At the Mission District's Epicenter Zone, a record store and “punk community center” in a nondescript second-floor space above Valencia Street, peroxide kids peruse copies of The Philosophy of Punk, a master's thesis written by a student at Boston University. Though they may share many beliefs with the author, the 40 or so volunteers on the Epicenter staff share another belief most wholeheartedly: There is no single punk philosophy.
Besides being a resource for hard-to-find vinyl and underground literature, Epicenter is a meeting house where punks come to perform, play pool, or just hang out. The “collective” is staffed by unpaid volunteers whose ranks have turned over countless times since the space opened, five years ago this July 7.
Active member Gordon Edgar says that all proceeds from sales at the nonprofit Epicenter go right back into buying more inventory. Even the board members listed on the organizations legal papers don't earn a dime. One of the downfalls of the '60s, Edgar says, was that it culminated in too many instances of “one person getting rich off hip culture.”
But Matt Wobensmith, nominal secretary of Epicenter's corporation and until recently a regular at the store, says he disagrees with the unofficial “poverty oath” punks are expected to take. He places the blame for that ethic squarely on the shoulders of his former boss, Tim Yohannon, longtime publisher of punk's monthly “bible,” Maximum RocknRoll.
Wobensmith, a one-time MRR reviewer and editor of a special “queercore” issue three years ago, now a one-man show at the all-gay Outpunk record label, says that although the 50-year-old Yohannon is “an extremely friendly person, I quit because the magazine was getting really right-wing in a lot of ways. … He's trying to bring back an era where everyone was playing surf rock. Unfor-tunately, his parameters are getting whiter and maler.”
Epicenter professes to be much more open-minded than that, but there's a catch. In 1990, MRR's Yohannon laid out the cash for Epicenter's lease and inventory. “I founded it,” says Yohannon. “It was my idea. I did most of the recruiting, and for the first year I worked there every day.” Yohannon declines to put a dollar figure on his initial investment, saying only that it was “substantial.”
“It's the same thing we did with Gilman Street [Berkeley's punk club],” he says. “Once it becomes not wobbly, we let go.”
Wobensmith says the two officers of Epicenter's original partnership wanted to pay back the start-up money as soon as possible, but when their association with the project ended, Yohannon told their replacements not to worry about the debt.
“It's guilt money,” Wobensmith claims. “I feel that the Epicenter still lives in the shadow of Maximum RocknRoll.”
At the clubhouselike Epicenter site, collective member Ryan Wells admits that there is a “cross-pollination to this day” between Epicenter and MRR, but he emphasizes that Epicenter doesn't rely solely on the ideas espoused by the magazine.
“We're the tip of the iceberg for a lot of different movements,” he says. “It's like shining a light in a room full of cockroaches.”
Epicenter volunteers help support a wide variety of advocacy groups that meet regularly in their space, such as Q-TIP (Queers Together In Punkness), Food Not Bombs, and the Prisoners' Literature Project.
“Basically, it's a left-wing, liberal agenda,” says member Lance Hahn, guitarist for J Church.
Half of Epicenter's volunteers are women, and they have the store to themselves during a weekly Women's Worker Day — devised several months ago as a solution to isolated incidents of a few male members' intimidating conduct.
According to Lisa Camisa, a buyer for the store, the women's day has helped usher in a new wave of female volunteers at Epicenter.
“They may feel more comfortable first volunteering on Women's Worker Day,” she muses.
And Wobensmith is quick to point out that the women of Epicenter “run many key things. That's a strong statement, unheard of in punk circles.” He also says he's never encountered any anti-gay hostility at Epicenter. “Maybe it's the nature of San Francisco,” he suggests.
But the 24-year-old Wobensmith, a transplant from Pennsylvania, goes on to argue that Epicenter's activities still leave some equality to be desired.
“The fact that it's in a big Latino neighborhood and it doesn't have any Latino things going on,” he says, “that's one thing that's been brought up.”
Wobensmith says he's no longer involved in the day-to-day operations of the facility because he sees it as little more than a cooler-than-average record store, “and upper-middle-class white kids are the least ones who deserve cheap records.”
“We don't do the community-center stuff well enough, quite honestly,” agrees Gordon Edgar.
But Epicenter is a model of its kind, known within punk circles across the country. (There are similar operations in Minneapolis and Albuquerque; one that had been running in New York just folded.) Recently, Epicenter hosted a “Punk Prom,” and plans are under way for a week of activity to celebrate its upcoming anniversary.
The bulletin boards of the space are plastered with notices for rides offered, drummers wanted, and rooms to let. Another wall usually hung with punk artwork is now bare save for a huge poster designating a “Photo Area,” a leftover of the Punk Prom. A quiet corner room lined with armchairs serves as the Epicenter library, where the punk principles of Do It Yourself range from political tracts to theology textbooks to cookbooks.
Filling a booth near the Photo Area, Edgar, Wells, and Hahn share a laugh over the crash pad half a block from Epicenter where, until recently, seven of eight roommates also worked together at the community center.
“The one who didn't was very unhappy,” Hahn jokes.
But that sort of claustrophobic group interaction is something Wobensmith, sitting on the edge of his bed in his studio apartment in the Mission, believes can't last.
“There's a mid-20s identity crisis where you don't want dead-end jobs, or crates for furniture, anymore,” he says. “A lot of these kids are just getting away from their parents, and the Epicenter is a ready-made society.”
Most of the current regulars say they were first attracted to the collective for its anarchist ideals.
“Everyone shares the feeling that we don't want our messages to be controlled by the same corporations that build bombs and destroy Third World countries,” Edgar submits. “That's one thing we all agree on.”
“People get into punk because they're lured by the promise of politics,” says Wobensmith. “They really want to believe in something, whether it's animal rights, anarchism, whatever. The same goes for queerness.”
To many punks, major-label record companies represent the nearest threat of corporate America's status quo. Boycotting their products is a simple but very effective statement. Epicenter's buyers have a “no-majors” policy; Yohannon says “they fudge more than Maximum does, but that's their business.”
Wobensmith: “It's not wrong to say that major labels are bad, or that they're squeezing out the mom-and-pop record stores. There's nothing nice about them; it's big business. But we live in a capitalist society, and most products in stores are provided the same way. …
“If I was still at the Epicenter,” he continues, “I would cut ties with Maximum RocknRoll completely and move in a different direction. I would get rid of the nonprofit and volunteer status, so that it would run better. Or I'd go the other way and make it a real community center.”
Asked about Wobensmith's criticisms of Epicenter, an exasperated Yohannon says, “Yes, it's really inefficient. Kids fuck up. It's very frustrating to work with that kind of chaotic democracy. The idea of a collective is bullshit — ultimately it comes down to a few people doing the work, and the others getting an equal vote. People do burn out.” On top of all that, he says, his great reward is the very fact that Epicenter survives.
“The bottom line on collectives is that they don't last,” Yohannon acknowledges. Epicenter, he says with a hint of paternal pride, has disproved that notion.