn’t that awkward," I asked, a teenager at the time.

"Well, it’s really tough starting a business,” said dad.

My grandfather was beginning a general law firm in Brownsville, Pa.  While the actual business is of some interest, since most general law firms are going the way of the dodo bird in favor of specialized legal fields, what is more interesting is that I knew Pappap to be extremely tight-lipped and laid back around his grandkids. This kind of flagrant anger management was hard to visualize from the velour jumpsuit wearing patriarch, who wouldn’t even talk in the car while driving others, calling it an unnecessary distraction. 

But what could possibly have driven him to howl and break this code of silence in his vehicle. My only guess is the questions and the growing task list from the day’s work began to eat away at him, just like mine. 

"When am I going to get some help?" "How do I grow my business?" "When is my next paycheck going to come in?" "How am I going to afford food next month?" "Will I have to sell my car and go back to hitch hiking to work?" "Will I have to take an extra job?" "Should I just work for the government?"

Sometimes the questions are less heavy but they begin to pile and pile, and meanwhile you have bills to pay, queries to respond to, ledgers to keep, files to maintain, people to make happy, critics to respond to ever so diplomatically, and more and more and more. Soon, the only response is “aaaaaaaaaahhhhhh” like the Hulk unleashing his rage onto the world.

Certainly, the car seems like an appropriate place for this action.  The annoyance of driving causing increased tension, the subconscious feeling of being trapped in an inescapable metal shell, and the dueling notion that privacy will prevail and no one will see your silliness of carrying out this nonsensical exclamation point to symbolize the running of a small business—complete madness.

But you know what (as I sigh), something in those screams helps me gather inspiration and resolve from Bob Webster: the trial lawyer, a stutterer as a kid who overcame that tic, the son of a barber and hair dresser, and the beneficiary of a G.I. Bill, and eventually one of the most successful lawyers and businessman in western Pennsylvania. His grit provided for his three sons and future generations, the founder of a now 60-year-old general law firm, and people respected him greatly for that relentlessness and his devotion to friends, family, colleagues, and his employees. He left behind his example, which was evident during his funeral 15 years ago when 3,000 people showed up at his viewing.

So even if I run out of money, have to hitch hike, scrap for food, or can’t turn this into a successful venture, I can always grab a pillow or hop in the car and just let out a scream for the ages. Thanks Pappap!

Happy Anniversary Local!

From your stressed but grateful Editor-in-Chief.

Note to readers: that’s my grandfather, not me.image

I wish this were me. That’s my grandfather before starting the business. I’m not sure why he’s holding a cane. 

image

 

 

 

Meet Juicy Jenn, we couldn’t have produced our next issue without her! Coming soon, #AsburyPark Photo by Azikiwe Mohammad

Meet Juicy Jenn, we couldn’t have produced our next issue without her! Coming soon, #AsburyPark Photo by Azikiwe Mohammad

Salesmen can be beggars, Editor-in-Chiefs can’t be choosers (or can they?)

Some may believe that being an editor-in-chief of an indie publication is rather cool. You sit around with your editorial team making pour-over coffees, searching for your print rivals, realizing their mistakes, and guffawing over those mainstream drags, who are totally misguided about the future of print. The occasional cigarette break turns into a cracking of one or two microbrews at lunchtime, that then inspires an idea that couldn’t be lifted by a Boeing engine.

Oh, in a perfect world, I guess.

There’s other duties to attend to besides a story budget, locating the best of the best writers, and reviewing, editing, and sizing down our next issue’s content. For the past month or so, my newsie cap has come on, traveling city-by-city (four to be exact) in order to sell Issue 2 to various stores around the east coast. “Get your Local here,” which happens to be my aging Toyota Corolla, chock-full of cardboard boxes, 26 lbs. per, filled to the brim with cultural curiosities about Roanoke, Va. But it’s become a sort of dog-walking obligation, perhaps even a rite of passage, and I just wanted to give minor insights, emphasis on the minor, to our readers and dare I say, my rivals alike, who may want to empathize or laugh at this 1,500 mile tour de force I logged the past three weekends.

