In an attempt to better document the American underground press, or at least the sharp, tiny sliver of it that worked its way through the protective layer of gristle surrounding my heart 20-some years ago, I’ve given myself the task of reaching out to all of the zine folks that I knew during the golden age of the underground press, and asking them how they found their way into the scene, and how they now feel about the experience. Today’s interview is with Scott Huffines, the founder of Baltimore’s legendary Atomic Books, and his longtime enabler, Sarah Boonstoppel, who, among other things, ran the store’s zine operation from 1996 to 2000. Both, I’m happy to say, survived the experience… Scott now works in IT for Johns Hopkins and co-runs Baltimoreorless.com, and Sarah is about to enter academia as an assistant professor of Criminology & Criminal Justice… And, perhaps more importantly, Atomic Books continues to forge ahead, mutating a whole new generation of minds, under new leadership.
MARK: When did Atomic Books open?
SCOTT: Black Friday, 1992.
MARK: Did anyone get trampled, or is that a more recent Black Friday occurrence?
SCOTT: No one has ever been trampled buying a book. Could you imagine the headlines? (Cue the Steely Dan.) I opened late afternoon, and it was dead slow. A few curious people who happened to be in the neighborhood stopped in. Jeffrey Pratt Gordon, the Johnny Eck archivist, showed up later in the day and bought a bunch of books about freaks, so I was off to a good start. Maybe he saw the “Coming Soon!” signs that were plastered all over the front window. I don’t remember the first few weeks being anything exceptional. It was a slow-growing mutation.
MARK: What made you decide to open the store?
SCOTT: I’d gotten burned by Amok Books. I discovered the Amok Fourth Dispatch and went apeshit ordering stuff from them. I spent well over a hundred bucks, and only received a few of the items that I’d ordered. The rest never came. Months passed with no explanation. I don’t remember if I ever got that money back, but I was so mad I decided to search out the sources myself. At around this same time, I also discovered The Church of the SubGenius book High Weirdness by Mail at the local library, which got me into ordering zines. And then I discovered Factsheet Five at Reptilian Records in Fells Point. I was looking for the 45 of Berserk’s “Giant Robots”. So there was all this weird stuff colliding at once. A perfect storm, I guess you could say. Within a few months, I was buying stamps in huge rolls… rolls of hundred a time. I went a little nuts ordering stuff. I bought the entire back catalog of Murder Can Be Fun. It was exciting to come home from my job as a hospital foodservice director and see all these zines spread across the living room floor after my angry mailman had shoved them through the mail slot.
[OLD SCHOOL PRO TIP: “Speaking of stamps,” Huffines says, “years later Dishwasher Pete told me the secret of applying a thin layer of Elmer’s Glue on top of your stamps when you sent out Self Addressed Stamped Envelopes (SASE). Then, when you got them back in the mail, all you had to do was wipe off the postmark and reuse the stamps!”]
I should add that I was also getting into alternative comics at the same time. I remember reading about The Dark Knight Returns in the paper, and that reawakening my interest. That led to Watchmen, Miracleman and Sandman, which in turn led to Eightball, Hate, Joe Matt’s Peepshow, Charles Burns comics, Stickboy, and stuff like that.
MARK: OK, so you’d fallen into the underground press rabbit hole, but how’d you come to take that next step, quit your job, and open a store?
SCOTT: In the summer of ‘92, the day after my buddy’s stripper-filled bachelor party, three of us took off to Ocean City, Maryland and dropped acid on the boardwalk. Between the LSD, a fifth of tequila, and the overload of limbless freaks on the boards (there was some sort of convention), I convinced myself, “Hey, I can do this! I can open a bookstore!” The rest is history… And I never took acid again, by the way.
MARK: Where was that first location?
SCOTT: I was new to that neighborhood. I scouted out a bunch of locations in Baltimore and fell in love with Read Street not knowing a thing about its past. I could tell that it had the right vibe, though. There was a cool record store, Modern Music, that was selling industrial and techno records. There was a cool new-age store run by an angry hippie who would chase the bums off the street while waving a sage smudge stick. There was this guy, Fran the Nazi, who dressed like one of the Illinois Nazis from The Blues Brothers every day. That was his uniform. There was the Leather Underground which was exactly the kind of “men’s shop” that you’d imagine from the name. There was an Irish bar on the corner. There was a CD store that specialized in soundtracks. There was a smelly Korean convenience store that would float checks for us. (They actually won a City Paper award for “Best Environmental Aroma.”) There was a video store. There was an old man gay bar. It was pretty awesome.
SCOTT: Yes, right around the corner, in the alley. I’ll send you a picture showing the exact spot.
MARK: How much did it cost to get Atomic Books off the ground?
SCOTT: My grandmother co-signed a loan with me for $7,500. Most of that went to paying the monthly mortgage on my rowhouse, which wound up being foreclosed on when I claimed bankruptcy. I probably spent well under $5,000 to actually open the store, and that was spent on various security deposits, paint, wood for shelves, and the inventory to put on them. All the shelves were homemade back then, we hadn’t discovered Ikea yet. A lot of donated materials and labor got me started.
MARK: “Grandma, I was just hanging out with a bunch of limbless freaks on the boardwalk, doing acid, and I’ve got a great business idea for you to invest in… Where’s your checkbook?” Is that kind of how it went?
MARK: You mention that people donated materials and labor? Are we talking family members and old high school friends, or people in the neighborhood who desperately wanted to see a bookstore there?
SCOTT: I spent about a month getting the store ready. The guys from Modern Music up the street were very supportive right away, as was Stanford, the angry hippie who I mentioned earlier. Some local computer nerds would barge their way in while I was painting. They eventually got me off of AOL and onto the real internet. They also taught me how to uudecode porn gifs at 1200 baud, which was our primary form of entertainment in the store before Sarah came along. My redneck stoner buddies from Essex helped build the store, and nerds helped with the rest… It’s funny, I would have cookouts where the hillbillies and the hipsters would meet and grow to be friends.
MARK: You mentioned that you were a hospital foodservice director prior to opening the bookstore, Scott. What did you do in that capacity? Did you manage a huge staff, and have responsibility for all of the food being served to the patients?
SCOTT: You said manage a huge staff, hehe hehe… Patients, cafeteria, catering… I ran a department of 75+ people. But I started my foodservice career at Friendly’s when I was a freshman in high school, and worked there all the way through college. I wound up becoming a Friendly’s manager because I couldn’t find anything else to do with my BUAD degree. The funny thing is, Atomic Books was basically run like an old-school Friendly’s, just with books instead of Fishamajigs and Fribbles.
SARAH: I’d like to know the answer to that too.
SCOTT: I ordered stock the same way. I’d take a weekly inventory, figure out what was selling and focus on that. I’d “suggestive sell” to the customers. I’d modify the “menu” based on what was selling, what customers wanted and what I liked. Selling ice cream, selling zines, it’s all the same thing. Be somewhat nice to customers, make them want to come back. Regular customers are what kept us going.
Oh, and Chick tracts. We’d get these low-tipping church groups at Friendly’s that would leave Chick tracts behind, so I’d started collecting them back in the ‘80s. So I made sure to stock them when I opened the store. People loved them. Great comics for only a quarter!
MARK: How would you characterize the items that you sold at Atomic when you first opened?
SCOTT: Stuff I was into: Crispin Glover, Chick tracts, “Smart Drink” mixes, books about sideshow freaks, and stuff like that. I was really into zines, so a lot of those, and a lot of alternative comics, like Hate and Eightball. The book selection was small, but it grew over time.
MARK: What are “Smart Drink” mixes? I’m imagining Kool Aid with desiccated fish powder sprinkled on top to stimulate brain activity?
