Babylon Falling: An Interview with Sean Stewart

Back in the oh-so distant summer of 2007, Sean Stewart opened his “‘anti-revolutionary bookstore’ revolutionary bookstore,” Babylon Falling.  The Nob Hill concept store was a even mix of revolutionary literature, discussing the theories and histories of various movements, and revolutionary aesthetic and culture (music, toys, artwork, and even an in-house tshirt line).  But like many of San Francisco's best book stores, sales eventually declined, even as traffic into their various performances and art shows increased.  Faced with the choice of turning Babylon Falling into ”just another hip boutique” that happened to sell books or shut the business down, Sean stuck to his original vision and closed up shop in the summer of 2009.

While San Francisco lost a great bookstore and arts venue, we ended up gaining a rad blog dedicated to the counterculture of the 1960s and 70s full of hundreds of scans of period literature from the Bay Area and beyond.

We shot Sean a few questions about his upcoming book, the blog, and his decision to move to NYC after shuttering the bookstore.  Enjoy: 

How'd you get into, as you call it, “hoarding” 1960s and 70s counterculture magazines and newspapers? Did you live through the era in San Francisco?

I actually grew up in Kingston, Jamaica and was born in 1979. I moved to San Francisco (via New York) specifically to open Babylon Falling.

Since I was a little kid I’ve had all kinds of random collections going and so I’ve been trolling estate sales, flea markets, junk shops, and eBay forever. Here and there I would pick up underground magazines or papers from the Sixties and I loved them because nothing I was reading or watching about the time period was really representing just how richly diverse and nuanced the culture really was. So little by little I started to learn this alternative (to me) history of the Sixties through the papers and naturally I would seek out the papers any chance I got.

Beyond the 60s/70s counterculture pieces, you also feature a lot of 90s hiphop photography and memorabilia. Many of the artists featured fit the theme of the site (e.g. Public Enemy), but others are generally not known for being political, even if they put out ground-breaking albums (Nas, Dr. Dre). Any reason you also feature these nonpolitical artists so prominently? How do you see them fitting into the spirit of 1960's counter-culture?

For me the spirit of rebellion is the same, of course the different ways it manifests seems incompatible on the surface but when you really check it out the sentiment is mostly the same. In general I think its important to big up any resistance against the status quo whether it’s consciously political or not.

The simple reason it all coexists on the blog is because it’s what I’m seeing and it’s generally how I’m feeling. Anytime I’m digging in the papers and magazines I’m chasing some thought I had, which is usually prompted by the music I’m listening to and I literally just scan and post what catches my attention in that moment. To me the site is the online equivalent of saying to your friend, “check this shit out…”

Muhammad Ali speaking at San Francisco’s Civic Center as a part of the April 27th (1968) Mobilization for Peace. Photo by Alan Copeland.

Tell us a little bit about your upcoming book. How will the blog and the book compliment each other?

The book is called On the Ground: An Illustrated Anecdotal History of the Sixties Underground Press in the U.S. and will be released by PM Press (who are based in Oakland) in the Fall of 2011.

It is essentially a collection of stories told to me by the people actually involved with the production and distribution of the newspapers—John Sinclair, Art Kunkin, Paul Krassner, Ben Morea, Emory Douglas, JohnWilcock, Bill Ayers, Spain Rodriguez, Trina Robbins, Al Goldstein, Harvey Wasserman and many more—and features over 50 full-color scans taken from a broad range of newspapers.

As the publishing date approaches the blog is going to end up being an accumulation of outtakes and b-roll to the book. There’s so much fascinating stuff that I’ve collected that isn’t appropriate for the book and the blog will be an outlet for all of this content. I can’t wait actually because I’m itching to put this stuff out there. I’ll still be throwing in scans of M.O.P. ads to confuse people here and there.

Have a favorite scan you've posted on the blog?

The American Flag as Redesigned in 1901 by Mark Twain. Ramparts, May 1968.

Mark Twain was the shit and so was Ramparts.

Despite the decline in student activism, are there any major causes today being taken up in the Bay Area that you find memorable?

Seeing the mobilization to speak out against the murder of Oscar Grant was inspiring. I’ve also noticed that a lot of veteran organizers and revolutionaries in the Bay Area are starting to re-emerge and re-engage with the younger generations. We’ll see where it all goes but there seems to be a general growth of student movements and a recent welling up student protest around the world. It all goes in cycles.

Tricky Dick Visits S.F. San Franciso Express Times, September 1968.

After closing down the bookstore in SF, what prompted you to move to Brooklyn?

Classically hard headed, I decided the correct course of action after closing the store was to pursue a career in the publishing industry (any NY based publishers reading this – I am a humble, hard working aspiring wage slave. Holla at me – sean@babylonfalling.com)

Was it a major pain in the ass to get your collection across the country?

The papers are nothing compared to the insanity of lugging around our books. The real pain in the ass has been trying to convince my wife that the papers and magazines (in unmarked binders, plastic tubs and poly bags) deserve prominent placement in our living room.

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