(Note: As this is an old post, several of the external links are no longer operative or point the same content they did in 2005)
Recently I happened upon a web reference to The Coolest Retard, a music fanzine produced and published in Chicago, in the early 1980s. Out of curiosity I spent the next hour or so googling for more about the magazine and the publisher.
There are quite a few collectors out there with fond memories of the heyday of the Retard. I definitely remember some issues, and even managed to find some recognizable cover photos.
One of the more interesting references I found was a personal testimonial by a photo contributor to the magazine, who offered a good historical reminder of how much more of a challenge it was to self-publish back before the days of blogs and the "digital lifestyle."
Perhaps the greatest innovation of the punk and immediate post-punk era was self-publishing. Independent record labels blossomed almost overnight, circumventing the control of the major companies. Simultaneously, homemade fanzines began to appear in record stores and other alternative outlets. Anyone with something to say and willing to do a little work could now reach an audience.
Today we take self publishing for granted. Anyone with basic computer skills can produce a newsletter and run off hundreds of copies. But until about 1980, it wasn't so simple. Guy Lawley [in R. Sabin (editor), 1999, Punk Rock: So What? The Cultural Legacy of Punk, Routledge, London] summed up the crucial event which made self publishing realistic:
"One other factor probably fueled the small press boom more than punk: the photocopier, increasingly available in offices, libraries, and high street shops after 1980. Paying a printer to produce a comic or zine usually meant printing hundreds of copies which weren't going to sell, as printers would only take on larger print runs. Photocopiers meant you could print as few as you needed, then give them away or sell a limited print run to break even or make a modest profit."
The Coolest Retard was produced on typewriters by the individual authors. Early personal computers were available but still expensive and mostly limited to larger offices, and they were hobbled by limited memory and crude software. So we did it the old fashioned way. The articles and photos were then delivered to Craig, who spread them out on the floor of his Bissell Street apartment, cut them to size with a pair of scissors, and glued it all together. The completed originals then were taken to the recently opened Kinko's on Lincoln Avenue. By the time I joined the staff they were working on issue #16, and had a circulation of about 1200 copies. Most of those sold through Wax Trax Records, just a few doors down from Kinko's, and a few other alternative record shops in Chicago. A few hundred were shipped off to be distributed in New York, London, and Liverpool. The cover price was 81 cents.
I wasn't a voracious reader of the mag, but I'd known the publisher, Craig R. Schmidt (pictured at top), since the sixth grade. I can testify somewhat to the energy it took to produce such a magazine, especially when it was all done after the "day job." In Craig's case that day job was in the executive suite of Chicago's famed Marshall Field's department store. It often amazed me how in the hell he found the time to publish the magazine, in addition to the hours he spent working, going to concerts and clubs and just plain listening to all the music he collected -- the man lived in an apartment you could hardly walk in due to the seemingly endless racks of vinyl records. As for the part of using copiers at Kinkos, well, maybe eventually he did, but I can still remember him being one of the first persons I knew who had access to a color copier at work, and how he'd have to wait for the honchos to leave the office so he could get busy creating artwork and publishing.
(As an aside, I find it humorous that color copiers have been around now for over 20 years and that Xerox is still having to push them so hard as the lynch-pin solution to being a business success)
Anyway, a fun trip, for the most part, down memory lane. I've long lost touch with Craig. As fate would have it, we found ourselves as two points in a Jules and Jim style love triangle. Those things don't usually have happy endings for any of the parties involved. Still, I was curious as to what he was up to these days. I'd heard rumors he now lives in New York, but, until the other day, I had given up trying to google anyone named "Schmidt" in New York. I was amazed when I found the picture.
Somewhere along the search path, while reading about the magazine, someone speculated that Craig had gone on to be a "major music writer" in Chicago, but, no, he's in New York, and a Retail Analyst for Merrill Lynch.