MARK: How, if at all, did the products you carried evolve over time? For instance, you mentioned a love of comics earlier. Did they make up a larger percentage of your inventory at the beginning?
SCOTT: We opened with a smaller selection of really good alternative comics. Later, in the ‘90s, there was a glut of crappy alternative comics, and we were ordering those also. I guess artists were trying to get in on the non-existent alternative comics gold rush. Anything with lovable dead goth girls seemed to sell.
MARK: Was there a yardstick that you used when assessing whether or not you wanted to carry something?
SCOTT: Really just personal taste. But I’d also ride the alternative culture bandwagon. Our neighbor, Modern Music, was putting on raves, so I’d stock up on graffiti art and weed-growing books. We also had a lot of tattooed customers, so I really stocked up on those mags and books as well. I also thought that I could pretty well predict what people would be into, even if they weren’t into it yet. Does that make any sense?
MARK: As I alluded to earlier, Atomic had a few different locations over the years. Can you walk us through the timeline of the different stores, explaining why, in each case, you had to move?
SCOTT: Well Read Street was the location I fell in love with. But stores were moving or closing, and we were kind of left alone there. We were also desperate for more space since we were doing so much mail-order.
SARAH: I think a few different things contributed to our move to Charles Street, which was just a few blocks from the Read Street space. We were outgrowing the Read Street store. As Scott said, we were doing a lot of mail-order, and that required us to keep a lot of back stock. Joe, from Modern Music, had moved to a different neighborhood but wanted to open a second store, so he pitched the idea of sharing space. It seemed ideal. The Charles Street store was swanky. It had a chandelier, a huge gilded mirror, high ceilings, wood paneling, and a giant window at the front of the store. It was also high visibility and had tons of storage space. And, since we shared a certain number of customers with Modern Music, it made sense. So we set up shop in the front, and Modern Music sold goth and techno CDs in the back. It was fun for me… I had co-workers of a kind (aside from Scott), but I didn’t have to actually work with the Modern Music guys.
SCOTT: Charles Street was really swanky. Enough to pique the interest of the IRS, who decided to audit us just because they saw that we moved, were getting lots of press at the time, and were taking the internet by storm. They also somehow also assumed that we were connected to the online porn industry. They audited our files, stalked me a little, and ultimately figured out I was poor. When it was all over, they asked to take pictures of the signed porn star glossies in the bathroom that Tom Warner and I got when we covered adult video conventions for Atomic TV, the cable access television show we started producing in 1997.
SARAH: Ha! I didn’t realize that… Eventually Modern Music backed out. I don’t recall how long they stayed, but they left because they weren’t making enough money. And a fetish clothing store called Object took over their space. It seemed like a good fit in terms of customers. It was fun having the Object guys in there for a while, but the owner was a manic asshole, so it ran its course. Ultimately, we couldn’t afford the space on our own. The landlord was a prick, our roommate was a jerk (and he was going out of business), so we struck out on our own to Maryland Avenue.
MARK: Why Maryland Avenue?
SARAH: We chose the Maryland Avenue store in part because it was adjacent to the American Dime Museum (ADM), which our dear friend James Taylor had set up with a partner. That block of Maryland Avenue had been full of cramped antique/junk stores, and was pretty dead when we got there.
SARAH: It was cool for a while. We were still a bit of a destination with ADM next door, especially for fans of freaks and sideshows. (Lord knows there was no other reason to be on that block, unless you were on your way to buy crack.) We had some good events… I think we co-hosted a couple with ADM and/or Shocked and Amazed! events. Ellen Forney came by to do a slide show from her book Monkey Food. Ken Smith showed some “educational films” when his book Mental Hygiene came out. And we did an event with Shawna Kenney (I was a Teenage Dominatrix: A Memoir) and Keri Pentauk (the publisher and star of WhAP! Magazine, who had recently published her second book, Spanked Husbands, Satisfied Wives). Actually, when pressed to think about it, I have some nice memories from the Maryland Avenue store.
MARK: Where’d the slogan “Literary Finds for Mutated Minds” come from?
SCOTT: No idea. I resigned from my foodservice job and was working on opening the store and didn’t even have a name for it until a few weeks before. I just remember “Atomic Books” popping into my head. No idea why, but probably because I was always into that atomic kind of imagery from the ‘50s. I loved atomic scare films… I knew I wanted a slogan, but I didn’t have one ready. I got a neon sign made, and, shortly after that, the “Literary Finds” thing popped into my head. It was like in a cartoon. The figurative light bulb just popped on over my head, as I was standing in the shower.
SARAH: Scott was once featured in Baltimore Magazine as one of Baltimore’s “Most Eligible Bachelors.” I’m pretty sure he met his girlfriend, now wife, just after that.
MARK: If nothing else, that says a great deal about the dating pool of mid-’90s Baltimore…
SCOTT: I got one phone call as a result of that Baltimore Magazine article. Someone wanted to hook up their friend. I was so utterly horrified that I lied and said that I was dating someone. I was too shy to ask girls out. But I did manage to roll around with some pretty hot ladies during our “uptown” Charles Street era. I seem to recall drinking a lot of Cape Codders at Club Charles in my younger, pre-whiskey days. And I met my wife Kristin there!
SCOTT: No, Kristin was visiting from out of town. I was drunk and walked up to her. I said, “You’re really tall!” And, fifteen years later, she still gets irked when I repeat this story… If you want to talk about dating, you should ask Sarah. She’s got an extensive list of weirdo boyfriends.
MARK: On that subject, Sarah, didn’t something happen once at a City Paper party?
SARAH: They weren’t all weirdos! Some were just weird. Wait, which City Paper party? Due to the free booze, I don’t remember much about them. If you could tell me the year, though, I could probably tell you which weirdo boyfriend accompanied me. Was there something specific about this particular City Paper party that you’d heard?
SCOTT: Sarah remembers. She had a boyfriend who wanted so badly to get into a City Paper afterparty that he jumped a wooden fence and left Sarah to walk home from Fells Point to Bolton Hill, which is an incredibly long and dangerous walk.
[Check out Sarah’s route home the night of the City Paper party .]
SARAH: Actually, I lived in Reservoir Hill, which is on the other side of North Avenue, and even scarier. But, yup. That’s about all there was too that story… Well, I could add that I stopped at a the Mount Royal Tavern (a notorious hipster dive bar about a half mile from where I lived), ordered a beer, and, while I was waiting for my change, that same weirdo boyfriend turned up behind me, grabbed my beer, and dumped it over my head. He was pissed because I left with his house keys and his inhaler. He had to break into his own apartment to get his car keys and drive up to the Tavern to waste my precious $3 pint of Saranac Black & Tan. He’s dead now… The two events are unrelated.
SARAH: Carbon monoxide poisoning. Years later, and on the other side of the country. Completely unrelated to me.
MARK: Speaking of weirdos, did you ever regret building a business catering to people with “mutated” minds?
SCOTT: No, those years were absolutely wonderful. It was fun having the weirdos coming to us. I made a lot of friends.
MARK: Do you think, when you look at it objectively, that you may have opened Atomic Books to make friends?
SCOTT: Well it’s not like I opened a store just to sell zines. I already had good friends, but I did see an opportunity to open a shop selling stuff I was really into, and I did hope I would meet new people and make new friends that were just as excited about the zine revolution as I was. I really did think something big was happening with zines and comics.
The relationships we developed with zine people – those turned into unexpected friendships, which was nice. There were always crazy hand-written notes, art, gifts… zine people were royalty to us. It was fun when everyone in that group discovered the Internet. Lots of Internet interaction. I remember when there was actual traffic on alt.zines. I pissed off Aaron Cometbus once because I said Dishwasher was better and cheaper.
