The Handshake Interview with J.C. Gabel
by Dan Duffy / Photography by Dan Duffy
J.C. Gabel is the founding editor of Stop Smiling magazine, and edits and publishes books at Stop Smiling Books. Back in Spring, I met up with J.C. at Intelligentsia Coffee in the South Loop. We talked about the rise and fall of his magazine and their transition into small press publishing, and about his current project: the resurrection of The Chicagoan, an American magazine modeled after the New Yorker and published from June 1926 until April 1935. -Dan Duffy
The Handshake: Stop Smiling was founded in the mid-90s, and you are now 35 years old. You were just a teenager when you started the magazine?
J.C. Gabel: Yeah, I was pretty young. It was a zine for all intents and purposes. Right around then was the birth of desktop publishing, where if you had friends at Kinkos, you could get them to scam you a card so you could print everything there. Then you could perfect bind it or saddle stitch it yourself. There was something enticing and empirical and empowering about doing that, where you felt like you could start your own publication and make it look decent.
HS: Did you have any idea that Stop Smiling would take off the way it did?
JCG: I didn’t know it was going to become the glossy magazine that it became, but we had the intention from the start to have a full color cover and get advertising and all that. I worked at record labels at the time, which was part of what allowed me to be able to get the whole thing started. I could get people on the phone and tell them I worked at Touch & Go Records or at Drag City, and they would know those labels. I was able to build an advertising base from there. And those were the first people I tried to market the magazine to. It was trial and error, though. And it was a hobby. It wasn’t intended to be our job.
HS: Was there a desire from the beginning to openly flout the print trend toward shorter stories?
JCG: Totally. In the mid-90s I was a really big fan of a lot of magazines, and I started to write for some of them. Then I noticed that they all started going out of business. It was because of the Internet, sure, but it was also just because of the bucking trends. Maxim was suddenly huge, and so was Wired. Wired has definitely published some long-form stuff, but from the beginning, they were geared towards the digital age, so most of their articles were shorter and more blurb-like. But with Maxim it was more like the lowest common denominator: Let’s turn everything into charticles and publish a bunch of soft-core sex, basically. And that worked. Maxim had like five magazines and two million subscribers in their first couple years. That was completely unheard-of. I think that since they made so much money, a lot of magazines then said, “Oh, man. We have to do this now.”
HS: So you created Stop Smiling as a pushback against the shrinking word count of nonfiction?
JCG: Definitely. Friends of ours had started Pitchfork and we could see that a lot of stuff was about to go online, so we wanted to create this kind of throwback magazine that was something you could keep and hold and collect alongside other books. Something timeless, you know? I moved almost once a year during my first five years in Chicago, and after a while, I started to notice what I would always thin down my stacks of magazines to be. I’m kind of pack-rattish to begin with, but I’d notice that whenever I would get rid of stuff, what I’d be holding onto would be these oldPlayboys and Esquires and Rolling Stones that I bought at second hand shops. I would pretty much chuck everything else, because invariably all that other crap would either be online for free, or I could do something like buy the New Yorker box set where all the issues are scanned onto a series of CDs.