To explain how he ended up in New Orleans, G.K. Darby quotes a mantra from underground writer Charles Bukowski: great art is equal to cheap rent. Which is one reason why the 27-year-old Chicago native has found a home here for both himself and his one-man publishing company, Garrett County Press.
Make that two homes, both of which clearly qualify as "cheap rent." The first upon Darby's 1998 arrival was a one-room, windowless apartment on Barracks Street in the French Quarter. The second and current home is a third-floor apartment he shares on Esplanade Avenue. The exterior is all wrought iron and faded red brick; inside, the long, steep stairwell to Darby's apartment shows chandeliers with exposed wiring, worn carpeting, and dark-with-dirt plaster crumbling off the walls. "But this place has windows," Darby says exuberantly, motioning toward two small windows in the back, each roughly a foot off the floor.
"I love New Orleans," Darby says. "I think it's a wonderful city. There's a lot of artists and such who always speak to its mystical vibe, though I'm not too convinced of that. But the fact of the matter is it's cheap. I can eat here for four bucks a day."
Despite its humble surroundings, Darby's Garrett County Press -- which is basically him, his computer and telephone -- is quickly rising in the ranks of small, independent publishers, with eight books now completed and available across the country, and four more in the works. Garrett County books run the gamut from academic to bizarre to provocative to fun. Darby insists there is a common thread running through all his releases. "The books are fiercely independent, truthful, and carry a sense of humor about themselves," Darby says.
That's a workable description of Darby himself. His short blonde hair, piercing blue eyes and muscular frame give him a look he jokingly describes as "just another Aryan." But he nearly boils over with a desire to shake up the local literary scene, and he peppers his discussions with combative talk about "fascist" publishers and "conservative" booksellers.
"The history and tradition of literature in this city is important," Darby says. "It provides a context in which we work. But some of the stuff ... the whole Faulkner thing. I mean, how long did Faulkner live here? And there's no major, active publishing on a big level. Pelican (Publishing) is a bunch of Neo-Confederates.
"When I call up bookstores in other cities, I'm proud to declare, 'This is G.K. Darby of Garrett Country Press, calling from New Orleans.' But there, they've heard of the books. Here, they haven't.
"I'm frustrated with the local bookstores," he continues. "They need to take chances if we're ever going to grow as a literary community. Faulkner House won't take a chance on any of my risky stuff. And I don't know what bookstores like Beaucoup and Maple Street are thinking. Especially Maple Street. I hope they come to the book fair. Because, I'm telling you, this book fair is going to send a message."
The book fair in question is the inaugural New Orleans Bookfair taking place this Saturday at Barrister's Gallery, an event designed by Darby and artist Myrtle von Damitz as a showcase for small, independent publishers from across the country. Maple Street Book Shop manager Carol Antosiak says she knows about the event, but says smaller stores like Maple Street have to make tough decisions about what stock to carry.
"His books were just a little bit too far out there for us," says Antosiak. "I don't think of our readers as conservative, and we certainly don't consider ourselves conservative. But small bookstores can't carry everything."
Antosiak says that store owner Rhoda Faust personally perused the Garrett County works sent to the store, but ultimately decided "they were not for us." She says Maple Street will order any book from any publisher for any interested customer except for Anarchist Cookbook, William Powell's controversial 1971 work that includes recipes for making drugs, bombs, booby traps, espionage equipment and more.
"We felt bad when we told [Darby] we wouldn't carry his books," Antosiak says, "because he was obviously so passionate about them. I hope there are places to that do carry them."
Darby is not deterred. He is, after all, a man who once pondered running for mayor of New Orleans based on a platform to replace pot holes with planters and to take down the statue of Robert E. Lee in Lee Circle, replacing it with one of Jesse Jackson. Mainly, though, he concentrates his effort on the New Orleans Bookfair and his own publishing company.
