McSweeney’s began as a literary journal in 1998–Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern–that was an offbeat successor to the San Francisco-based magazine, Might. Dave Eggers, the founder, only half-jokingly said that he started it to publish his friends who were getting rejected by other publications. In reality, McSweeney’s brought a unique approach to the publishing of a literary journal, challenging and upending traditions and embracing the unexpected: e.g., lengthy commentaries on the copyright page; a short story by David Foster Wallace printed on the spine. Instead of trying to prove how serious it was, the editors and contributors tried to show how light-hearted they could be in the context of traditional literary aspirations: they were smart enough to know they weren’t Important and they wanted to make sure that was clear. Context competed with content, or at least deliberately amplified it, to convey a light-hearted spoof of Importance and Seriousness, which was intended to be understood as both important and serious.
Soon the quarterly branched out and became a publishing company, issuing novels, books of poetry, and other periodicals, and publishing not only unknown writers but also work by some of the most prominent avant garde writers of the time–David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Lethem, Lydia Davis, Jonathan Safran Foer, Jonathan Franzen, and many others.
And McSweeney’s opened a retail store in Brooklyn, called Store.
Store, like the journal, took pains to be unlike anything else and to be entirely and solely like itself. It stocked an esoteric and eclectic inventory, analogous to the eclectic writing in the journal: taxidermy supplies; a cast pewter duck foot, American Window Cleaner magazine, and books by the contributors to Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern. Prices were, if not random, at least whimsical. It began as, and remained, as much an installation art project as a retail shop and had a built-in performance space for readings and musical concerts and other events: David Byrne played there; Zadie Smith read there–among many others. It developed a house band–One Ring Zero–and a house artist, Marcel Dzama, and it became a hangout for writers and artists from the area, in which Brooklyn abounded by that time. It also planted the seeds for future McSweeney’s ventures, such as the San Francisco pirate store, the later Brooklyn Superhero Supply Store, and the nonprofit literacy ventures in San Francisco and New York–826 Valencia and 826NYC.
This collection was assembled by one of the regulars at the Brooklyn Store, who became the unofficial house photographer–photographing visitors, readings, and events–as well as the unofficial archivist–gathering copies of the journal, getting multiple contributors to sign them, and saving uniquely created dust jacket variants and proof copies as well as ephemera such as the signs the Store posted and the bags it used. Among the individuals featured: Dave Eggers, David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Lethem, Rick Moody, George Saunders, Haruki Murakami, Neal Pollack, Lydia Davis, David Byrne, Thurston Moore, Michael Chabon, Zadie Smith, A.M. Homes, Marcel Dzama, Nick Hornby, William Vollmann, and many others. In all, the collection represents a chronicle of one of the underdocumented but lynchpin efforts of McSweeney’s–its earliest venture into the public realm–a meeting place, art space, a venue for education, and a veritable walk-in closet of the journal’s philosophy. A unique record of a dynamic and groundbreaking moment in American literature (if not American retailing).
The McSweeney's Archive was recently featured by Rebecca Rego Barry in Fine Books & Collections.