Twenty-One Boxes of Back Issues: A Summer of Preserving Literary History
Every editor has a stack of boxes somewhere in her home: extra copies of the current issue of the journal and boxes of back issues. Many journals have a rented storage unit with even more boxes. We bring them to conferences and readings to sell copies, sometimes at steep discounts. We strive to keep the print run low enough to have only a modest amount on hand for back issue sales but enough to sell until the next issue publishes. It is a delicate balance.
What happens to these old issues when the journal folds? Should they simply be recycled? What if the journal was an enormously influential feminist journal from the 1970s and 1980s? Can those old issues find a home with new readers today?
In the case of Conditions, a feminist magazine of writing by women with a particular emphasis on writing by lesbians, the answer was yes. I spent part of my summer finding a home for the back issues of Conditions. I want to share why I did it and invite others to participate actively in preserving literary history.
Four feminist writers, Rima Shore, Irena Klepfisz, Elly Bulkin, and Jan Clausen, started Conditions in Brooklyn, NY in 1976. Operating as an editorial collective, the four founders published one issue a year. In the late 1970s, the collective recruited Barbara Smith and Lorraine Bethel to edit Conditions: Five (The Black Women’s Issue). This issue of the journal sold over 10,000 copies and became a vital book documenting Black feminism and inspiring the emerging field of Black Women’s Studies.
In the early 1980s, the original founders of Conditions expanded the editorial collective, recruiting new members to join with particular attention to involving women of color and women from working class and poor backgrounds in the collective. Throughout the 1980s, Conditions was an important voice of feminism, particularly feminism invested in multicultural expressions of women’s lives. In total, the Conditions collective published seventeen issues, each numbered sequentially.
I have known about Conditions since the late 1980s when I purchased a copy of Conditions Fifteen at my local feminist bookstore. As a young writer, I dreamed of being published in Conditions. Conditions ceased publishing in 1990, before I had a chance to be printed in its pages.
When I embarked on my dissertation research on lesbian-feminist print culture, Conditions was high on my list of lesbian-feminist journals to investigate. Early in my research, Ruth Gundle, the publisher of Eighth Mountain Press, and her partner Judith Barrington sent me a stack of early feminist books and periodicals from their collection, including a handful of issues of Conditions. My romance with the magazine grew.
In 2009, I visited the papers of Cheryl Clarke at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Clarke was one of the members of the editorial collective of Conditions from 1981 until 1990. There were some documents about Conditions in her papers at the Schomburg, but only a few. I wondered if there were more. I emailed Cheryl wondering, did she, by chance, have any more documents relating to her work with Conditions? She replied to my email that yes, there were more documents. Twenty-one boxes in fact. In storage in Jersey City, NJ since 1991.
My heart leapt with joy. I wanted access to them. She said there were hundreds of copies of journal issues and maybe one box of papers. Over email, she mused, What to do with them? I offered to distribute the journal copies to libraries across the United States in exchange for a first look at the documents. I imagine my desire to see them, to liberate them from a dark storage locker and mail them to libraries around the United States seemed a bit naïve, even annoying to Clarke, but she agreed.
There was one little problem. There was a sizeable storage bill to be paid before the boxes could be delivered. Having worked as a fundraiser before graduate school, I was undaunted; I asked my dissertation co-director, Dickinson scholar Martha Nell Smith, to write a check for the cause. She did. We were in business.
It took some time for Cheryl to retrieve the boxes from storage and for me to make my pilgrimage from my home in suburban Washington, DC to her home in Jersey City. In late May 2012, I drove my Honda Insight up to Cheryl’s house. Cheryl and I spent a lovely afternoon together talking about Conditions, feminist publishing, her work as a poet, editor, and scholar, and my work as a poet, editor, and scholar.
We sorted through the boxes. They were old and dusty. We counted and transferred many of the issues of Conditions into new clean document boxes. Then loaded them—all twenty-one boxes—into my car. They fit with two boxes in the front passenger seat. The Honda has an alert if the front seat ‘passenger’ isn’t wearing a seat belt; I buckled in the boxes.
I drove down the Jersey Turnpike singing to songs by Cris Williamson, Deirdre McCalla, Sweet Honey in the Rock, and Meg Christian, feeling like I had an important role in lesbian-feminist history. It was sunny; I was filled with joy.
Unloading the boxes into the upstairs hallway took me two days. They were heavy. It was overwhelming. Twenty-one boxes! My wife grumbled that we would probably end up moving the boxes to our next house. I wanted to prove her wrong.
