The ‘Punk Rock’ Comic Book Shop
Posted June 10, 2018 5:15 p.m. EDT
NEW YORK — Sam Baldwin stood silently beneath the chandelier of cut-out magazine covers in Desert Island, a consignment-based comic book store on Metropolitan Avenue, his arms heavy with a stack of publications. A screen printer and artist from London, Baldwin studied the books’ illustrations meticulously, his eyes widening with each page turn.
“I can buy this on eBay,” said Baldwin, 28, holding a graphic novel by Daniel Clowes. “But there’s something about when you flick through the drawer, and you’re like, ‘It’s there!'”
Experimental and underground artistry is the norm at Desert Island. Look through the Williamsburg store’s plywood shelves and you’ll find glossy paperbacks as well as photocopied-and-stapled booklets with a DIY aesthetic. Surrounded by ice-blue stalactite sculptures and tapestries, regulars, travelers, and fellow artists immerse themselves in visual publications, seeking escape, inspiration, or both.
Gabriel Fowler, the owner, grew up playing in noise-rock bands and digging through record-store crates in Orlando, Florida. After moving to New York in 2004 and working as an art handler for David Zwirner and other upscale galleries, he felt there was a dearth of shops in New York channeling a certain communal alternative energy.
Inspired by Quimby’s Bookstore in Chicago, which has sold everything from books on Russian prison tattoos to zines depicting destroyed foodstuffs, Fowler, 43, opened Desert Island in 2008.
Some customers stop in to bury themselves in the familiar panels of Batman or “Watchmen,” and there’s often a hole where “Persepolis” copies stand. But many comb through Fowler’s passion, and the store’s specialty: zines and small-press booklets or books championing illustrations. People often stand around the store, noses buried in these publications, which might feature meditations on the human condition and pregnancy, satire of women’s magazines, or beautiful imagery printed without text.
On a Monday afternoon, Kate Bossert, 28, flipped through the amorphous designs in a stoner-friendly zine “DTFF,” by the Brooklyn artist Edward Ubiera, before her partner, Hilary Brown, 38, arrived. Over the past few years, the store has become a recurring fixture in their relationship.
“How many presents and last-minute Valentine’s Day gifts have we gotten here?” Brown asked with a laugh.
Desert Island embodies an “abstract idea of punk rock,” Fowler said, by operating on a no-restrictions consignment basis. (Artists set their price and split the revenue with the shop, 60-40.) “Mystery mail” — packages of printed eye candy sent to the shop with or without prior notice — arrives almost daily from far-flung cities like Barcelona or Saskatoon; other works come from customers and neighborhood regulars. In 2017, for example, Lucio Zago, a 51-year-old graphic designer and longtime patron, dropped off his debut graphic novel, “Williamsburg Shorts”: a collection of historical narratives like the 2008 skirmish between Hasidim and hipsters, and the violent Domino Sugar refinery labor strikes, with archival photography by Anders Goldfarb.
“I didn’t know he had it in him,” Fowler said. Despite Zago coming to comics late in life, the shop’s owner considers the endeavor “A-plus work.”
A brief visit to Desert Island after it opened piqued Zago’s interest in the genre, which led to comics journalism classes, and eventually, his first book. “The next one is going to be about the underground, the subway,” he said.
Beyond the meritocratic inventory system, Desert Island proselytizes offbeat creativity through its annual fall festival, Comic Arts Brooklyn, together with the Pratt Institute. It also publishes an all-illustration newspaper, which comes out a few times a year called “Smoke Signal,” now in its 29th issue. Copies of the publication, whose pages have carried works by Mad magazine legends alongside up-and-comers like Abby Jame, are free to customers.
When asked about the purpose of his commercial and personal missions, Fowler was blunt: “I want to raise awareness of the artists doing creative things.”