"Why does Garrett County exist?" he asks, not waiting for an answer. "What niche does it fill? It's a reaction. I think that all the English majors that come out of colleges now and go to work at publishing houses as editors are hyper-editors. I think the books that come out now are really well polished, but they mirror a sort of pseudo-intellectual frivolousness that has become a part of our society. Everyone now just wants to go and grab a cup of Starbucks and read something that is light, amusing and relatively smart. But nothing more."
Four years ago, George Kroening Darby arrived in New Orleans from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a freshly minted English degree and a book under his belt. Published in 1997, Temp Slave! is a collection of tales of misery, loathing and defeatist humor previously compiled over several years by writer and editor Jeff Kelly in zine form.
Kelly had begun work on Temp Slave! in 1993, creating a zine on his home computer that was shared as a joke with 25 other temps in the office he was working in at the time. (Kelly is currently working as a processor in a dairy ingredients plant in Wisconsin.) It grew to a circulation of 3,000, with temp-working contributors sending in their own tales from across the country. In its final published form with the Garrett County imprint, the book includes a chapter titled "Why Bosses Are Assholes," along with instructions on how to usurp a warehouse's operations with forklift. "I am justly proud of the contributions Temp Slave! made on the issues of worklife in 1990's America," Kelly writes in the book's introduction.
"Temp Slave! is a good sampling of the underground literature that was happening in the '90s," Darby says. "It started with the zine movement, Xeroxed publications by single people. The whole power of the thing is people who can write can write what they please. There was this explosion of these works in the late '90s, and Temp Slave! was right on top of it."
Darby met Kelly while in college in Madison. He put together the book with money from his parents, just a few years after his father, Edwin, retired as finance editor for the Chicago Sun Times. (Edwin's influence also extends to the name of the publishing company -- Garrett County is named for the "idyllic" Maryland county in which Edwin was born, G.K. Darby says.)
Temp Slave! remains Garrett County Press' best title, with about 5,000 copies sold. Those numbers are modest by big-publisher standards, but the book also generated much publicity. "Temp Slave! took off," Darby says. "Utne Reader nominated it as publication of the year, there were write-ups in the Chicago Tribune, New York Times. NPR called up and said, 'This is a great idea. It's so funny.' So, I sent them a copy and. ..." Darby laughs at the shocked reaction from National Public Radio, which eventually reviewed the book.
"The language in there is pretty angry stuff," Darby says. "It's a real working-class book. It's how you think. You hate your job, you hate your boss, and you let them know."
The book's working-class credentials were enhanced when legendary Chicago-based oral historian Studs Turkel recommended Temp Slave!, saying, "Never has a book been more timely than this one." Like Turkel's classic Working, Temp Slave! was even adapted into a musical. "People from Hollywood were calling me to option it for a movie," Darby says. "I got a really big head. It was my first book, and it was an overnight success. Borders was carrying it. I thought I was hot shit. I got really cocky and crazy, but now I know what to expect."
Darby acknowledges that, despite the buzz, the book didn't turn much of a profit. "I don't know why," he admits. "Maybe I just poured too much money into making the book."
Despite the lack of a financial pay-off, Darby says Temp Slave! provided Garrett County Press with instant credibility. Writers soon came calling, eager to work with a publishing firm that promoted the raw, editing-free style of the underground. Among these: C.S. Walton, an English writer Darby recognized for her work in the magazine Punk Planet. Walton's two Garrett County books are both accounts of down-and-out Russian life, Little Tenement on the Volga and Ivan Petrov: Russia Through a Shot Glass. In April 2000, Walton received the New London Writers Award from the London Arts Board for Ivan Petrov and her work-in-progress documenting the siege of Leningrad, scheduled for a 2003 release from Garrett County.
"Walton has gotten offers to go to larger publishing houses," Darby says. "I said, 'Bless you, go ahead. Go.' But she really likes the freedom of writing what she wants to."
