Aaron Johnson has always loved the quirky side of life, forgoing a desk job for more creative endeavors. The Phoenix native and resident, 30, has lived in an artist commune at the Firehouse and was the first crepe slinger at Jobot Coffee Shop in downtown Phoenx, but now he’s the owner of a shop he’s always wanted to open: independent bookstore and printing house Lawn Gnome Publishing, also downtown. Johnson, a longtime slam poet, says the inspiration for Lawn Gnome came from his love of the independent bookstores he visited throughout the country during his travels as a performance poet, and now his literary haven has celebrated its 1-year anniversary. But Lawn Gnome isn’t just for interesting reads — the charming shop (which boasts more than 20 volunteers) also hosts nightly events, ranging from scientist presentations, to storytelling, to slam poetry. Johnson is still writing poetry, too, and he’s the slammaster for the Phoenix poetry slam team that will head to the National Poetry Slam this August. And while he’s not spitting rhymes or managing the store, Johnson designs flyers — he created more than 100 last year. Read on for how Lawn Gnome came to fruition, as well as to hear five reasons why he loves living in the Valley.
What brought you to Arizona?
I was born here in Phoenix, and I’ve traveled a lot of places since, but I always come back. I have family and friends here.
How did Lawn Gnome get started?
I was working at Jobot as the very first crepe cook and working at Firehouse. At Firehouse, I had a zine store of pallets around my room. I had printed and collected all these books of poetry and pamphlets from over the past 10 years, and people from politically radical circles and other DIY culture started coming through to check out my zine collection. It got to the point where I wanted to get out of there and do something bigger. While I was working at Jobot, I saw a “For rent” sign pop up here , and I was like, “I want it.”
How did owning Lawn Gnome Publishing become a reality?
I think I had $200 in my pocket when I saw the “For rent” sign, so I started a Kickstarter project and raised $2,300 in 10 days, paid my deposit, and moved in. We painted the red box outside for book donations, and people started filling it with books. At first, it was all donations, and then we started doing trades. We now ship online and now have 3,000 books listed on our website. You can see everything we have on lawngnomepublishing.com.
Is there anything you wouldn’t want people to donate?
No at all, because anything that’s damaged or messed up, we re-purpose. I make tons of envelopes out of pages that are interesting. We guillotine them, and then we make journals, envelopes, picture books, and flyers.
When did you make your first zine, and how did you get into it?
2004 is when I made my first zine, and I’ve been making zines ever since then. I learned how to make zines from the book Stolen Sharpie Revolution. I fell in love with the book and thought that was what I wanted to do, make books that are a little more radical than what you typically find, like how to recycle or how to make solar panels, or how to eat vegan or gluten-free or raw, or poetry that’s considered too different. Publishers don’t really want to risk publishing a new poet that does something different. I do. I find that stuff interesting. At the same time, I feel like my customers who come in want to see something different. They don’t want to see the normal Simon & Schuster stuff, they want to see radical politics, different music, reviews — all kinds of stuff.
How have things been for the bookstore the past year?
There’s that initial new-business, got-to-go-check-it-out excitement that happens right away. The first 3 months were incredible. We were just in one room, we had a lot of sales. We didn’t have a lot of merchandise, but at first the zines were the biggest selling things out of here. Over time, the used books became more and more important. We started filing niches for people because communities need books. If you’re going to school and need to get a book that’s used, you can get it a lot cheaper here than at a campus bookstore. We have the resources to order stuff for a fraction of what you’d pay for it. I could get you most textbooks for under $20 rather than paying $80-$100. You should also bring your book back to get credit and then get more.
Summer is always really hard for a retail business in Phoenix. Your utility bills go through the roof, nobody wants to go outside, and it’s just a tough time. But persevere — if you make it through the summer, it picks back up. From here, I think it’s just going to keep getting better and better.
Do you buy books off people?
Not yet, but that’s definitely in the future. When we get enough cash flow, that’s what we want to do. We do trade books.
Are there any trades you’d reject?
Not at all. We do so much book recycling, whether it’s book binding, journal making or letter making, every book is valuable to us.
What are your goals with Lawn Gnome?
I want to get this place to the point where I have full-time employees making a living wage. I’d want to have 10,000 books online and here. Currently, we’re printing 12 different new authors a year, and our next submission contest starts in June. We had 86 submissions last June, and we just chose 12 winning authors. We’re going to print their books, they’ll get 100 books to sell or give out to friends, and we carry them in the store forever. They’ll be online, and there will be e-version’s of their books. It’s about two-thirds local authors.
What made you want to own a bookstore like this?
