"This one is like Fight Club meets The Big Lebowski," says Andy Brown, pointing to a copy of Bowlbrawl. He's manning the book table at the Montreal Anarchist Book Fair. A customer with multiple piercings leafs through the pages, grins and parts with his twenty bucks. Counting out the change, Brown turns to me and says, "I have no money for marketing-I pay myself to say things like that."
Marketing, selling, designing, editing, publishing-even one-handed juggling when there's a crowd to be entertained-Conundrum Press is a one-man-show and Brown is the man who does it all. His hard work doesn't go unappreciated though-on May 18, writers and artists from as far afield as New York, North Carolina and Nicaragua came to Montreal's Mainline Theatre for Conundrum's tenth birthday bash. They were there to read from The Portable Conundrum, an anthology of new work by all those ever published by the press. All around, Brown won accolades for creating a unique outlet for these artists' offbeat work and for helping to unite Montreal's anglophone creative community.
Conundrum is known for publishing quirky books. The back catalogue features everything from a "Choose Your Own Adventure" book for adults (Neither Either Nor Or), to a dark graphic novel about messing with the tooth fairy (The Unexpurgated Tale of Lordie Jones). "Andy expands the definition of what a book is," says Catherine Kidd, Conundrum's first-ever author. "I know for a fact he has had debates with granting bodies as to what is and what is not a book."
Local writer Dana Bath got her start with Conundrum in1998. Bath's first book, what might have been rain, was one of Brown's more elaborate projects, consisting of five stories printed on architectural blueprint, folded up and bound as a collection of posters. "Andy and I spent many nights over at his old Fairmount apartment with gluesticks, exactos and beer in hand, putting together my gorgeous first book."
Golda Fried, who was upgraded from zinester to author by Conundrum, was thrilled by the playful visuals Brown used to complement the text of her first chapbook, Hartley's Stories. "I had this one line about coffee creamers and how the character Hartley and I were always having coffee together and playing with the creamers, and then I get the chapbook from Andy and it has an insert title page full of creamers.... Details like that, I don't know who else would do that. It was really personal and really nice."
In 2001, however, Brown realized that his cut-and-paste hobby was taking up most of his time, while not being financially viable. He decided to commit to publishing, though it would mean falling into the red for a while. The book that took him under was Impure, an anthology of spoken-word pieces the Globe and Mail lauded as "a great example of the kind of Conundrum Press tome that otherwise would have left an entire community of creators largely undocumented." Impure was the first of four perfect-bound books Conundrum would need to publish in order to qualify for Canada Council funding. "Now I break even," Brown says, "but my child has no educational fund or anything like that."
Today, Conundrum's offbeat books are slowly finding their ways into public libraries and are even being reviewed in glossy women's mags like Flare. Brown no longer has to leave his books on consignment in stores; he has them distributed by the sales force of Literary Press Group Canada. And although Brown used to conduct half of Conundrum's sales single-handedly by selling books at local events, he now sends boxes of books to out-of-town authors for them to shift at large-scale festivals like Canzine or the Toronto Small Press Bookfair.
But, although now considered a "serious" publisher, Brown has not entirely renounced the old artisan projects. He continues to make tiny chapbooks, the size of cigarette packets, which are coughed up by converted cigarette vending machines at artsy cafes for two bucks a throw.
At the heart of it, Conundrum plays a crucial role in Montreal's anglo arts community. Catherine Kidd explains, "There is a fair amount of insecurity and unfriendliness floating around but Conundrum sort of neutralizes this vibe. All the art Andy publishes makes you want to cheer for the person who made it, or makes you want to be friends with them because they're the cool kids who aren't trying to be cool."
Brown prides himself on his relationship with Conundrum contributors. When putting together The Portable Conundrum, he realized that he was still in touch with everyone he'd ever published and was able to call on them to submit work once again. For Brown, the pinnacle of his tenth birthday celebration was the post-party breakfast, attended by himself, his wife and child, and all the Conundrum authors who were in town.
"I enjoy mixing old friends with new writers and artists. Many people coming to Conundrum are first-time authors. It's nice to see Catherine [Kidd] and Elisabeth [Belliveau] talking and hitting it off. Originally, when we started out, there was an economic depression in Montreal and writers and artists had to stick together. Now it's more due to longevity that people turn up. Cool people attract cool people!"
Visit the Conundrum press website at http://home.ican.net/~conpress/.