I began with the box of papers first and photographed everything inside it. It is a treasure trove of financial information about Conditions as well as information about how Conditions handled distribution. The papers offer an important insight into how feminist publications reached readers during the 1980s. I sealed it up and mailed it to Steven G. Fullwood, who curates the Black Gay and Lesbian Archive at the Schomburg Collection. For three days, I anxiously checked the US Postal Service website for the delivery confirmation. The papers are irreplaceable; I didn’t want them lost in the mail. Now, the entire box is with Clarke’s papers at the Schomburg, waiting for researchers to dive into the secrets it holds.
In early July 2012, I tackled the distribution project. I knew that I had a unique treasure to offer to interested people, but still I wondered, would anyone want copies of Conditions? Incomplete sets of a defunct, albeit extraordinarily influential, journal? How would I find interested people to give a home to these journals? How would I mail them out?
Cheryl had a list of eight people to send sets of the journal—a group of African-American scholars. I started there. I realized after surveying my shipping supplies that the most efficient way to mail the issues was to order boxes exactly the size of the journal, 9 by 6, and the right height, 9 inches. In retrospect, this was a stroke of genius. It made packing and shipping easier. I ordered the boxes from uline.com. They were cheap, about $0.50 each including shipping; they arrived the next day. I packaged up the eight boxes for Clarke’s contacts and shipped them off.
The next morning I emailed two listservs, WMST-L and QSTUDY. The offer was simple. Send me $6.50 and I’ll post a set of Conditions. The postage was $5.99 for media mail inside the U.S.; the balance covered the boxes. I encouraged people on the listservs to share this information with their Women’s Studies Librarians and anyone else they know who would be interested in the offer.
The response was fantastic. In total, I have shipped out fifty boxes of the journal. They have gone to major research libraries in the United States and Canada, LGBT archives, Women’s Studies programs, and interested individuals. I have had lovely exchanges with many librarians requesting only one or two copies of the journal to complete their set. Everyone has been enthusiastic about the project and happy to provide homes for these relics. Even better, everyone paid; payments arrived daily in my mailbox and through PayPal.
Right now, I have four boxes of Conditions left, sitting in the hallway outside of my office at home. I have copies of Conditions One, Two, Four, and Fifteen. I am committed to finding homes for them over the next month. Some people have requested classroom sets to teach an issue of the journal—and I’ll be using them in my teaching this year.
This project took a substantial amount of time this summer. Probably over forty hours. In the end, the time and money that I invested in the project was worth it. I love Conditions as an artifact of feminist print culture and I am proud to have been a part of preserving it in libraries and individual collections.
I know that around the country there are troves of feminist, lesbian, and literary history sitting in boxes in people’s basements and attics or in commercial storage facilities.
I know that there are editors out there sitting on boxes of old issues of journals—and there are enterprising young historians and archivists of literary history and print culture. Let’s save our history from the recycle bin and get it into the hands of people who can use it. It is worth the time and energy to save them in archives and libraries.
From my summer project with Conditions, I’ve compiled some tips for people interested in embarking on their own literary preservation project:
- Ensure that you have space for the project. Boxes take up space while you store them before the distribution begins, and you will need space to sort and pack the treasures you find.
- Ensure that you have time for the project. It will take at least a few months to move all of the books out to their new home in the world. You need time to email with folks, sort issues, pack issues, and schlep to the post office.
- Buy custom boxes. I recycle most of the shipping materials that come into my house, but having custom boxes makes shipping this many packages easier and more efficient.
- Invest in a shipping tape dispenser. The big kind with a metal cutter. Assembling boxes and sealing boxes works much faster with a shipping tape dispenser. I used three full rolls of tape for this project, so buy the multiple rolls. Running out of supplies midstream is frustrating.
- When calculating expenses, be sure to include postage, boxes, and, if you accept PayPal, the PayPal fee. I didn’t include the PayPal fees in my initially calculations. Fortunately, a few people “rounded up” for the cause, covering those pesky fees.
- Spread the word through listservs, social networking, and any other means of communication. One of the greatest joys of the project has been the testimonies people emailed me about Conditions and their memories of the journal.
At the beginning of the summer, looking at those twenty-one boxes, I wondered, don’t I have anything better to do with my time? What if I spent these hours writing poems? Now as I survey my summer, I’m glad I gave my time to Conditions. It’s a small appreciation to the editors and writers who made the magazine great and, hopefully, a gift to future readers who find bound copies, tucked away in library stacks, community archives, and university offices.