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July/August 2015 issue:

Dead Ends
Text: Chris Fite-Wassilak
Photo: David Naugle

web exclusive:
Photo Essay: Dead Ends
Video: Atlanta Gateway
– David Naugle

from the archive:
The Sculptures of Atlanta's Great Southwest Industrial Park (1981-1982)

It's Only the Beginning
– Daniel Fuller

A Body of Work
– William Gass

with Katherine Jentleson
Curator of Folk and Self-Taught Art at the High Museum

– Raphael Koenig

July/August 2015
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It's Only the Beginning

Text / Daniel Fuller

Amidst the untouched book storage and file boxes that occupy Atlanta's old Nexus Press building, a curator finds himself—and reconnects with his sports-obsessed preadolescence.

installation detail of Endless Road: A Look at Nexus Press, 2015, Atlanta Contemporary Art Center
[photos: Morgan Byrd; courtesy of Atlanta Contemporary Art Center]

As a kid I could barely wait for Sunday mornings. It meant popping Onyx or Das EFX into the Walkman as my mother drove us from our new suburban house to our church in the old neighborhood on Syracuse's Northside—straight Rust Belt. The city blocks around our church had stopped just short of disappearing completely. The grand old homes flanking Syracuse's Washington Square Park were relics of a more prosperous time, deteriorating under heavy blankets of dirty snow.

Both of my parents grew up in the neighborhood, about five blocks apart, and we knew everybody. Our circle ran from Chestnut Park (where I played youth soccer and baseball) to Schiller Park (where I once participated in an odd initiative to get athletic inner city kids into bobsledding). After service, while my mom was teaching Sunday school, I ran wild in the streets with my friends. Every building and every empty lot had a story. Just down the street from the church was the KeyBank where my mother worked for a brief period, until it was robbed by shotgun twice in one week. (They actually caught the guy with an apartment full of cash; he lived only three doors down.) Just around the corner was the convenience store that was forever changing owners and names. As I was walking in one Christmas Eve to buy some Little Debbie snacks, a guy bowled me over as he rushed out the door. I accidently tripped him, and we spilled down onto the snow, along with his gun. He had already scooped it up along with his little bag of cash from the register by the time I knew what hit me. Just across the street, between two strip clubs and the post office, was Salina Liquor, where a 77 year-old who had had a short run with the New York Yankees not only survived being shot in the eye during yet another armed robbery, but managed to beat his assailant nearly to death with the baseball bat that he used for his first hit in the big leagues. He became king of the town. The neighborhood was only six blocks wide, but it felt so big.

At some point, I must have realized there were aspects to society other than playing sports, and Sundays came to begin and end at the Book Warehouse on Bear Street. Any moment I spent playing sports was spent reading about them. I pored over biography after biography—Manute: The Center of Two Worlds by Leigh Montville, about center Manute Bol; Bo Knows Bo by Bo Jackson; and Drive: The Story of My Life by Larry Bird. I memorized every struggle, success, origin story, and career highlight. I can still summarize each chapter of Outrageous!: The Fine Life and Flagrant Good Times of Basketball's Irresistible Force by Charles Barkley without looking at the index. When Jim Valvano gave his iconic "Don't ever give up" speech about living with cancer at the ESPN ESPY Awards, my sixth grade "bad attitude" had to discredit him to anyone who would listen, citing the blatant disregard of NCAA rules documented in the book Personal Fouls: The Broken Promises and Shattered Dreams of Big Money Basketball at Jim Valvano's North Carolina State.

The Book Warehouse's pitiful brick industrial building was a kind of monument to the neighborhood's decline. While surrounding structures had aged as a result of progressive neglect, this one had clearly never seen better days. If its outside was gloomy, its insides were dismal. For reasons unclear, there was always dirt and dust everywhere—a thick cover over a dizzying array of disorderly shelves, populated with stacks of paperback classics here, Dungeons and Dragons books there. A special back room housed semi-antiquarian books; Playboy, Easyriders, Mad, and various wrestling magazines, all of which were reliably seven months past their intended circulation dates, filled their periodicals selection, and were available for 50 cents each. It was a nerdy "man cave," before that phrase was in the lexicon.

When I joined the Roxboro Road Middle School basketball team in the fifth grade, I became instant friends with "Little" Joe Johnson. (There was a "Big" Joe Johnson in the seventh grade, but he didn't ball.) Little Joe and I had both had similarly wayward friends back on the Northside and, in an extraordinary coincidence, his uncle owned the Book Warehouse. Little Joe even worked there on Sundays, sorting books in a back room. We criminally masterminded a deal: despite how cheap the wares were—hardcover sports books were available for $3 to $5—it was unimaginable that I would pay full price for any. So I would stop in before church and pick out as many as possible, and stack them all on one shelf. Little Joe would charge me a dollar apiece. Sometimes he wouldn't charge me at all; he just liked stealing. After mass, I'd swing back to the sidewalk outside the warehouse. (I always tried to talk him into putting the books in a backpack and bringing it over to the convenience store parking lot, or better yet to school, but he had his own ideas.) Casually staring at the sky, I would wait for my book to come flying at me over the edge of the building. I had to be ready at any moment for Little Joe to take his lunch break, climb up to the roof of his uncle's six-story building, and toss ten or so books down. "Nothing to see here," you know? Just a kid idling outside a book depot with his hands held up to the heavens, hoping to catch a book—or at least for it to land in a snowbank.

I still love books, for all the usual reasons. A book is a point of entry; opening one gets you inside something. You don't have to watch anything through the window anymore if you have the right book: you read about the nefarious Detroit Pistons "Bad Boys" years, and next thing you know you're being ejected for a hard foul on a middle-school classmate. When Nexus Press started experimenting with the very form of the book in northeast Atlanta, back in 1976, they not only provided artists with the ability to pull in their readers, they challenged artists to push the press itself beyond the typical comfort zone of a publisher. There is a palpable innocence to some of Nexus' early materials, since the publishers there learned on the job. Not every play worked. Twenty-six years later, the ones that did are still raw. They put a pause in your day. When I dive into the "fantasy land" energy of that kind of artist-made book, it makes a visceral impact, and I'm gone—lost in feverish indifference to the outside world.

Every year, I go to events like the New York Art Book Fair with my hands open, hoping to be tossed a book that will break my heart. It seldom, if ever, occurs. Not until I moved to Atlanta and rummaged through the old Nexus Press building, mining for books and ephemera, did I recover that rabid feeling I had when I was 10 and a copy of The Boz by Brian Bosworth was hurtling toward me from above, courtesy of Little Joe. Not Big Joe—he didn't ball.

Daniel Fuller is the curator at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, where the archival exhibition, Endless Road: A Look at Nexus Press, is on view through July 25, 2015

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