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The McSweeney's Store
By Norman Jeffries

Sometimes things just go together, even though at first glance you're not entirely sure why. It just makes sense that beanbags and the 1970s coexist in our collective memory. Or that Oprah has a seemingly supernatural power over housewives world-over.

So when McSweeney's, Dave Eggers' San Francisco-based publishing company, opened a store it only figures that its eclectic inventory would match the esoteric nature of the popular quarterly. A partial list of what this Brooklyn wunderkammer sold recently includes the following:

• a charcoal block ($2.38)
• a cast pewter duck foot ($4.50)
• a cast pewter pelican foot ($5.00)
• Ben Greenman's Superbad ($15.00)
• American Window Cleaner Magazine #89 ($6.00)
• a yellow chemical light ($2.50)
• Lydia Davis's Samuel Johnson Is Indignant ($17.00).

Scott Seeley, who's been running the store for almost three years, elaborates on the elaborateness of the store's contents. He says questions about the store's purpose are quite common:

"My usual response is that if there is any kind of theme or direction, it's that there is no theme or direction. That's sort of the point. It's a constantly evolving space, so the direction changes frequently, depending on the whims of those of us running it. We're all big fans of McSweeney's, so I think it was just sort of inevitable that it would influence the 'tone' of the store. But, like I said, it's a constantly changing space, so it just sort of goes whichever direction it takes us. There's certainly no conscious effort to mimic the journal in any way."

Located on 7th Avenue in Brooklyn, the McSweeney's store is a slim but crowded collection of eye-candy. The front window contains an elaborate contraption, most easily described as art. Inside, intricate wooden boxes and shelving crowd the customer on all sides and threaten to tumble down and spill their assorted bits and pieces. The Rube Goldbergness to it all is stunning -- should one piece be removed from the structure, it's hard to believe it wouldn't collapse under its own confusing weight.

McSweeney's has always been interested in the uncanny; publishing things which otherwise slip through the cracks because the cracks are usually manned by people who think the dollar is mightier than the pen. For instance, McSweeney's ran an article about taking the properties of spider silk and applying them to building materials, but not without first sending the genes through BELE goats (miniature goats) found in Madagascar.

Likewise, the store seems to have a similar desire to showcase the unexpected. It's almost an installation art project (picture a Damien Hirst exhibit but dustier and speckled with books). But where does the store's collection come from? Where, exactly does one find a cast pewter bird foot? Seeley, who runs the store along with a cadre of interns/volunteers, can answer this too, pointing to the fetish the store has with obscure vocations:

"The inventory comes from all over the place. A lot of it is from trade magazines of very specific disciplines. (e.g., lumber jacks, taxidermy, bull riding, etc.). Some of the other stuff (e.g., dirt from different parts of the world) comes from people all over the country -- people who have come into the store and want to contribute something to it. Then some inventory is donated or commissioned by various artists and writers."

Occasionally, though, the McSweeney's empire suffers backlash for being too "tricky" -- whether it is postmodern or ironic (a dreaded word these days) is debatable. It's best to take the store at its face value and not attempt to parse any meaning from its Byzantine assortment of commodities, because most often it's not trying to be funny at all. The store's eclectic collection of odd and ends according to Seeley is not an in-joke. "We try to be sincere about everything in the store," Seeley said. "No sort of social or political commentary of any kind. It's all honest. We're not out to trick anyone or to be overly clever."

Customers' reactions to the assortment are positive, Seeley added. "There's often a little confusion at the beginning, particularly from customers who aren't familiar with McSweeney's, but everyone settles into it quickly and has a good time. As far as I know, we've never offended anyone or put anyone off in any way. At least no one has said anything hostile to any of us."

Of course, a lot of the books and journals McSweeney's publishes account for the items sold at the store, but they also served, at least for a time, as a pool of authors for the store's frequent readings. "At first, we were selecting pretty much from McSweeney's contributors, but only because we knew what to expect from them," Seeley said. "But now, we've expanded into other areas. Most recently, Tom Beller of Open City has been sending some new and wonderful readers our way."

When asked if anyone can offer to give a reading at the store, Seeley says: "Off-the-street readers aren't that common, but it happens from time to time. In fact, I met our now "house band," One Ring Zero, that way, when one of its leaders, Mike Hearst, came into the store and introduced himself."

It wouldn't do any good to presume to speculate on the motives of the McSweeney's collective. In fact, its own unwillingness to be tracked and contained is its most appealing aspect. For all its seeming absurdity, though, Seeley says the store is done mostly for the love of it, with no larger plans lurking in the wings. "Our only goal financially is to break even, which happens on our better weeks. We just want to create a fun and interesting space for people to enjoy and for writers, musicians and artists to have a place to perform and maybe to contribute ideas."

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Free Williamsburg© | 93 Berry Street | Brooklyn, NY 11211
[email protected] | August 2002 | Issue 29
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