Writer/editor Robert Helms also noticed Temp Slave! and brought Darby his manuscript for Guinea Pig Zero, which Garrett County published this year. Guinea Pig Zero is a compilation of zine-published accounts of people making their living by volunteering for medical experiments. The book has been discussed in length by the Chicago Tribune, ABCNews.com and on Public Radio International's This American Life.
As it turns out, Garrett almost never got Guinea Pig Zero at all. Helms had initially signed with Garrett County, but then decided to go with the larger and more established St. Martin's Press. "St. Martin's took the book away from me," Darby says. "They outbid me, and Helms went to them. That's fine; I told him to go for it, I just asked for the advance back. But then he started sending in all this weird shit. And St. Martin's wanted to edit the hell out of it. So he came back to me and I was thrilled.
"Guinea Pig Zero is controversial; it tackles the ethical dilemmas inherent in the medical profession. Harper's ran a retraction after it published an excerpt," Darby says, referring to a well-publicized lawsuit brought against Harper's after its July 1997 excerpt of Helms' zine. There, Helms' "report cards" appeared in edited form that "flunked" the Medical College of Pennsylvania/Hahnemann School of Medicine and stated "This hellhole should be shut down for good!" When Helms' report card in Harper's hit the newsstands, school officials threatened a libel suit if the publication wasn't removed from circulation and an apology issued. The school, which merged into the Alleghany University of Health Services, hired prominent Philadelphia lawyer Richard Sprague, who issued a statement accusing Harper's of printing false, defamatory and malicious statements about "outstanding institutions of impeccable reputations."
The Harper's issue was not recalled, though the magazine printed clarifications in a subsequent issue. Not satisfied, college officials pursued the libel suit before ultimately settling out of court on unreleased terms.
Alleghany continued its libel suit against Helms after the Harper's settlement, though the writer refused to back down. "The fact of the matter is I only wrote the truth," he would write in a later edition of the zine about the legal proceedings. "Let the dogs bark. If they make too much noise, I'll make them eat crow."
Helms found a Philadelphia attorney to represent him on a pro bono basis. During these proceedings, Philadelphia Magazine would run a story that, Helms later wrote, "had hard evidence that supported every damned thing I said." The day before he was to appear in court, Alleghany dropped its libel suit against Helms.
Though Garrett County published the same controversial report cards, no legal threats have surfaced. "A libel suit would crush me; it would crucify me," Darby says. "But no one is going to waste their time with a libel suit against me. I'm too small. They only go after people with money."
Besides, says Darby, "I'm glad there's something in one of my books that offended people."
Another recent Garrett County publication is the reissue of A Terrible Thunder, Peter Hernon's account of sniper Mark Essex's racially inflamed killing spree of police officers from the Rampart Street Howard Johnson hotel on New Year's Eve 1972. Hernon, who was a journalist in New Orleans and is now an editor with the Chicago Tribune, had the book first published by Doubleday in 1978. But Doubleday's rights on the book had lapsed by 2000, and Darby realized the opportunity and jumped on it.
"The rights to A Terrible Thunder had lapsed right at the time when the publishing industry was consolidating. Doubleday was moving towards entertainment, and A Terrible Thunder got left behind. The whole shake-up created a model where little publishers like myself could sneak in.
"I felt the need to have A Terrible Thunder out there," Darby says. "Anyone who's found out about the book has had an emotional response to it. A family member of Mark Essex's called me; that was a really emotional conversation. It's funny, because I've lived here for four years and never even heard about this incident. We're so into remembering our history, but this is what's left, not talked about. There isn't even a plaque or anything on Rampart Street. I think there should be some acknowledgement."
Unlike his other books, local bookstores stock A Terrible Thunder. Darby credits it as "the book that helped get me over the hump." Specifically, the acceptance and relative success of the book enabled him to finally give up his three-year stint as bus boy and waiter at Cafe Rani.
