Breaking News: SPD (Small Press Distribution) Goes Belly Up (1969-2024)

Thursday evening, March 28, 2024


Fifty-five years ago, literary publishers on the West Coast had very limited means of getting their books into stores. In point of fact, there were only a handful of stores throughout the United States that stocked books of poetry by small presses. In case you want specifics, consider the list that was published in the second issue of LAUGH LITERARY, which was co-edited by Charles Bukowski and Neeli Cherkovski as the 1960s turned into the early 1970s.

“Thank you to the following bookstores

Phoenix, NYC
Either/Or, Hermosa Beach
L.W. Currey, Mattapan, Mass
Asphodel, Cleveland
Gothan, NYC
D. McDonald Book, Chicago
Literary Heritage, Sharon, Mass
Temple Bar Bookshop, Cambridge, Mass
City Lights Books, San Francisco
Papa Bach Bookstore, Los Angeles
Free Press Bookstores, Los Angeles, Pasadena
Tenth Muse, San Francisco
The Bridge, Los Angeles
Unicorn Bookshop, Santa Barbara

Now, of course, these fourteen stores weren’t the only ones serving as outlets for the “underground,” but a complete list would hardly have doubled their number. Yes, there would have been stories in Denver, for instance, but it was a hand-to-mouth existence for most small presses as well as the boosters that stocked their projects.

It is the last entry in the above list that should be particularly noted, given today’s news that Small Press Distribution, the nation’s oldest distributor of small press publication, has folded and left it up to the small presses it handled to fetch their backlist copies from a warehouse in the Midwest. It is a very sad and distressing day for everyone in the past six decades who has worked to give non-corporate poetry and the practice of avant-garde writing and publishing some degree of visibility in American culture. “The dream is over,” sang John Lennon. With the announcement of SPD’s dissolution and bankruptcy, one can erase that mournful acknowledgment from one’s memory deck tapes. The dreamer long ago woke up, and it was only a simulacrum that the dream inhabited. Print culture as we knew it forty and fifty years ago cannot withstand the level of illiteracy that permeates this nation’s consciousness.

But back to Unicorn Bookstore, which was founded by Jack Shoemaker, who never went to college but nurtured his autodidactic aspirations starting in his early twenties when he founded Unicorn Bookstore and then went on to found several other literary projects, including SMALL PRESS DISTRIBUTION in 1969 (along with a man named Peter Howard). Shoemaker’s successes as an editor and publisher led him to take leave of SPD, and it became the distributor that any small press wanted to have its books carried by.

In recent years, two Los Angeles-based publishers whose books were carried by SPD included Cahuenga Press and What Books. I know that about a half-dozen years ago, What Books decided that it could no longer afford the luxury of having a distributor, since the percentage lett for the press from the sale of each book was simply too small to make it a feasible arrangement. Nevertheless, dozens and dozens of other presses maintained their relationship with SPD, even though for some time now rumors have hinted that SPD was in more trouble that it wanted to admit.

The truly sad part of this collapse is that libraries will no longer have a distributor to turn to in order to obtain fairly easily books that represent the continuity of the small press movement. Even the term “small press,” however, contains it itself a big part of the problem. The presses weren’t “small” in their ambition to change American culture; rather, they were INDEPENDENT, and perhaps that would have been a better choice for a name.

There will be no replacement emerging for SPD. Something has gone extinct, permanently. It may well be that another alternative will erupt that involves technology and social interaction that revives the idealism behind the oohort of “small” presses and the alliances within the infrastructure of the “communication circuit.” Sometimes the unexpected doe come to pass. In the meantime, though, it’s back to individual effort in face-to-face communal efforts.


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