MARK: Your mention of zine people being royalty at Atomic reminds that Linette and I were once asked for our autographs there. I don’t know if you employed a guy to do that, just to make zine people feel good about themselves, but, if so, thanks. I’ve been recognized from Crimewave a total of three times over 20 years. Only once, though, was I ever asked for an autograph, and it happened as I bought zines at Atomic. Totally surreal.
SARAH: Crimewave USA sold well for us, so I’m not surprised. Plus, there were photos of you guys all over those zines, and your writing tone was so relatable. By the way, I’m pretty sure I’ve kept all of the Christmas cards you guys have sent to me over the years. (How did you get this address?) When I get more wall space, I really should get one or two of those drawings up on the walls.
MARK: How soon after the opening of Atomic did the first bankruptcy occur?
SCOTT: First bankruptcy was probably six months after the store opened. My rowhouse was foreclosed on, I filed Chapter 7, and then I moved back home into my mom’s basement. My mom and I were always tight, so she was cool with me moving home.
MARK: At any point, when you were sitting there, in your mother’s basement, did you consider going back to hospital food service?
SCOTT: Never. I was digging the indie bookstore lifestyle and I was really committed to what I was doing with my life. I was dying working in foodservice. The work didn’t interest me any longer. I had fun as a teen scooping ice cream, and partying every night, but I didn’t see myself as working in food service forever. Atomic Books was my escape pod, and it was my life back then.
MARK: Did the people you worked with at the hospital know that you were a weirdo, running home every night to read obscure zines and books about bearded ladies and money boys? Or was it a secret? And, if so, was opening Atomic Books kind of like coming out of the closet?
SCOTT: I kept it a secret. The few normal people that knew I opened a store always assumed it was a comic book store, because Atomic rhymes with comic. They’d always say “Oh, Comic Books!” I always left it at that. I liked living two separate lives, it was nice to be part of normal society once in a while. I liked the mullet lifestyle, doing the hipster in the city / redneck in the county thing. It’s fun to go to hipster dives and biker clubhouses. Plus, just trying to explain your niche interests to a normal person or a co-workers is so exasperating. Why bother? I couldn’t imagine going to a normal job and talking about the “zine explosion” with my co-workers. I think they would call security on me!
MARK: Was your mom supportive? Did she let you come up from the basement for dinner? I’m picturing the scene from The Wire where Bubbles has to move into his sister’s basement, and she locks the door leading upstairs so that he can’t come up and rob her.
SCOTT: Well… she let me move home! My mom, who passed away in 2007, was always super-supportive. I had the coolest mom in the world. Before I opened, she rode around with me looking for locations and talking to potential landlords with me. She helped lay out my ads and catalogs back when Mac Classics were gaining steam in desktop publishing. And when I filed for bankruptcy she looked at the back page of the newspaper, where the scariest ads are, and found a bankruptcy lawyer for me. Jack Hyatt. He was like Lionel Hutz from The Simpsons, only his practice was in his basement, not in a mall. I had to go there and sit in front of a ‘70s Radio Shack cassette player and listen to him explain the process on a hissy Ampex tape while he made phone calls on the other side of the room. Then I filled out some papers and waited for the court date. And, when I appeared in court, he’d sent some young lawyer-in-training in his place.
SARAH: Scott’s mom was wonderful. She treated me, and all of Scott’s weirdo friends, like family. She even had a few of her own weirdo friends… I mean, she did live in Essex.
SCOTT: After my mom died and I was going through her stuff I saw that she had clipped articles about Atomic Books and stuck them in my baby book.
MARK: That’s the sweetest thing ever, Scott… Back to the bankruptcy, I’m curious if you feel as though you got better at the business side of things after that.
SCOTT: I was always good at picking inventory. I was just horrible at paying the bills. And that never changed.
MARK: When did you join the Atomic family, Sarah?
SARAH: I joined the Family in July of 1995, when I was about 22.
MARK: When I used the word “family” I didn’t intend for it to sound so Mansony.
SARAH: Sorry… I did do that on purpose. True crime references die hard for me, especially incredibly dated ones. This, by the way, can make teaching about crime difficult. My college freshmen students don’t even know who Jeffrey Dahmer was.
MARK: Is it ever acceptable to make off-color jokes when lecturing about murder? Is there a rule of thumb about how many years have to pass before something’s considered fair game among academic criminologists?
SARAH: Ugh, I wish I knew. Though I don’t usually lecture about murder, sometimes true crime pop culture references make good examples; less so if no one knows the reference.
MARK: Why’d you hire Sarah, Scott? Do you remember her applying?
SCOTT: I think Sarah just came by to shop and we hit it off right away, I didn’t really hire her, I think she basically told me she was going to work there.
SARAH: That’s not exactly right, Scott. Yes, we hit it off right away. Scott and I became friends in 1993 when I visited the Read Street store for the first time and asked about Lydia Lunch books. I’m not sure I bought anything at that point, and I’m sure that I never bought much, but I kept coming back and hanging around. And, at some point, we started hanging out in other places. (Scott snuck me into a local dive bar for Jagermeister shots before I was 21, and later bought me my first legal drink at another local dive.) One day it came up that Scott was doing a lot of mail order, and that the person who’d been helping him pack everything up had been MIA for a little while. I’d been temping, and was out of work at the time. I’m pretty sure Scott offered me the gig, and eventually it became a regular thing, once I’d proven that I was willing to sit on the floor packing smut while surrounded by boric acid (for the roaches) and cans of Lysol (for the smelly nudist mag fans), and that I would do it for a nice, low wage.
MARK: You would spray down you customers with Lysol?
SARAH: Sometimes we sprayed the store after they left, if necessary… The Read Street store was really, really small – roughly the size of a large bathroom – and often smelled like one. The smell depended on the customers, truly, but we were lucky to have the new-agey store, Touch the Earth, on one side burning incense and the Baltimore Hemporium on the other burning… incense.
SCOTT: We had a drunk couple that lived above us… Jimmy and Joann. Once their toilet overflowed and poop water leaked through the ceiling and ruined a good part of the smut section. We managed to dry most of it out and sell it. Man, they would scream.
SARAH: When Jimmy and Joann finally moved out, the cockroaches went with them. Or rather, the cockroaches moved next door.
SCOTT: Crimewave certainly wasn’t paying our rent….
MARK: Well, I guess we have that in common.
SCOTT: Answer ME! was a huge seller… And we sold backstock of a lot of zines, like Murder Can Be Fun, Thrift Score, Crank, Hitch, Dishwasher, and Pathetic Life, Besmirched, Mystery Date and Crimewave.
SARAH: Don’t forget the BDSM lit and adult comics. That stuff kept us going pretty well, too.
SCOTT: We used to search out creepy smut… stuff even distros didn’t carry. Splosh! Hair To Stay. The Adult Baby catalog…
MARK: But you didn’t sell straight up porn, though, right? I’m curious as to where you drew the line… And what was Splosh?
SCOTT: Splosh was our bestselling magazine in ‘95. It was from the U.K.. Their slogan was, “The Wet and Messy Fun Mag.” Girls would do things like sit on a cherry pie, or put a can of Spaghetti-O’s in their undies, so you’d see this big glob of gelatinous pasta and sauce oozing through the elastic of their panties. Horrifying. We helped bring a new fetish to the U.S. and John Waters bought a copy and took it on the Tonight Show. I hope somewhere in Baltimore there are big-boned girls sitting in Lemon Meringue pies because of us.
