#62: An Interview with Mellow Pages’ founders Matt Nelson and Jacob Perkins, by Matthew Daddona
November 7, 2014
Matt Nelson and Jacob Perkins are New York literary scene’s punk children–smart and rebellious, candid and nonconformist. Their launch of Mellow Pages, an independently-run library and reading room in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn (Studio 1Q, 56 Bogart St, Brooklyn, NY), secured their street cred, and they have turned this small room into a haven of burgeoning literature. Mellow Pages, besides being a library, hosts reading series, events, space (for space sake), and pure, unadulterated fun. I emailed Matt and Jacob to discuss Mellow Pages’ history and how it has become so damn popular.
Tell me a little bit about the history of Mellow Pages. How did your idea for it come about? How hard was it to get afoot?
MN: The idea of Mellow Pages fell on top of us late 2012 like a late 2012 high speed avalanche. Go. Run. Sink, or ski. Those were our options. That’s what it felt like. There’s only so many reasons to do something and for us, those reasons were 6, 48, 901 with a heel grab. I don’t know. Why does anyone do anything? A small level of I-have-to-do-this combined with a whole lot of outside factors and constraints. Lucky for us, we like books. And the small press world is amazing and touching and handsome and slick around the ears. And we didn’t really care if we would succeed. Like it wasn’t on the table after we opened the doors. Hey friend, want to try something? Well yes, friend, I do. That’s kind of what it was like.
JP: Like most avalanches the cracks turned into slabs and then into a monstrous plume of ethereal dust that seemed harmless until it pile-drove us into the pines. It’s hard to find a ride similar, and I think we’ll be looking the rest of our lives. The governing principal was always to pull an idea out the crags of our minds, refuse to research and prepare, and see what happens. The formation of the library was already much like that, so when it started to work it was both a miracle and the kind of lesson you learn on the playground that later turns you into a miserable person, expecting the unlikely. I think we just had a lot of energy at the time. That’s how it all happened.
How does the library portion work? What was your inspiration behind creating it?
MN: We have some gorgeous and otherwise hard-to-procure books in a room. You have $5 saved up from your monthly bodega change jar. Somewhere an exchange happens. Now, back in the days when we weren’t thinking too much about the roof crashing in on us, you could get a membership by lending 10 books to the library collection. This is very simply a book share model where we acted as medium between two book-lovers. We love to share. We love not paying money. Other people feel the same way sometimes. If only our landlords felt that way. Or Sallie Mae. Or Burger King.
JP: I would always try and go to the library between the last bell at school and when my bus left. It never worked. There were too many cards to fill out and not enough time to choose the right book and inevitably I ended up checking out this book called Jacob, Have I Loved because some girls said I looked like the teenager on the cover and some boys said that love was bad, and I wanted to figure out what they all meant. I thought it would be fun to have the library we made not work like that. Somewhere open, easy, and cheap. Though I still occasionally miss the bus on better opportunities, I feel that Mellow Pages is a great opportunity to learn about teenage faces and love.
You attract a diversity of writers, and have a formidable amount of readings per month. What do you look for in potential readers and series?
MN: We don’t look. That’s the beauty. By offering the space to anyone, you get a lot of anyones. Luckily, since we live in this diverse, formidable city, there is a higher likelihood that if you throw a stick, you’re going to hit some good poet. In the beginning we did a lot of our own events, or collaborated and schemed with others. I think that set a precedent for the flexibility of the space because often what we tried crashed, collapsed, or imploded. But that didn’t matter to us. Our thing has always been a trial. Not in the Biblical or Legislative sense, but the 3rd Grade Science experiment case.
JP: There must be some element of attraction toward us, which is to think that somewhere along the line people figured out that hosting a reading at a bar where all your friends’ pockets get cleaned and the tenders sometimes treat you like nerds and narcs and the fact that all of your social time is already spent at bars, you should probably make an excuse to spend time at some other type of venue. Like a library. Unforeseen consequences: you inevitably end up at a bar anyway, by the end of the night, and that person you never would’ve talked to is somehow forced against your shoulder because of the lack of space, and then the world turns into a place where possibilities are different, maybe even better.
What does Mellow Pages offer that many other New York-based reading series do not?
MN: Community. Jacob’s beard. A couch made out of a van seat. By that I mean it is a van seat. Late hours.
JP: Depending on the mood of everyone, the night can turn into a chill-ass low key kickback. The days are quiet and amenable to the type of atmosphere needed to produce work or read, and there are always nice people around, trying not to bother you.
You both are writers in your own right. How do you find the time to write and manage the library/reading space?
MN: We look with microscopes. With tweezers. With hearing aids and metal detectors. I don’t know. If you write you write. Do I wish I had more time? Yes please. Sign me up for that.
JP: I only write at the library because the only computer I own is here, plugged into the wall. I find the time to write after and before the space is open, and somehow it’s never enough, but a few days a week is better than none, so I make it work. All the other times I’m cutting fish.
What is Mellow Pages’ plan for the future? Any upcoming events you’re excited about?
MN: It’s going to die and then someone will drag its skeleton out of the fire, put some new clothes on it, maybe a hat, walk it around Weekend At Bernie’s style, and then we’ll all be able to die again. Thomas had it wrong with that poem about a kid dying–after the first death is another and another and another ad infinitum.
JP: I’m excited about the late nights where I find myself here in the quiet, and maybe Matt is here and maybe not, and we work on that manuscript of his while laughing like we don’t know what we’re doing, because we don’t, and that’s always what works anyway. I’m excited for a number of people who will get to share their work among friends and strangers in the coming month we have scheduled, too many to name. The future sounds like that old pop-punk classic by Mike Young, “Why Can’t the Mall Burn Down?”.
I read alongside Charlie Ozburn earlier this year when he read a portion of his novel in pitch black, save for the light of the iPad from which he was reading. It was an amazing experience, to say the least. What are some of your favorite moments in Mellow Pages’ history?
MN: One time I got the shit kicked out of me for money. That was pretty good. One time a reading ran late so I crashed at the library, this the night before my GRE Subject Test. The next day I woke up 3 minutes past the time when it was supposed to start with nothing but a dead phone to my name. One time I kicked everyone out. It wasn’t one time actually. There are a lot of times. But this time was the 10 year anniversary of the death of Elliott Smith. I remember that one well.
JP: One time (last night) this guy puked all over the bathroom, like about a twelve square foot area, and because we’re already looked upon like lepers in the building I resigned to the fact that yeah, I’d have to get on my hands and knees and scoop up that puke with the one broken broom we’ve ever had, and then I’d lay down some napkins and TP and dam it all up in a corner, and then I’d really, truly, move that goo into a coffee cup, throw the broom away, ask for another one sheepishly via Twitter, and continue cleaning the rest of the cans and gumsmacks til around eleven. I can say without hesitation that the guy had eaten a good slug of spaghetti, with that acidic twinge of vodka and orange juice we’ve all come to loathe.
Matt Nelson and Jacob Perkins are the founders of Mellow Pages, an independent library in Buskwick, Brooklyn. www.mellowpageslibrary.com
Matthew Daddona is an assistant editor at Plume, a founding member of the performance ensemble FLASHPOINT, and an editor at Tottenville Review. His most recent writing has appeared in The Adirondack Review, Electric Literature, Tin House, and Gigantic. He is currently finalizing a collaborative project based around synesthesia. He lives in New York City. You can follow him @MatthewDaddona.