 

Independent publishers or editors-in-chiefs who are reading this are either immediately pissed that I would go through such vagaries (get a distributor bro) or nod in knowing. While I am looking into a distributor, first, there are the bangs or busts of cold calls, unanswered emails, and consignment deals. What I’ve found, however, is that business owners are much more receptive, in some cases, to seeing the magazine with its owner, like an artist with his/her portfolio. There’s some general pre-planning, which is all very boring and involves mapping and not getting side swiped while looking down at an iPhone map (I’m looking at you Philadelphia). Beyond that, it’s personal preference and the age-old pitch.

 

Walking in to the selected store—one I’ve only laid my eyes on via Yelp or grainy website photos—is the biggest thrill, scoping out voyeuristically if our magazine indeed belongs in this place. I usually shuffle around for about ten minutes, looking for the following sure fire signs of a successful mag shop.

  1. They carry national titles like Sun Magazine and Orion or foreign titles like Boat and Huck. Each combine strong narrative with timeless design, and that is something Local is always working toward.

  2. Curated shops also do the trick, those with neither a glut of magazines strewn about or too little of a stock that promotes only a certain niche brand of magazines (e.g. lifestyle).

  3. Business owners or employees who gives two shits about you. I honestly, at this stage, want to be stocked in places with workers who care about the print product. You can tell immediately if an employee is disengaged, perplexed by what you are asking of them, or too pretentious to be dealing with what they determine is a low-brow salesman, which might be my fault. See next paragraph.

I’m wearing my standard, everyman attire: black shirt, Levi jeans, black tennis shoes while carrying a nylon Banana Republic messenger bag. This, I hope, hits the sweet spot of dress codes in this business: not too bookish, not too disheveled, and casual. I root around for a magazine or a trinket, take it to the counter, and while being checked out, I start my pitch, which goes something like this:

“Hey, so I run this magazine called Local Quarterly (drop the magazine on said counter ever so gently), which looks at micro-cultures in America through the lens of one small city per issue (that’s my highbrow take). Think you may be able to stock it here?”

From there, it’s a variety of reactions, ranging from complete puzzlement due to my pitch or a simple, “Sure, why not? Fill out a consignment form.”

The more upscale, boutique stores usually reply with, “A buyer will need to look at this first. I’m sure you understand.”  God, how bile-inducing. You see, in the most diplomatic way possible, I just want to tell them I drove 290 miles one way without A/C to save on gas, specifically for the purpose of being in their store. And I just purchased something from you, my inner and innocent manipulation thwarted by the ole pass off to the buyer. Oh, well.

Others, however, are receptive, grateful, excited by a living human being dropping off a magazine who indeed worked on this product, moonlighting with a dedicated team, etc. This is the empathetic small business owner knowing the trials of a peer. These people I thank too much. My desperation seeping out, I cut off my third or fourth “thanks” and leave, my products all grown up and ready for new eyes, fresher eyes.

Neurotically, I turn around, almost instantly, then trudge on, ready for the next inspecting or indifferent individual.

All the while I’m thinking about the invoice I need to prepare, trying to locate Shop X on my outdated iPhone map, sweating the good sweat, the self-imposed perspiration of an independent publisher. Glorious? No. Satisfying? Sometimes. Necessary? Absolutely.

 

A few shops I really, really liked:

Politics & Prose: Two stories of fantastic books with a small café located in the basement floor. Readings daily. A small but well selected groupings of local, national, and international titles. Seth, the buyer, was real easy to work with and took our magazines on the spot, although I believe their distributor is SpeedImpex.

Avril 50: Magazines, lots of them, coffee and cigarettes. Writer’s paradise. The bare necessities. Magazine cave. It’s in University City, right in the hubbub of Drexel and UPenn near the well-regarded White Dog Café. John, the owner, was great to deal with, not on the phone, but in person. Treat yourself to this place. If he doesn’t have the magazine you’re looking for, I’d be surprised, but he’ll find it if you ask.

Durham Regulator: Great independent bookstore with superb customer service. Right along a nice strip of stores in downtown Durham, a slight way from the Duke University campus. The magazine section is off to the left when you walk into the store. Not prominent, but it’s home to a solid grouping of consumer and cultural periodicals.








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