SARAH: I don’t know that there was a line, as long as it was weird. At one point we were selling a ton of back-issue Celebrity Sleuths and Celebrity Skin magazines, and vintage porn too. We had a sweet line on a local warehouse full of back-issue porn, and they let us dig through their deadstock. That’s where we found basically new copies of autobiographies by Jayne Mansfield and Harry Reems, and a bunch of vintage paperbacks by Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines.
Actually, when I think about it, the only thing that approached the line for me that stands out was this CD package thing called Dana Plato’s Last Breath, put out by Michael Hunt Publishing. Why, why, why do I want to hear that? We still sold it, and people bought it.
MARK: So basically you made your money selling dirty magazines and books on how to kill people without getting caught… and zines were just a sideline… something you did maybe to feel better about yourselves.
SARAH: We sold zines to help zinesters feel better about themselves… And some of them, admittedly, were fun to read.
MARK: You guys were one of fewer than half a dozen stores in the country, back in the ‘90s, that did a good job of working with zine publishers. At least, as far as I can remember, you usually paid, and you were always nice to work with. From a business perspective, that must have been difficult, dealing with tons of individual zine people, many of whom probably weren’t so easy to work with. My guess is that it didn’t make great business sense, but yet you did it anyway, and I’ll always love you for that… Was there ever a point when you thought, zines are just too much damn work?
SCOTT: Sarah kept the zine consignments alive. I became overwhelmed. I think the zine publishers deserved a lot of credit – they always seemed to be cool with doing trades or waiting for payment when times were tight.
SARAH: There were only a few zinesters who made me feel like it wasn’t worth the work. Usually, we paid consignments when we needed to order more copies. It was a pain in the ass when some self-centered, uptight zinester, who was trying to make their rent, thought we weren’t paying them their $20 quickly enough, but that rarely happened. Also, eventually distributors like Desert Moon and See Hear picked up some of the zines that we sold, so we had fewer individual publishers to deal with, making it easier to manage.
MARK: Desert Moon went out of business owing us a lot of money. We’ve put out an issue or two since, but that was pretty much the end of Crimewave… I could blame it on the birth of our daughter, or just getting old, but I’d rather blame it on Desert Moon.
SARAH: I remember when Desert Moon was going under and pissing off the zine world at large. You weren’t the only ones.
MARK: How many different zines did you carry?
SARAH: I’m not sure I could count… We had a bunch of the classics and then we gave almost any zine that came through the mail a shot on the shelves for a little while.
MARK: What were your personal favorites?
SARAH: I wish I’d bought more zines and brought them home, so I’d have some kind of evidence of my favorites. I read a lot of per-zines and job-related (you know, when people would basically publish their journals), but my favorites were zines that made me want to do what the writers were doing, or that made me feel like I was learning something cool… so Dishwasher, Crimewave USA (for real), Mystery Date, Murder Can Be Fun, Thrift Score, Guinea Pig Zero, Infiltration, East Village Inky.
MARK: Creepiest customer?
SARAH: Too many to count, but a couple off the top of my head… The hobbit who washed his hands until they were bright red and confessed to me that he was a closet nudist. The fat guy(s) who crawled out of their mothers’ basements in their urine-soaked clothes to buy vintage nudist magazines. The business suit guy who passed a note to me from his imaginary dominatrix asking me to make sure he was wearing his “training bra” and to call her if he wasn’t being respectful. (I called. It was a machine.) Another guy who called the store looking for a dom and tried to convince me I should read Camille Paglia.
[Click here to read the infamous training bra note.]
SCOTT: Sarah should tell the story about Joby Palczynski – the murderer we kicked out of the store, who wanted to box me outside the Charles Street location.
SARAH: I barely remember the actual incident. Joby Palczynski was a spree murderer from Essex (I think) who killed his girlfriend’s parents, went on the run for a week or so, and then held the girlfriend, and maybe some others, hostage. Police killed him during a raid on the place where he was holed up. I thought he looked like a guy we kicked out of our Charles Street location – either for being drunk or for mishandling the erotica. Probably both.
MARK: How does one mishandle erotica?
SARAH: Rolling back the covers of magazines or generally being rough with it.
SCOTT: It wasn’t erotica that he mishandled. It was a Loompanics book. Their cheap covers would smudge, dog-ear, and fall apart. Those cheap beige cardstock covers. They would get filthy just from finger grease.
MARK: What did you do, Scott, when Joby challenged to you to fight in the street?
SCOTT: Picked up the phone in front of him and called 911. I wasn’t going to fight him. I think I’ve only been in only one tussle in my life. I wonder if it really was Joby? It’s not like he was the only short, angry and overly-aggressive guy in Baltimore.
SARAH: Wait, wasn’t there a guy who called you “Four-Eyes,” Scott? Was that the same incident?
SCOTT: That was a different guy. And he was also manhandling the books! Tom Warner and I were filming the Federal Hill festival like a year later and that same guy barged past me and called me “Four-Eyes” again. Then he added “Fatso!” for the zinger. Talk about a grudge!
MARK: Who were your best shoplifters?
MARK: Biggest zine pain-in-the-ass?
SARAH: There was that one zine guy early on who was annoying as hell but for the life of me I can’t who or why. Scott, I’m sure you remember…
SCOTT: Tim Krieder? His comic was The Pain When Will It End and every time he came in the store I would just think that title in my head. He would show up every week looking for his consignment payment, and we’re talking about maybe a dollar. And he’d want that dollar, so you’d have to pull out the accordion file and find his sheet… Oh, the pain… Tim has since gone on to a stunning career and his New York Times opinion pieces are always insightful and well-written.
This guy who did The Last Prom – Ralph Coon – I remember him sending me a pissy note because I was late sending him money and from then on it was payment up front for him! His zine was exceptional, though, so I didn’t let it bug me. Tim Krieder really didn’t bug me either.
MARK: Any other zine folks you’d like to vent about?
SCOTT: There was the guy from Negative Capability. He said the following in an online review:
“Scott was a total dick who took way too long to pay me and I’ll never forget that. If you only have to do one thing to make me happy (pay me for zines you have sold) and you can’t do that one thing, you should find another line of work. I hope people read this when they google you, dude. Everyone in the zine business is a ripoff artist but at least you know that with the major magazine distributors, you expect more from a ‘fan’ of zines.”
It probably took me six months after I closed, but I did eventually pay that bill. So there! But most zine people didn’t chase us down and let us slide for the few dollars we owed them after we closed.
SARAH: That’s who I was thinking of.
MARK: Wait. So, if I’d bugged you at the end, you would have eventually paid up? Has the statute of limitations expired, or is there still time for me start being a pain-in-the-ass?
SCOTT: Actually, when you go bankrupt no one is allowed to bother you! You get a free pass. Jack Hyatt gave me a photocopied “automatic stay” letter to send out to creditors, if anyone mailed me late notices, etc. I would just send the photocopy. My asshole Charles Street landlord was still sending me certified notices after we closed the Maryland Ave. store, and I loved sending those back. The truth there is that he had a hooker/meth-head secretary who was stealing our rent from him. And she had her friend living in a dirt crawl space underneath our rear exit. I crawled down there once to reset the circuit breaker and there was a mattress and a five-gallon bucket full of poop and pee!
MARK: Linette and I came through Baltimore once or twice to say hello. Did a lot of zine folks stop in? Any memorable visits?
SCOTT: Dishwasher Pete slept on the floor. So did Zamora, the “Torture King” from the Jim Rose sideshow… Jeff Koyen from Crank visited the store, hung out, left to find a tattoo shop, and then came back so we could go get drunk on National Premium Darks at The Mt. Royal Tavern… Neil Gaiman showed up with an entourage before a Princess Mononoke screening. He was great. He hung out in the store, shopped, and shared candy and popcorn with us… The guy who did Beer Frame stopped by the store, chatted, and then asked where he could go to get an authentic steamed crab experience. Not necessarily the best steamed crabs, but the best-looking place to eat them.