A lot of people, when they graduate high school or college, travel. That wasn’t super-easy for me because of finances, but I really wanted to see the entire United States. I had maybe eight poems I’d written, published one zine, and I went on MySpace and went to every city I wanted to travel to and found a coffee shop, comic book store or bar that would let me perform and sell my book as long as I got there. I drove across the United States for 3 months performing poetry and saw all the weird, quirky coffeeshops and bookstores and decided back then that that’s what I eventually wanted to do — be the guy who owns the quirky bookstore that lets weird travelers perform there. I wanted to bring that weird, quirky culture that you’d find in Portland, Austin, Santa Cruz, Albuquerque, New Orleans. These kinds of places are everywhere. 5th Street is kind of unique because it’s all in houses, and I love that Lost Leaf kind of started this out. Jobot, myself, Aside of Heart, Think!, and MADE are trying to echo it.
How would you compare the Phoenix alternative scene to the places you mentioned?
We’re still a baby child. Portland’s pretty young, too, but I think what happened with Portland is that so many young, crazy entrepreneurs descended and started doing their thing at the same time. Austin, Texas has been weird for so long. They’ve been doing crazy ice cream stands and barbecue pits and bars for awhile and have a performance venue in an old abandoned racquetball court. You can feel this choice of making an area usable, by any means necessary, like taking a worn-out racquetball court and reviving it into a beautiful performance venue/bar. I changed this house into this used bookstore. You have to see the space and ask what can be done.
Why do you think Phoenix has been slow to make that alternative transformation like the other places you’ve mentioned?
A university helps — having kids that are excited about doing new stuff with the resources they have available allows for funkier, wabi-sabi businesses. But it’s nice to see these old homes be used again here in downtown Phoenix, and things like social consciousness are being talked about again. I love that so many businesses are having murals painted in this area, too.
What advice would you have for someone who’s thinking about opening up their own business?
Do it. Just do it. Having money helps, and I’m not going to lie, I wish I had a whole lot more money when I started. But you just have to do it, and make sure you tell everyone you know you’re going all in. You have to know what resources you need, and you have to have vision.
What do you think makes a successful Kickstarter campaign?
A good video. I just told people what it was I wanted to do and that I was going to do it no matter what, but that having the money would help so much, and it did. I was going to build this thing out of stuff people threw away, but that money I raised helped get a register and other things. No matter what, especially if you’re an artist, you have to keep going and keep trying. Keep creating. Every time you do something new, you learn things, whether it’s how you launch it or how you tell people about it or where you put the mop sink.
For people who want to get into slam poetry, what advice would you have?
Watch it as much as you can on YouTube, and read page poets as much as you can, too, and learn about their literary devices. Learn about the stuff that you like. If there’s a line you find that you really like, figure out why you like it — whether it’s a colorful image that pops or the format. Practice doing your own, and see where that goes.
What’s inspiring you these days when it comes to your poetry?
Other people’s poetry. I read all the time, so if I stumble across a new poet that’s doing something interesting, either I try to write about it, or I tell other poets what I’m reading and what they should try doing. It’s really fun running a venue because you have so many young musicians and poets who are eager to take on new stuff.
For first-time performers, what advice do you have for getting over nervousness?
I’m still nervous, every time I get on-stage, especially in front of people I don’t know. You just have to ride with it and do it. Know that someone’s going to take something from it. Talking in front of people is one of the scariest things, and there’s a reason why TV’s so popular still — because people don’t want to leave their house and talk to people. Public speaking is scary because you have to talk to so many people at one time and don’t know what they’re thinking.
Why should people be motivated to get out of their houses to support local arts?
We do an open mike every Monday, and it’s crazy because so many people come out. I think it takes a certain type of ego to be like, “I’m going to get up in front of people and talk or tell this story or write a poem that’s good enough for people to hear.” The oral tradition is what creates culture and makes us evolve. Back in the day, our ancestors used to sit around the campfire and tell stories. We’ve evolved because of storytelling, public speaking, an exchange of ideas, and coming together.
What do you think technology’s effects on the oral tradition are?
It’s a bit of a trade-off. It’s cool that people still communicate in a different way, through their cell phones, YouTube videos and chat boxes, and it can also bring people together face-to-face. We still make more money from online sales than from people walking into the store, and I think once we start doing e-books, it’s going to get weirder. The reason why we have this store is to see people come together and check out new shows, music and art. Anyone trying to start a career has to go out and perform for other people or talk to other people face-to-face. As long as there are people who are motivated to make change, we’ll always have to rely on face-to-face interaction.
Is there anything that stands out to you about Phoenix writers?
We have so many super-funny comedic writers. I only see that in a few other cities, such as Austin and San Francisco. In New York, it’s all serious race stuff, in Chicago, it’s all jazz-influenced, social change kind of stuff. It’s cool that we have a bit of a style, but we need to get past being silly. I’m trying to push for more social change writing and race/gender issues. I think it’s due time for that to emerge.
What’s your favorite zine that you sell here?
I’d tell people to check out Joy Young. She’s new, and her book is called Ladyboy — she did the layout, and we printed it for her. She’s been coming out to poetry slams and open mikes, and she’s really, really new and different. Cartoons with Animals in Them is by Brandon Huigens, and he’s been a really popular comic artist.