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Abstract Notions

Editor Christian Williams explores the nature of consciousness through art, culture, and spirituality.

How Kicks Books and Norton Records Survived Sandy

by Christian Williams

Tags: Music, Books, Christian Williams,

kicks books

My first contact with the legendary independent music label Norton Records was through a beat up, but still fantastic used LP I picked up in Milwaukee of Appalachian one-man band and psychobilly pioneer Hasil Adkins. I hadn’t heard of Adkins before spinning the record, titled Peanut Butter Rock and Roll, but once I heard the primal howls, stomps, and blues-inspired guitar noodling, I was sold.

Listening to that record opened up a whole new door of music for me, and introduced me to rough-around-the-edges, DIY music that would eventually inspire me to start writing my own. Small labels like Norton have become crucial points of discovery for musicians creating music outside the mainstream, so it was upsetting to find out that Hurricane Sandy had taken quite a toll on the Brooklyn-based storage warehouse of not only Norton Records, but the fantastic small publishing house Kicks Books run by Norton co-founder and musician Miriam Linna.

As this video shot just a few days after the storm illustrates, the incredible mess that Miriam and her staff had to deal with was enormous:

Fortunately, the story doesn’t end there as both Norton Records and Kicks Books are bouncing back from the stormy setback. As we get closer to the one-year anniversary of Sandy next month, I thought it would be good to check in with Miriam by email and see how the recovery is going.

CW: The video shot right after the storm shows an incredible amount of water damage, but you say, “We're gonna be all right.” To what do you attribute that resilient attitude?

Miriam: I didn't realize I said that. I suppose that "hope springs eternal." Also, I'm a Karelian Finn, and there's a word for survival in the Finnish language that does not have a direct translation: Sisu. It means perseverance, no matter what.

I imagine it’s hard to put into words how it felt to see so many people step up and help out in the aftermath of the storm, but what resonated with you the most about the public response and the love they’ve shown for what you do?

It's impossible to describe the gratitude; there was such an unexpected response on all levels. People were so creative and looking for ways that they could help, imagining what needed doing. When the gas pumps stopped running in Brooklyn, without saying anything, someone drove in from upstate with a big can of gasoline. One friend came in every week and made tons of food for those who came to work. Out of the misfortune, we feel more fortunate than ever, more determined than ever.

I read that you’ve been able to reprint all of the damaged books as well as salvage many of the titles in your vintage paperback collection. Was there anything you’re still looking to replace or do you consider Kicks Books and Norton fully recovered at this point?

I was able to reprint the thousands of new books in the Kicks Books line; of course we have not reprinted the vintage books—that would be impossible. I lost about 3,000 vintage paperbacks entirely, but pulled about 2,000 out of the sea water—soaking wet, old paperbacks printed on pulp paper, all over 50 years old. Against all odds, and defying all logic, a huge proportion of those books survived. We pulled books out for weeks after the hurricane, as I said, soaking wet. We lugged the wet books back to our home base and laid them out, thousands of books, on any flat surface we could find—the tops of bookshelves, the hallway—and put fans on them. They took a while to dry, and we staggered the drying process; as books dried, we put new wet ones out. The dry books were packed tightly in new cardboard boxes and were put away in a new storage space. Just this past weekend, we brought out all of the recovered vintage paperbacks. Leah Loscutoff, a fabulous archivist at Brooklyn Historical Society, who had come in during the direst of early days to advise and work, returned with book supplies in hand to show me how to repair books whose jackets had become separated, and to help reorganize the remaining books.

We are not fully recovered yet. Over 300 45 RPM titles, over 250 LP titles, and over 200 CD titles went completely underwater with Sandy. Norton Records stock was essentially wiped out. We continue to refurbish 45s that we sell as "Sandy Specials" at $2 apiece. Of course they show some label wear, and a bit of groove wear, and they do not sport the snappy picture sleeves they originally appeared in, but they are clean and in new, plain white paper sleeves. Meanwhile, we have been remanufacturing all formats and are lucky (what, again, lucky!) that our manufacturers have extended discounts to us to remake jackets, labels, and vinyl. That discount runs out Dec. 31, so we have been working against the clock to get all titles back into print, if possible. It's a huge endeavor, but we have no room to doubt ourselves. Folks should check out Norton Records and Kicks Books to keep up with our goings-on.

With the storm behind you, what does the future hold for Kicks Books? What books/authors are you excited to share with us next?

The great authors of Kicks Books have been incredibly supportive throughout the ordeal. Harlan Ellison helped relaunch Kicks Books in July with a rare personal appearance at our event in Los Angeles. Kicks Books has published his rarest early fiction in two hip pocket editions. Kim Fowley will be celebrating his Kicks Book, Lord of Garbage, at an L.A. event on October 5. I have just now published Royston Ellis' Gone Man Squared, a volume of the British author's earliest beat poetry from 1958-1966, and at the printer now is Benzedrine Highway by American beat author/artist Charles Plymell, who is also the originator of ZAP underground comix. This collection is the first reappearance of his legendary Apocalypse Rose book of poetry. It also includes his first prose book, Last of the Mocassins. We will have a book launch with the New York Public Library at the historic Jefferson Market branch library in Greenwhich Village on Nov. 8.

Planned for publication in the first half of 2014 are Kicks "hip pocket paperbacks" Streets by Andre Williams, Planet Pain by Kim Fowley, and Prophetika by Sun Ra. Also in the works are two larger format non-fiction titles, I Fought the Law: The Life and Death of Bobby Fuller; and a label history, still unnamed, of legendary Detroit label, Fortune Records.

We owe a debt of gratitude to the authors, and to all Norton recordings artists, for their patience, support, and kindness—and for their refusal to let the ship go down.

Christian Williams is the Editor in Chief of Utne Reader, and he also paints and makes music. View and listen to his work at www.christianwwilliams.com. Follow him on Twitter: @cwwilliams