What Are Those Cute Little Maps?
An Interview with Lee Posey of UNSCENE
By David Shuey, December 19, 2008
UNSCENE is not necessarily new on the scene. It started in Chicago in 2000, then spread to 12 other cities. You've probably seen their useful neon-designed maps at Filter (when it was there) or Earwax (still there!) at six corners-North/Milwaukee/Damen or hundreds of other print material depots in Chicago. The maps point you to boutiques, coffee shops, and other indie stores – with any luck before they turn into banks (see: Filter). They also do online side projects on independent music, such as UNHEARD, and there's even something here for unsigned bands to get their music out.
Recently, my friend and former contributor Lee Posey asked to do an interview exchange for the UNSCENE Chicago newsletter. I would send her a few questions on email, and she would send me some. She started first, and you can read some of my responses on the genesis of Chicago 6 Corners on PDF [link has since been removed]. Lee's thoughts on local commerce, the bullies of the Big Shops overwhelming the Little Guys, and her band Chaperone are detailed below:
Hi Lee. First off, can you tell people what is UNSCENE. Is it a website? A resource? An idea? All the above?
UNSCENE is primarily a free print guide, the UNSCENE urban navigator, which highlights unique neighborhoods across the country and points the reader to smaller, independent businesses. We also have a website, with an events calendar, so that our demographic can also connect about what is happening in their neighborhoods.
I'd also like to add what Christophe Gauspohl, a principal of UNSCENE, wrote in the UNSCENE Manifesto:
I chose to celebrate small businesses ...Though ‘unseen’ at times, these small businesses need to be respected and frequented. Instead of supporting Starbucks, stop into a local café. Instead of going to the Gap, shop at local fashion boutiques. It takes a collective lifestyle effort to see a greater shift toward a more progressive local culture.
When did you first hear about UNSCENE, and how did you get a job working for them? What aspects of your job do you really like? What's parts are difficult?
I forget exactly where I picked up an UNSCENE guide, but I do remember the relief I felt that I could actually understand the map! I had just moved to the city from North Carolina, and my mind had not yet shifted into "grid" mode. I carried it around with me just so I could get around town; then I realized that all the highlighted spots were different. Special. Indie.
I was working as a massage therapist and needed some supplemental income, when I came across an ad for designer's assistant, in my neighborhood, so I replied. I worked part-time for a year, and was then moved up to a full time Director's position. I now have my hands in almost all aspects of the business, and I love interacting with all of our clients – people who have an independent, progressive spirit OR people who are basically anti-establishment, anti-authoritarian. I get to know what's new in cities from San Francisco to Brooklyn. The difficulties, of course, arise when businesses have to close, when I see that spirit squashed because the small guy can't afford to compete with the bully (think Edmar's vs. Dominicks). UNSCENE is one of the only resources set out to promote and support small business, and it's a tough market out there. I see indie America persevering through the hard times, though, and I remain excited and positive that it will never die.
Where is UNSCENE based out of originally? How has it spread to 13 American cities? Is it a scalable model? Are designs and content written locally, or tasked out throughout the country?
UNSCENE was started in 2000 in Chicago and has since spread to: Atlanta, Austin, Cincinnati, LA, Minneapolis, New Orleans, New York (Brooklyn), Portland, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, and St.Louis. We have partners in some of those cities, and they act as directors for those markets. All design is done by independent designers, overseen by our Principal (and Creative Director), Christophe Gauspohl. UNSCENE is a cool model because it allows our Area Directors to work independently with a lot of freedom, under the support network that we have established. If there's a city that someone thinks needs an UNSCENE guide, that person can make it happen. Anyone (with the right mind-set) can make a city "UNSCENE" just by seeing the need, putting their mind to it, and becoming our partner.
UNSCENE's bright brochures with fancy maps and highlights of Wicker Park's hip and chic shops was one of the first brochures I saw stacked high at the art space I lived at when I first moved here. We were encouraged to drop them around the neighborhood. (I think someone at the space must have worked for them.) First off, how are those brochure/maps distributed around Chicago?
We hire independent workers (students, delivery drivers, messengers, etc) to distribute our guides. This is another cool position within the company because it allows one to visit small businesses, galleries, theaters, and events regularly.
Where are they available? In which neighborhoods? How many locations?
UNSCENE guides are available at stores listed in the guide (you can search at www.unscene.com) plus hotels, realtors, events, and more. You can also contact us directly to get guides shipped or delivered to you. Many people contact us if they are planning a trip or have out-of-town guests coming in (especially great for wedding party gift bags!).
What makes UNSCENE attractive or useful to the average person picking them up, or going to the website?
UNSCENE makes it easy to support independent business by pointing out the neighborhoods that are more progressive. Instead of spending your money at "big-box" stores, you have the directions to more independent and unique boutiques and retailers. Plus, as I stated earlier, the maps are designed brilliantly, so they're great for travelers or for people who are new to a city. AND they are sleek and portable, so you don't feel like a clueless tourist pulling out the map to take a look.
With the downturn in the economy, do you find that more independent businesses will be cutting back on these promotions? Do you think they're getting value for their advertsing dollar, or would they be better off advertising in 'zines, blogs, bus benches, or newspapers like The Reader or Newcity Chicago?
Print advertising is always a tough sell. Newspapers are becoming a dying medium and magazines are so full of blatant advertising that readers can hardly discern what's an ad and what's an article. UNSCENE is different because it is free to the reader and provides a direct link to the business. UNSCENE also creates a "community" of business owners and consumers. I have, of course, been privy to the hardships that some of our businesses are facing lately, but I think there will always be a need for media like UNSCENE, and we are continuing to support and grow our network, even with the financial crisis.
How does UNSCENE connect to the art scene or underground scene, as they're obviously very oriented towards small businesses and niche shops? What value do they bring to the urban scene in Chicago?
Many of the same people who start independent, progressive businesses are the ones who are involved in some of the most exciting happenings. As I said above, UNSCENE has created a community, we are a community of people all interested in supporting each other. With this sense of community, we feel stronger and more able to tackle the corporate overgrowth that threatens to take over our neighborhoods. If we can support and enable our businesses to grow and thrive, then they, in return, will support even smaller, more underground endevors, for that is where many of them started.
What bands and activities are you involved in right now outside of work? How do you connect your artistic life with your work life?
I play violin with a band called Chaperone and I read, write, dance, play in my free time. But, mainly I feel blessed to have a job where I can express myself, generate new ideas, and I am inspired by what people are doing on a daily basis.