"I'll be damned if I go back to working in a restaurant," he says. "I'm really trying to make this work; I hope I can maintain, because my sanity could really go either way if I have to go back. In order to remain human in the service industry you have to get f--ked up. Flanagan's (Pub) used to be my home. The graveyard shift was my shift. I loved sitting in there and getting f--ked up and walking out in the morning's bright sunlight. But I could never go back to that."
Tucked inside a small Faubourg Marigny shotgun is a weekly meeting of literary minds that since the late spring has served as the primary planning sessions for the New Orleans Bookfair.
"It's in that tradition of a Parisian salon," hostess Natalia Jones says, who with husband Willie runs Holy Virility, a zine distribution company (AKA "distro"). "But it's not really. I mean, just look around."
A pack of bicycles rests outside, mostly the aging English-style street cruisers with large metal baskets that are a French Quarter-Marigny-Bywater transportation mainstay. Men and women in their 20s sit on the steps, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes in the muggy heat of a gray afternoon. Inside, it's a who's who of local independent publishers. Dennis Formento of Surregionalist Press, Jamie Schweser of New Mouth from the Dirty South, and Josh Clark of Light of New Orleans Publishing are all in attendance. They're packed into a steamy, un-air-conditioned living room, adorned by a rack of zines with titles like Slug & Lettuce, heartattack and Mind-F--k Explosion. A "F--k Barnes & Noble" bumper sticker is posted near a makeshift bar.
Darby stumbled on this gathering through acquaintances made in an anarchist group. Anyone's welcome here, but the room feels intimate, a shared conspiracy among friends. Enveloped in the weekly gathering is a planning meeting for the book fair, one that is always strictly limited to 30 minutes. "I hate meetings," Darby says. "It starts at 3 and ends at 3:30."
He's right. After showing off new book fair posters and lingering over the lovely and somewhat abstract design, the group realizes the poster fails to mention the event's location: host space Barrister's Gallery. It's an even more regrettable omission considering that owner Andy Antippas donated the location when other venues were asking upward of $5,000 for rental. Following discussion of a plan to distribute flyers at New Orleans Film Festival screenings, Darby calls an end to the meeting and goes over to talk to a book fair intern hired through Tulane University, to instruct her on writing thank-you letters to participating publishers.
Somebody puts an empty Miller High Life case on their head, a sign that the beer's gone. A 12-pack of Budweiser tall boys is promptly brought back from nearby Schiro's. Conversation eventually turns to politics and President George W. Bush, and copies of a zine titled Lies, Myths and Deceit: Essays Against the War in Iraq are passed around. "F--k him," Darby says of the president.
Darby and Josh Clark then debate the merits of a mutual acquaintance, whom Clark calls a "really decent, heartfelt guy."
"No he's not," Darby retorts.
"Yes, he is," Clark replies. "You don't know. He's a wonderful man."
"He's a racist, asshole dickhead," Darby shouts back.
Clark leaves, unfazed. The gathering over for another week, Darby leaves to ride his bike to Joe's Cozy Corner to hear Kermit Ruffins.
"When G.K. gets angry, I can't really ever tell," says Myrtle von Damitz, who as the co-organizer of the New Orleans Bookfair has spent countless hours with Darby, ironing out both concepts and details of the event. "He has a very high moral standard, and it's racists that really get him going."
Von Damitz is talking between drags from Camel cigarettes outside P.J.'s on Frenchmen Street. The 28-year-old artist explains that she had arrived here from San Francisco to paint, when she realized that New Orleans lacked the book scene she's enjoyed in other cities. "I remembered what Jon and Gypsy Lou Webb did here, and what a huge impact they had on the whole counter-culture." (Jon and Gypsy Lou Webb, founders in the late 1940s of LouJon Press and Outsider magazine, first published Charles Bukowski before the poet moved to the larger, California-based Black Sparrow Press.)