We had some pretty cool people come through town for signings. Outsider artist Joe Coleman, Duplex Planet’s David Greenberger, Hate’s Peter Bagge, Andy Warhol star Taylor Mead. The line for the Peter Bagge signing stretched outside all day long. No one showed for the Taylor Mead signing… Peter Bagge drew me yelling at hipsters that day.
SARAH: I don’t think Neil Gaiman did a signing, but he did let us ride in the limo with him to the premiere of Princess Mononoke at the Charles Theater, which was like two blocks away… Dishwasher Pete stopped by a few times. He stayed with me in my crappy studio apartment at least once, and later he and a friend of his made us dinner, which was nice. Pete was hands-down the best houseguest and zinester ever (aside from those Crimewave USA kids, of course). We also hosted the folks from Bunnyhop and Ben is Dead, Al Hoff from Thrift Score, Larry from Genetic Disorder, and some other folks on the Kill Zinesters tour. And, of course, Jim Goad came by after he was released from prison, when Redneck Manifesto came out.
MARK: I’m interviewing Pete right now, actually. Is there anything that I should ask him?
SARAH: Ask him if he misses me as much as I miss him… Kidding. Though I do feel kind of proud and excited when I hear about what he’s up to, or happen upon his latest book. (His book In the City of Bikes is on my nightstand now.) I’m so thrilled by his success and envious of his path in life, which is really a testament to his writing. OK, I’ll stop gushing.
SCOTT: I missed Pete both times he’s done signings at the new Atomic. First time my mom was dying. Second time I think I was out of town. Really.
MARK: Well, he has a question for you, Sarah… He wants to know if any customers ever offered to pay you to clean your apartment.
SCOTT: Sarah had the submissive man clean her apartment. I remember that!
SARAH: Umm… Yes – the Camille Paglia fan. I hate doing floors and washing dishes, and he seemed to enjoy it. There was nothing sexual about it, though, at least on my end. I just took his money and let him clean… But Dishwasher Pete washed my dishes when he stayed with me, and he was the best at it.
MARK: Did you know John Waters before opening Atomic?
SCOTT: Not at all. We became friends through the store. We were both into these weird books. He showed up the Saturday after our Black Friday opening. I asked him to sign a pitifully tiny pile of about five books and he did! And he said if I ever needed him to sign more just to let him know. Eventually I’d order cases at a time. The poor man. He was very sweet to us. Every book he signed was like him handing us a five dollar bill to pay the rent. It added up. And he never complained. Now Atomic has to put post-it notes in the books exactly where he’s supposed to sign, to make it easier for him. I think they get pallets of books signed.
MARK: Any interesting Waters stories you’d be willing to share?
SCOTT: When John finally got on the Internet, we’d email each other a lot. I made him crazy sending him stuff, like a Usenet post I found by someone who basically said they saw John Waters parading around Baltimore in a top hat and cape or something like that. He may wear some questionable jackets, but I’ve never seen him in a cape. Or a top hat.
SCOTT: I don’t know how the mail thing started. I guess people just assumed that, since he shopped there, he’d get letters sent to him there. So we just put a cardboard box on the side. Now he goes on TV shows and mentions it. He mentions it in his books. Once or twice he’s mentioned to me that Atomic Books gets his fan mail, and I just have to look at him and say, “Well, duh!”
SCOTT: I would bug Pat Moran about being an extra in stuff, just because I was interested in how the film industry worked. When John told me he was filming a scene at The Atlantis (which was this really cool gay strip club next to the prison) I asked him if I could be in the “Fudge Palace” tea-bagging scene. In the DVD commentary he points me out as the only straight extra on set.
MARK: And you’ve done other movies with John as well, right?
SCOTT: In Cecil B. Demented I was in the jerk-off scene at the Apex adult theater in Fells Point, which also closed down. Then, in A Dirty Shame, I was one of the sex addicts that spelled out the word “SEX” on the street.
MARK: I don’t remember the jerk-off scene. Was it you doing the jerking-off?
SCOTT: We were all “pretending” to be jerking off, but I heard that some of the more dedicated actors were actually handling their junk. There’s nothing worse, by the way, than being stuck in a porn theater all day long, under bright lights. There was so much crusted up jizz on the back of the seats. It was horrifying. Later I found photos online of a swinger couple who would go to the Apex with a camera. The husband would take pictures as movie-goers “unloaded” on his well-dressed wife’s face. How cosmopolitan!
MARK: Speaking of John, wasn’t there something on Facebook a few weeks ago, like a video of you hiding in his shower?
SCOTT: I wasn’t hiding. We’d stopped by his house, and I used his bathroom. And there was the ugly sportcoat he wore during his holiday shows and his X-mas party, his Comme des Garcons designer jacket, just hanging there in the shower. It looked like a dirty bath mat and it looked like a still life, so I did the dickish thing and took a photo and posted it. But not to the public, like you’re doing! I wish they made jackets like that in my size. Could you imagine what the world would be like if we all dressed like John Waters?
MARK: Are you still acting? I think, the last I heard on the subject, you were playing a corpse on Homicide.
SCOTT: Nope, my “career” was short-lived… Plus it was insufferable hanging out with other extras. But I loved that Pat Moran let me do it.
And I wasn’t a corpse on Homicide. I was pushing a corpse on a gurney. And the corpse was actually a love doll. I was also a mental case in Species 2. I’m hunched over playing with a hunk of Play-doh. I was the only extra who was allowed to wear the same clothes he showed up in. In between takes, Michael Madsen and I were tossing the Play-doh back and forth.
I was also an extra in some Maryland Lottery commercials. I played a Doobie Brothers roadie in one, and I was a flea market customer at Bengies Drive-In in another. Steve Buscemi’s brother starred in that one. Looked just like him.
And there’s someone that sounds suspiciously like me playing a pirate captain at piratesofessex.com.
SCOTT: Yeah, I was on The Wire. I was a suspicious stevedore at the cargo docks. That was my last acting gig… unless Pat, or her assistant Emily, make the call.
MARK: So at some point, after moving the business a few times, you sold Atomic, right? When was that? And what were the circumstances?
SCOTT: Sarah was going to college and my heart just wasn’t in it anymore, I was filing for my second bankruptcy and just wanted a clean break. Benn (Ray) had been a great customer since the Read Street days. I knew him during his Jesus phase and his Fifties lounge lizard phase and was a huge fan of his email zine The Mobtown Shank. Then Rachel (Whang) moved from Indiana to Baltimore. They’d hooked up online somehow. They asked about taking over Atomic after we announced that we were closing… it was totally unexpected. And I’d known Benn long enough that I knew it was a perfect match. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me in the first place. Anyway, I asked them for a dollar in exchange for the business, so that everything would be legal and the tax people wouldn’t have any reason to hassle me. They’ve done a lot more with Atomic than I ever could have. I’m really proud of that, like a drunken father who skips town on his kid without paying child support.
SCOTT: It was like Alan Moore handing off Miracleman to Neil Gaiman.
MARK: As of a few weeks ago, Atomic Books has a bar… Why didn’t you ever do that?
