Past perfect

Michelle Tea

In a small and beautiful 14th Street apartment in San Francisco, a place with a velvety feel and filled with things antique-y and wooden, strewn with flowers of the fake and dead varieties, lives and works Kirsten Janene-Nelson. Like her personal headquarters, Janene-Nelson is beautiful in a velvety, Ophelia sort of way, with long, long hair and long skirts that sweep against her rugs. On 14th Street she makes books, books that are curious and interesting and politically relevant and tied to our cultural past. Janene-Nelson is the sole force behind Mercury House, a small press kept afloat with grant money, dedicated to putting out into the world — according to its manifesto — “works of social significance.” It aims “to promote the free exchange of ideas, including minority viewpoints, by providing our writers with both an enduring format and the widest possible audience for their work.”

Not content with simply sniffing out important literature slinking beneath the shallow radar of mainstream publishing, Mercury House delves into the past to rescue noteworthy books that a fickle industry abandoned once the initial flash of novelty wore off. “I don’t care for the publishing world’s focus on only the newest works,” Janene-Nelson says. “I feel that a worthy title remains worthy, so we’re putting some extra effort into yesterday’s publications.”

One such title is Charles Wright’s lost classic, The Wig, an experimental mosh pit of realism, fantasy, fiction, and journalism, revolving around the adventures of one Lester Jefferson, an African American man living in Harlem in the 1960s. Once a subject of a New York Times essay that deemed it “a brutal, exciting and necessary book,” The Wig was allowed to fade from publication and remained out of print until Mercury House put it back on the shelves.

It was the intention of the press’s founders, William Brinton and Alev Lytle Croutier, to focus on emerging American writers and high-integrity authors from throughout the world. Janene-Nelson became involved with the press as a volunteer reader in 1991, was promoted to volunteer intern a year later, and was eventually hired as an editorial assistant in 1993. Since that time she’s held every position the small press needed filled. “We had [three] employees and a few interns at our Mission District office,” she recalls, “when the high commercial rents of the dot-com craze finally forced us to close down the office and reduce the staff to just me, working out of my apartment.” The major shift occurred in the winter of 2001.

Mercury House is currently producing books in its National Endowment for the Arts Heritage and Preservation Series, a collection funded by the government arts behemoth to promote the “multicultural diversity of American letters.” “We’ve just published Running Through Fire: How I Survived the Holocaust, by Zosia Goldberg, as told to Hilton Obenzinger,” Janene-Nelson says. “Hilton, a Mercury author, tried for years to find a publisher for his aunt’s remarkable story of evading death during the Nazi regime. But there are many Holocaust memoirs available now, and most publishers shy away from them. Even when Paul Auster, who had long admired this story, offered to write an introduction for the book, finding a publisher was difficult — until Hilton and I started talking.”

Publishing a few books a year, Mercury House is a small David in the perpetual struggle against the Goliaths of big-house publishing. And the best way to help such noble work is also the most obvious: buy the books, and buy them from an independent source. “I’m a strong believer in being more conscious of just who it is we’re benefiting with each purchase we make,” Janene-Nelson says smartly. “In the same way that some will go out of their way to support the corner produce market instead of the supermarket across the street, where you make your purchases can ultimately affect what items are still available down the line. To buy all your books and CDs from huge chain stores and large online dealers is to assist in the demise of your friendly corner book- or record store. If we care about certain entities staying in business — our favorite neighborhood restaurant, that vibrant performance space down the street — then we need to do our part to support them while they’re still around to support.”

And with this I leave Janene-Nelson in her office, a tiny room with a ceiling hung with stiffly swaying bundles of dried flowers. “They oscillate in the breeze,” she says, “and lend a calming effect to my work environment. One tall sunflower a friend grew from seed.” She points at the crinkled stalk, and I think that this appreciation for the slow and tender progress of organic things like flowers and books, this desire to preserve beautiful objects and stories that others might toss in the garbage or pulp, is what Mercury House is all about.