When Quimby’s opened up a few weeks back just off the Metropolitan stop, Williamsburg gained another hip little bookstore in an area where it sometimes feels like culture is on the way out. Thankfully, Quimby’s is the real deal, even if it’s a revival of a Chicago institution first opened by Steven Svymbersky in the ’90s.
But wait a minute, isn’t there already a specialty book store on the block? Yeah, there most definitely is: Desert Island, probably the best comic bookstore in the city, and maybe one of the most glorious shops dedicated solely to graphic novels and arty comics.
So was this just a jerk move on Svymbersky’s part? Not exactly.
Flashback to the ’90s in Chicago, Svymbersky was a fresh transplant from Boston, where he was known as the owner of a tiny zine shop. In his adopted city, he found a much bigger space in Wicker Park and took advantage of opportunity to expand the business and began stocking not just zines, but comic books, and indie books from small presses. Quimby’s quickly became a nucleus for the city’s underground arts community, even as gentrification transformed the neighborhood around it. Svymbersky sold the business in 1997 when he took off for Amsterdam, but the shop has improbably remained very much the same sort of place. “Twenty-five years later it is a cultural outlier,” the Chicago Tribune piece explained last year, “the last wild place in a land of Sunday brunch and frozen yogurt chains.”
What pulled Svymbersky away from chill small town vibes, legal weed, and the trill-as-hell heaven that is Amsterdam? He was simply being a good dad when he moved here late last year to be closer to his kids who are attending college nearby. Plus, he said, “I’ve always wanted to live in New York City.”
Actually, Svymbersky seems like a pretty good guy all around. After deciding that he wanted to open another Quimby’s, he did his research, and happened upon Desert Island, a shop that lives and dies by the kind of underground comics (“no super heroes at all”) he planned to stock. Desert Island is a neighborhood institution, and active community member that regularly represents at local zine fests, supports area artists, and has teamed up with Williamsburg’s remaining purveyors of cultural realness (on February 9, Desert Island City will host a talk at City Reliquary’s Beyond Patience and Fortitude series).
To make sure he wasn’t stepping on some very chill toes, Svymbersky did the very un-businessman-like thing and called up the owner, Gabe Fowler, to give him a heads up. “I let him know that if I was close by, I would not compete,” he explained. “Or if I did sell comics, I would be far away.”
Clearly, Fowler appreciated the gesture– when he noticed that the retail space next door was up for rent, he contacted Svymbersky, who kept his word. “We don’t sell any comics or graphic art,” he explained. Instead, the shop focuses on small-press publications, zines, with a special focus on photography books and prints, or as Quimby’s explains it through their mission statement “to bring you every cool-dope-queer-surreal-bizarre-strange-aberrant-weird publication available.” And it’s not just a cease-fire kind of relationship, where the two stores deny one another’s existence but remain on the ready for any sort of skeezy slip-up or under-the-table comic dealing. “We’re trying to combine the two stores and make it a more desirable place to come,” Svymbersky explained.
All things considered, it’s impressive that two business ventures, which at their core are inherently interested in making money, can have such a cool relationship, especially in Williamsburg’s increasingly competitive environment. Nevertheless, it seems to be catching on up and down the rest of the block too. As part of Quimby’s grand opening celebration, which pops off this weekend (Saturday, February 3) with an art exhibition, Desert Island and Crest Hardware, another local business just down the way, are hosting art happenings of their own.
And the art show is hardly an afterthought– which is usually, ok always the case for bookstore and small-business exhibitions. Quimby’s is showing work by several artists including Chicago artist Eric Kursammer the guy who bought the OG location. It’s the “first major survey” of Kursammer’s collage and sculpture work, which will be shown alongside work by three photographers. They are Eliesha Grant, who writes that her work dwells “between pop art and outsider art,” Richard Gin, and Stephen Levas who captures images of Bushwick and describes himself as someone who “enjoy[s] skateboarding and photography and sometimes I put the two together.”
Down the way, Desert Island will host an appearance by Roman Muradov, an illustrator whose work you might have seen in The New Yorker and The Paris Review. Last year, he released a well-received comic book called The End of a Fence, set in a world that Comics Beat describes as a place “where all companions agree on everything, and relationships receive a compatibility rating that leads to matchmaking.” It seems like Muradov’s take on sci-fi is informed by a dismal view of dating apps, which the book imagines as a monolithic culture ruled by Tinder logic, where people are “segregated by compatibility.” (Cool. But, like, I’ve warned people about this literally for years.)
Festivities kick off at 7 pm with a talk led by Svymberg regarding the “history of zines.” Stick around for “champagne and hors d’oeuvres.” Sounds classy. Another great reason to stop by, and scope out the rest of the block while you’re at it, is that this probably is the only get-down happening this weekend where you can take a break from zine shopping and art scanning to say hello to Franklin, the gorgeous and 100-percent real life pot bellied pig who resides at Crest in a porker pen. (Perhaps refrain from eating any hors d’oeuvres containing bacon until after you speak with the pig.) Cuddly animals are cool and all, but what makes Quimby’s block party-like grand opening so great is that it shows, however small, Williamsburg still has a supportive creative community, the only thing that makes an event like this possible.
Grand opening festivities are happening Saturday, February 4 at Quimby’s Bookstore 536 Metropolitan Avenue, 7 pm to 10 pm.