SCOTT: We needed bars to go to after work, not at work! Folks would come in, buy their zines, shoot the shit a little and then leave. Nowadays you really do need to add a social element to what you do to maintain a successful business. The whole thing with Facebook, Millennials, special social snowflakes, I dunno… people need to feel involved. Back then we didn’t need to do that. Benn and Rachel do a crazy amount on in-store events, so selling beer and wine was a natural addition. I bet it’s easier to sell a beer than a zine. Sarah and I would have had nothing but scary people hanging around if we had a bar back then. It wouldn’t have been viable and, honestly, I never thought about us as anything more than a book/zine/comic shop. The old Atomic embraced the Internet – the new Atomic has embraced the social experience of the Internet. They’re on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Foursquare, Untapped… I wonder if they have a Pinterest page? They mutated and evolved, and they’re surviving. And they’re doing well in a market I could never have imagined. I applaud that. Those guys work harder at everything. I think Sarah and I were too shy and antisocial. We just wanted people to buy their stuff and get the hell out, unless they were cool. Then they could hang.
For every cool customer we had there would be their bizarro counterpart who would just suck up your time. Time vampires. They would suck you dry. You couldn’t even sneak out to get lunch because they would just be standing there reading every effin’ thing on the shelves for free. I would crank up Laibach’s “Get Back” to chase them out.
Back then people bought zines and comics. They bought “stuff.” Now they seem to be more into buying “experiences.” If you can slap a fancy name on it, you got a customer. Artisanally composed and curated farm-to-table. I bet you if you grew and cut your own trees, made them into paper with handmade tools, scrivened the text using your own blood for ink, and stitched it with human hair, you could bring back Crimewave, and make money at it. People seem to be more into the process than the product.
And, if I’d opened a bar in the store, it would have had cats..
SCOTT: I always feel like an alien. I’m in such shock. I’m thinking, “I had something to do with THIS?” It’s so much more than I ever expected. Benn and Rachel have the drive and business smarts that I just did not possess. They’re are pretty invincible. I can’t imagine what life would have been like if we had to compete with Amazon and deal with Facebookers.
SARAH: When I go in I think, damn, I still can’t afford this stuff! I need a job hanging out at the store on Thursday afternoons so I can catch up on 15 years of zines and comics.
MARK: Have there been Atomic reunions?
SARAH: Benn and Rachel had a 20th Anniversary party in 2012, which was kinda like a high school reunion, except 90% of the guests were post-2000, when Scott closed up shop.
SCOTT: We hid in the corner observing. We knew our time had passed and we were just the weird grandparents who showed up early and left early. It was fun watching the karaoke performances and the food was fantastic.
I have an annual barbecue, which is sort of an Atomic reunion. A lot of the old Atomic people show up, artists, people in bands, etc. Sarah never attends.
SARAH: Scott, I swear I’ll come this year, if you can do it on Memorial Day, before I move.
SCOTT: It’s always the first Saturday of July, sorry!
SARAH: Feh. I’ll be gone by then.
MARK: While it sounds like Benn and Rachel have turned Atomic into something perhaps more sustainably awesome, is there anything that you miss about the old place? For instance, my guess is that they no longer have the devil baby mummy head, or whatever it was that you had in the glass box by the cash register? And how about all of the old freakshow posters? Do any of those still exist in the store?
SCOTT: When they moved Atomic to its first Hampden location they had some freak banners and posters, but they simply ran out of space.
SARAH: I miss the Read Street store like you miss your childhood bedroom. The sights, smells, and flavors… I miss the cases of Jolt, Tasty Cakes, and the (real) baby in the jar that Scott kept in the horrid bathroom there. (I think he was afraid to take it home.)
SCOTT: I miss the cool customers. Our coolest, coolest customers, without a doubt, both in-store and by way of mailorder, were always zine fans. I miss all the contact with zine people. There were so many notes and letters and art and stuff going back and forth in the mail with our zine orders. Some of that contact we’ve gotten back on Facebook.
SARAH: Larry Farber, I miss you!
SCOTT: I still get attacked by some of the old Atomic time vampires twenty years later, who won’t stop talking about stuff. But, every once in a while, someone will come up and say, “Hey, I discovered Atomic, I bought this or that, and it changed my life in this way.” That’s always cool. Scary cool. Like 15 year-old kids who we let sneak in have these crazy remembrances and stories. And once in a blue moon someone will buy me a drink and say, “Thank you,” and that freaks me out. But it’s really sweet.
MARK: As some point in the evolution of Atomic, there was also a television show – Atomic TV. How’d that come about? And what can you tell us about it?
SCOTT: Tom Warner is my heterosexual life partner. We met at a City Paper party. My brother was at the bar and told me he thought this weird dude may have been hitting on him. But my brother was being paranoid – it was just Tom Warner, Man About Town, trying to strike up a conversation.
To do the community access thing, we had to take video editing classes at Coppin State University, which is a primarily black college on the west side of town. We were scared to death. But the guys teaching there were great. The folks that ran the video department were gruff. They would give us hell for sneaking in nudity and curse words. We eventually figured out that they dug us. One of our mentors there, Dr. Ron Israel, was a dentist who made Edith Massey two sets of fake teeth when her last tooth fell out. One set was nice. The other recreated her famous snaggle-tooth look.
Now Tom and I do the baltimoreorless.com website, which once again is all about archiving weird shit.
MARK: Give me an example of the weird shit you’re documenting?
SCOTT: Speaking of weird shit… Elvis had to stop a concert in Baltimore so he could poop.
I had this bulletin board at the first store where I’d post weird news clippings. Then people would start bringing their own in. With Baltimore Or Less we post a lot of weird Baltimore history stuff. And we scour the local news and web for odd stories that have a unique Baltimore angle. They usually involve a “Baltimoron” doing something stupidly Baltimorean, and there were just as many in the olden days as there are now. It’s nice to have no deadline, and to just put together stuff you’re interested in when you feel like posting it. It’s still in that Atomic Books format where you group stuff into weird categories – instead of Sleaze and Mayhem and Human Oddities we have Baltimorons and Oysters and Bizarre Deaths and Burlesque. Tom and I are paper hoarders so it’s nice to post something you’ve been sitting on for 20-30 years and get it out of your system. Plus, our memories are fading so it’s easier to post something online so we won’t forget. It’s purely a selfish project but people seem to get a kick out of it.
I really like working with Tom on stuff because I’ve always been a fan of his writing. He was a Baltimore City Paper contributor and he worked on their “Baltimore Babylon” article, which was a huge influence. Who knew Baltimore was so weird?
MARK: Way before the likes of Jackass, and you had guys packing their urethras with bottle rockets and lighting them off.
SCOTT: The best part of Atomic was the people we’d meet. The store was a hub to meet fellow weirdos. Since we were a niche store all we met were weirdos… the logical transition was to put these weirdos on City Cable. As for the bottle rocket thing, that was “Penile Knievel.” And the woman seen jumping over John Waters to get into my lap in the photo above ended up marrying him. Smalltimore.
MARK: I can’t remember who it was who told me this… It may have been Jad Fair… But someone once told me that Baltimore had an inordinate amount of weirdos because of the heavy metals in the crabs.
SARAH: Heavy metal crabs is weird.
MARK: I don’t know if you thought of it as a zine, but Atomic also used to put out a catalog, which, if I recall correctly, had a few article and things. I think I’ve actually got an issue or two in the basement.
SARAH: It was kind of like a zine. I think part of how I got my job at Atomic was because Scott needed time to put together the catalog, which usually involved original artwork, interviews, other stuff. Also a lot of scanning. Tons and tons of scanning.
SCOTT: Back when a scanner cost over $500. And digital cameras cost over $500. Our first web site and dial-up provider cost us hundreds of dollars a month. Being on the Internet was costly back in those days. Everything was expensive back then. I still remember the thrill of the store’s first 5-disc cd changer. I could play Kiss and Devo!