"The whole literary thing, it's a continuous culture, a string that never stopped because of the whole Beat mystique," von Damitz says. "There were so many people left over from the '50s and '60s that were still doing their stuff, until recently when economies in San Francisco and New York got so tight, they kind of lost their soul. New Orleans to me seemed like the only city that still had that spirit in it, one that wasn't totally corrupted."
Soon after moving here in 1998, von Damitz entered a circle of artists that "met every week, drank wine, ate cornbread and talked about books." From this, her idea for Babylon Lexicon -- regular showcases at Barrister's Gallery for hand-made "artist books" -- was formed. Von Damitz's most recent contribution to Babylon Lexicon was a hand-painted box with poetry from T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland." She also recalls a book constructed by a group of anarchists. "It was lined with shag carpeting, bound in duct tape with pages of photos of naked people playing in the most pornographic way possible. You can't define it really."
Last year, Darby attended the Babylon Lexicon show and soon afterward approached von Damitz about incorporating independent publishers into the show. "G.K. keeps telling me Babylon Lexicon is the heart and soul of the book fair, which it is," she says. "The whole thing is a conglomeration of ideas. You have these individual people who have no constraints and go wherever they want to go with their books. And then you have the more constrained forms, like the money-making aspects of books. Together, it makes a lot of sense."
Von Damitz says pulling off the logistics of the book fair has been made easier by a large, devoted group of activists and supporters. "To me, it's just a relief to know there's people here who want to do this," von Damitz says. "It's people who understand. They're not Arts Council types. There's a strong underground network that propels this."
John Dillman, owner of Kaboom Books on Barracks Street, is credited as a major resource in planning the book fair. Dillman says he's just "an outsider" offering advice at the six Sunday meetings he's attended.
"I'm not looking to make money or gain customers," Dillman says. "I'm just hoping that this new generation of literary people will gain notice. I'm certainly not going to be one of those moribund institutions that's going to tell them, 'You can't do that here.'"
Meanwhile, to Darby, the motivation to create the New Orleans Bookfair is simple: "I'm a publisher, you know. I hope more people read in this city."
As Darby sees it, the practices and philosophies of small presses such as Garrett County are steeped in the punk tradition of do-it-yourself, or DIY.
"A lot of people working on the book fair are punks, but if I called them punks they would shudder," he says. "They're independent thinkers. They believe in independent music, independent media. It all goes together with the whole zine thing. Make your own music, make your own literature. Do it for nothing else other than your own pleasure."
This is the attitude that created and sustains Garrett County Press, he says. "When I started out, there was definitely this underground thing; Garrett County was defined as a 'pre-anti-ist' publishing house, meaning we were against everything and everything before that. But now it's more. Ever since I dropped the bus boy bit, I've been working 13-hour days."
Upcoming Garrett County Press releases include a work by revered punk writer Leah Ryan For Here or to Go, chronicling service work ranging from prostitution to waiting tables. Another future release is a travel guide to the disputed West Bank territory in Israel, the third travel guide in Garrett County's catalogue, following 2002's Just in Tokyo, a work on "how to live as an urban nomad in the world's most expensive city." Darby also published The Garrett County Press Guide to New Orleans, a 46-page book that sells for $5 and is billed with the claim that all other guidebooks to the city are "dog shit."
"Most [guidebooks] are written for 30-50 year olds who really believe that the House of Blues is on a 'mission from God,' says the book's promo on Garrett County's Web site, www.gcpress.com.
Darby says he's committed to living in New Orleans and is currently trying to convince a girlfriend to return here from New York. He's found some local believers in his publishing house, such as Dillman of Kaboom Books, who says, "G.K.'s got something going. And while I think the level of success is questionable, whether it be moderate of stupendous, it all depends on what G.K. wants to do with it."
But G.K. Darby says he harbors no delusions. "The system here is designed for people like me to fail," he says. "I want to succeed. I'm not here to martyr myself; this is a business. Point blank, I want to sell a shitload of books."