MARK: You were also doing a little publishing on the side too, right? Weren’t you involved in putting out the journal of freak culture Shocked and Amazed!?
SCOTT: Yes, I’ve been buddies with James Taylor since the beginning of Atomic. The first week I was open this mutton-chopped weirdo wearing a cape-like cloak shows up and starts piling up every freak book I had on the counter. I didn’t expect him to buy all of them! He looked like a character from Barry Levinson’s Avalon. Boy he was a talker! This was my introduction to James Taylor. James was a poet, and a small-press publisher. He worked nearby and was always in the store picking up stuff for his archives so it was natural that Atomic would play part in the birth of Shocked and Amazed!.
My mom helped build the template for the first issue. I got to proofread. Atomic handled all the mail-order and distribution. It was really a big deal. James Taylor really helped boost Atomic up to the next level. He really went out of his way to help us. Shocked and Amazed helped keep Atomic Books afloat.
Being that tied into the world of freaks was really fun. We sponsored the Jim Rose Sideshow. We got to feature sideshow gaffs and attractions in the store. And we had one of the best collections of freak show books in the country for sale on our shelves. We were probably the leading freak book store in the country. We were selling everything. Freak books, zines, trading cards, Mutter Museum calendars, freak magnets, freak lunchboxes. The golden era of freaks.
MARK: I’m not familiar with that bit. What did you do in the box?
SARAH: It was one of those tricks where you put someone in a big box and then slice them up into small pieces with big, wide blades. I was the only one who could fit in the box.
MARK: Did you both grow up in Baltimore? What was the city like back then?
SCOTT: I grew up in and never left Baltimore County which is much different than Baltimore City. The city was scary and Read Street was like a ghost town. We were a destination store. You could look outside and see our customers a block away.
SARAH:: I was an Army brat and landed in Baltimore when I dropped out of college in Colorado. (My family had been transferred to Maryland.) I sort of came of age in Baltimore in the 1990s. I lived in a pretty bad neighborhood near MICA and walked to work when I first started at Atomic, and later the house I rented in Fells Point shared a wall with a crack den (I swear they moved in after I did). It’s easy to say Baltimore City was scary back then, but it was the mid 1990s when crime everywhere was insanely high. It was cool, though, because there was a decent sized music & art scene that seemed unique to Baltimore – it always felt like an outsider-art type scene and Atomic Books fit in nicely with that.
MARK: What are you both doing now? I seem to recall, Sarah, that you’re engaged in research which has shown that criminals who have children are less likely to engage in criminal activity. Is that right?
SCOTT: I work in IT for Johns Hopkins University. I like working in a non-profit atmosphere. I actually did learn valuable skills at Atomic that I could use in the real world.
SARAH: I’m finishing up my dissertation in Criminology & Criminal Justice and just was hired for a tenure-track assistant professor position in the Arctic/Upper Midwest. (I start in the fall.) My dissertation research is about how young adult offenders who engage in parenting the children they have tend to desist from crime.
MARK: So we should get at-risk youth pregnant if we want to keep them from crime?
SARAH: Rather than encourage people to have kids, the policy implication is that, whether they have kids or not, we need to institute social and economic structures that help at-risk young adults not sell drugs, and, therefore, not get ensnared in the criminal justice system.
MARK: How has Baltimore changed since the opening of Atomic?
SCOTT: There’s a lot more hipsters! People weren’t wearing skinny jeans and waxing their mustaches when Atomic opened. I was probably still wearing acid-wash jeans.
SARAH: I haven’t lived there in eight years, but I’m willing to bet there are just as many hipsters as there always were. They just all live in (or at least shop in) highly-visible Hampden now rather than the half-dozen or so neighborhoods and suburbs they used to live in. Scott, you’ve been complaining about hipsters since 1992.
SCOTT: Just mentioning the word hipster makes Benn and Rachel crazy. They are either very protective of their clientele, or I’m hopelessly clueless. They have some sort of hipster radar. All you have to do is type that word on Facebook, and Benn immediately responds like he’s answering a call on a red telephone. He’s going to count how many times we use that word in this interview, I’m telling you now. You might need to do a Readers Digest condensed version that’s less inflammatory and mentions hipsters 13 fewer times.
SARAH: Haha! You are totally going to catch shit for that.
MARK: What are you both wearing at this very moment?
SARAH: Pajama pants and a Wu’s Livestock Discount Meats t-shirt (thriftscore + Deadwood reference = awesome). [addendum – Over a week has passed since I first answered this question, and I’m still wearing those pajama pants.]
SCOTT: A cotton/poly blend short sleeve shirt, Dockers-like pants, Santa Claus-like Sanuk boots inside of rubber Totes (not as a fashion statement, but because it snowed this weekend).
MARK: Scott, you were mentioning to me a few days ago that some of the old school zine folks were dead. I know about Ninjalicious from Infiltration, who died a few years ago from cancer, but you mentioned someone getting chewed up beneath a jet ski. Who was that?
SCOTT: Mr. Apology.
MARK: The name doesn’t ring a bell… What was his zine about?
MARK: And what exactly happened to him? How’d he come to be under a jet ski?
SCOTT: It was a diving accident. Evidently he was an avid diver, and a jet skier ran over him when he was coming up for air or something.
MARK: It might be in really bad taste to suggest this, but I can’t help but think how interesting it would have been to put out a final issue containing the apology of the person who was riding the jet ski.
MARK: I remember that, toward the end, there was a webcam where I could watch you standing around at the counter. That was kind of weird. I’d watch sometimes, but I was always afraid that I’d see you get robbed… Did you ever get robbed?
SCOTT: Sarah did!
MARK: What happened, Sarah? And was this the event, perhaps, that made you decide to get out of retail and into criminology?
SARAH: Yes, being robbed (and then mugged that same month) did contribute to my interest in criminology, as did just being in Baltimore and working downtown in the late 1990s. Trying to get out of retail came much later.
I was robbed the first November I worked at Atomic, so 1995 and before the webcam. I was working by myself at the Read Street store, reading comic books because it was dead slow, and a big guy in a black puffy parka came in and handed me a note. I was used to customers handing me slips of paper – usually shopping lists, sometimes the customer was deaf (I’m sorry, hearing impaired) – so when the guy handed me the note, I didn’t think much of it until I saw that it said something like, “I have a gun. Empty the register.” So I hit the button to open the register and hit the silent alarm button at the same time (they were on either side of the register drawer – genius!), and gave him the cash. I have no idea how much it was, but it wasn’t much. But then the guy said, “You’re going to come with me to the corner and then I’m going to let you go.” So we walked toward a busier street, he asked me my name and I told him, and then he let me go. I ran to the store next to us, the Hemporium, home of the “Marijuana Mama” and where a bunch of ravers worked, and told them I’d been robbed, then headed next door to meet the cops and call Scott. The police dusted for fingerprints (none) I looked at mugshots (I couldn’t ID the guy), and over the next couple of weeks the same guy knocked off a half-dozen other businesses around us. I think they eventually caught him, but I have no idea.
This was all before the webcam. But the webcam never seemed to stop other people from being weird.
MARK: Are there any folks who used to be associated with Atomic, either employees or kids who used to come in and buy stuff, who have gone on to do awesome stuff? And, if so, does that make you proud, knowing that you helped in some way?
SARAH: Actually, I have no idea about kids. If they did, I wish they’d drop us a line and tell us. The Atomic part-timers have done cool stuff. Alice, rest in peace, was a Shock Trauma nurse. And Carl moved to Brooklyn to be a hipster. He works for Jeff Koons in his factory-like studio. He also worked with Yoko Ono on her recent art show (according to Scott). And he worked in animation, on Adult Swim’s Superjail. He also does both standup and web comedy when he isn’t busy being a pussy magnet. As a matter of fact, that’s what his business card said. Pussy Magnet. Chris is a philosophy professor. Gina Coffman who was our design queen works at a Texas college. Bob Kathman and Steve Blickenstaff continue to be artists. Bill Koch and Sean Carton, who helped introduce us to the world of the Internet still are involved with the Internet. I’m sure I missed someone. This is overwhelming.
SCOTT: I made some lifelong friends on Read Street. That’s pretty incredible, that there’s a core group of cool people who are now old and that I can invite to BBQ’s every year. Read Street had a vibe of being “underground.” I know that sounds corny. But it was gritty, the store was gritty. And we made a lot of zine friends we’re still in touch with. I love reading my zine friends’ posts on Facebook… I guess we really should be doing something productive like archiving old zines.
SARAH: I got to meet so many people I never would have imagined meeting and do and see things I wouldn’t have known existed without Atomic Books (and, by association, James Taylor’s Shocked & Amazed). Honestly, I loved nearly everything about the old Atomic days, and it was a tough decision to leave. Again, corny as it sounds, Scott was my family and the store shaped my life then, as well as now.
SCOTT: Once Sarah told me she was going back to school, I decided to close. Things were rough at that time business-wise. I was going through yet another tax audit, bill collectors were chasing us down (“Mis-ter Pel-li-Cone”… as he would pronounce into the telephone) I was discouraged and I just didn’t have to heart to go it alone. Sarah was a big reason I kept plugging along. She was the best work-wife ever. She’s a Taurus. We argued back and forth all day like an old married couple. Once she said she was leaving, I decided I wanted a fresh start.
SARAH: Aww, thanks Scott.
SARAH: I was sick over Scott closing the store and the thought that it might be related to my departure. I think it was the right time, though. It was like we’d been running from the law, and the law finally caught up to us. I think we were both tired of struggling and I think we agreed that Atomic wouldn’t have survived in the Maryland Avenue space much longer anyway. Our neighbor, the American Dime Museum (which enticed us to that spot) had closed up shop, and the block felt like a ghost town. We had a buzzer on the door to let customers in, and it was almost always dead slow. The space itself always creeped me out… The previous tenant, an antique dealer, died in the shop.
SCOTT: In the back office, by my desk, there was a big discoloration on the linoleum floor, like something heavy and full of liquid just sat there for a long time, eating through the floor and causing it to bubble up. I’m pretty sure that’s where the guy died.
SARAH: I’m certain it was. So creepy.
SARAH: Are you talking A-list or D-list?
MARK: Let’s start A-list and work our way down.
SARAH: Andre Braugher came into the Charles Street store and bought a copy of the zine CopPorn, and an issue of Hate comics. And Penn Jillette wanted to talk to me about nurse porn because he said was seeing a nurse. And I’m pretty damn sure it was Linda Blair who came in and chatted with me about Vargas on Maryland Avenue. I can’t confirm that last one, but I had just seen her in a “Save the Animals” informercial when it happened, so I feel pretty confident.
SCOTT: A guy came in claiming to be the assistant to Orlando Jones, looking for a discount for his boss. This is perhaps the most pathetic case of name-dropping ever. Hmm…
MARK: Speaking of Andre Braugher, I may have imagined it, but I’d swear that Jeffrey Pratt Gordon, who you mentioned earlier in the interview, and did props for Homicide, once told me that there’s a scene in which Braugher’s character can be seen removing a copy of Crimewave from a mailbox. I might have dreamed it. Or Jeffrey may have been kidding. Or maybe it really happened, and I’ve just never seen it. But it’s a cool story…
SCOTT: I’m sure Jeff did. He told me he turned Bob Kathman’s Atomic Books alien girl bookmarks into a matchbook for OZ.
MARK: Any other famous customers you care to talk about?
SCOTT: Closer to D-list, Carrot Top visited the Charles Street store on my day off. I think he made some kind of joke to Sarah about buying porn…
SARAH: Shit, I don’t remember that.
MARK: Any other good memories?
SARAH: One of the best parts of working at Atomic was the access it gave me. I met so many cool people that I never would have dreamed of meeting (and really had no right to) – zinesters, comic book authors, artists, performers – either at the store or through my association with Atomic and Shocked and Amazed. Two things that I can’t believe I got to do: Gretchen Worden gave me, James Taylor, Kathleen Kotcher, and my then-boyfriend Brian (who is alive and well, and not a weirdo, by the way, but whom I met at the store nonetheless), a behind-the-scenes tour of the Mutter Museum vaults. And I was James’ “plus-one” at artist Joe Coleman’s side-show themed wedding at the American Visionary Arts Museum. Aside from being the coolest wedding imaginable, I inadvertently got to tail Danny Elfman through the museum beforehand, saw Gerald V. Casale, and was kissed by a happy-to-see-me-again Joe Coleman. (Looking at photos from the wedding, I still can’t believe the amazing guest list.) I did that! I was a dumb, shy, awkward kid, but I got to do that stuff. How cool is that?
MARK: Any regrets?
SCOTT: Nope, I think it’s where I was supposed to be at that time. I feel like I did something good for Baltimore. It was a chapter of my life. I think Sarah and I both stuck it out through the natural end of that version’s lifecycle and Benn and Rachel came along just in time to revive and reinvent it. I still get an employee discount, so I’m happy. I do miss Read Street.
SARAH: None. I’m with Scott – I felt like I was a part of something and that I somehow accomplished something with my time there, even if materially it was just disseminating depravity and mayhem to a small and scattered mass around the world. But I think I might not have gotten an employee discount last time I was in there…
SCOTT: Zines were really starting to fizzle out at the end of the ‘90s. So many great zines (and comics) just weren’t coming out that often, if they were coming out at all. We kinda were relying on the smut way too much to keep the store open and to keep the few cool zines left on the shelves. It was the end of a great era. Of course it would bounce back, but the end of the ‘90s… ugh. Towards the end we got caught in that trap of selling too many tchotchkes, too much Archie McPhee, we went a little overboard with the stuff vs. the “literary finds.”
MARK: To borrow Sarah’s imagery, Scott, are you now the guy who crawled out of his mother’s basement in urine-soaked clothes to buy vintage nudist magazines, freaking out the staff?
SCOTT: That sounds like something someone on LSD would do. Thirty years later I’m not exactly sure what sort of crazy-ass thing I’d do if I took LSD again, but it would probably involve some sort of small business…
[above: A letter sent by a concerned mom after having discovered her son’s unhealthy obsession with Atomic Books.]
[note: If you like what you’ve read and want more about the underground press and the people behind it, be sure to check the other interviews in the History of Zines series.]
SCOTT: Sarah, do you think Mark realized what he was getting himself into when he asked us for an interview? He must be exhausted!
SARAH: I wasn’t sure what he was getting himself into. Do you think anyone is going to read it all the way to the end? Maybe we should include a bonus track here – something obscene or stupid to reward the poor suckers who waded through all of this.
SCOTT: I feel like Mark transferred his OCD onto us via this interview. I’ve been wide awake at nights remembering stuff. Last night I dreamed I had a pile of mail-order at Friendly’s that I had to take to the post office and I was wearing my Friendly’s uniform. This interview has brought back all sorts of work stress. But I’m starting to feel a sense of closure.
SARAH: I just keep dreaming about hair dryers.
SCOTT: I do love hair dryers. Why didn’t I open a store selling those?
MARK: If you really want to know what this experience was like for me, there’s video.
SARAH: Next time you’ll have to bring scuba gear. Thanks for putting up with us, Mark. This was fun.