Interview: Alex from Ideas on Paper

Photos: Joe Dixey
Interview: Sam Nahirny
Tuesday 14 October 2014
reading time: min, words

Despite the digital revolution, reading a magazine on a device is never quite as good as the real thing. It’s not all nostalgia - although yes, there is something wonderful about flicking through pages at leisure while getting a hit of the distinctive smell of ink and paper - physical print is actually easier to read. We spoke to Alex Smith, the man behind the independent magazine shop Ideas On Paper, about why print is here to stay...


Tell us a bit about yourself, and what made you want to start a magazine shop?
As a kid I always enjoyed coming into town and looking around shops. I was excited by the independent scene there was at the time. I was conscious of the fact that I needed experience, so I went off to London when I was eighteen and did a management training course at Harrod’s. Then I worked at Harvey Nichols, Selfridges and Mulberry, always with the plan that I’d come back to Nottingham and open my own shop. I moved back in summer 2012 and started to formulate my plan. One of the main stumbling blocks was being able to afford the rent, but the Cobden Chambers project created the possibility to have a retail presence in the city centre.

I was going to ask about Cobden Chambers…
The great thing about it is that it’s in town, but has the independent vibe of Hockley. It’s going to be even more exciting as the rest of it opens up, including the independent department store. I believe there is talk of a micro-brewery across the way in the building at the back of The Bodega. I like to describe it as a hippy commune of capitalism because it’s got that collective vibe to it, but at the end of the day, we’re all businesses trying to make a living.

I suppose something like this wouldn’t feel as special in London… 
Yeah, to have something like this in Nottingham is a bit more unique. It’s an exciting and creative place; I do think of Nottingham as being a bit like the Berlin of the UK. People here are quite independent minded and quirky - there are parallels. Berlin’s got a fantastic magazine shop called Do You Read Me, and I hope that one day Ideas On Paper will be as big and wonderful as them.

Why now with the perception that ‘print is dying’?
There’s a renaissance in independent print. Producing a magazine isn’t a great way to get rich quick, but it’s never been easier with desktop publishing software and various printing methods. There are lots of magazines, partly because people want to escape from the digital world. People really do value being able to hold a physical object. People thought that with the advent of the iPad, we’d all stop looking at stuff on paper. Who wants to do that? It’s not a sensory experience, it’s not exciting.

Do you think digital has actually given life to print again then?
I believe in the right platform for the right kind of content. When you go shopping for your groceries, you do it online and have it delivered because it’s boring, but if you want to go clothes shopping, you might want to go into a shop and try stuff on because it’s a more enjoyable experience. I don’t like using the phrase consuming content, but let’s say reading stuff, or looking at images; if it’s something you’re doing as a choice, as a leisure activity, then it’s much nicer to sit down with a book or a magazine, than it is to continue to look at a computer screen.

The thing a lot of people love about magazines is the smell of paper...
When you open a magazine and you smell the ink, you just kind of get a hit. It’s about feeling the paper, the weight of the thing, the way that it’s constructed, and some of the magazines have got particularly interesting bindings. I’m leading people through a journey; from delivering ideas to them, to then giving them the stationary and the raw materials to put their own ideas onto paper. Then they can begin projects of their own.

You stock so many niche magazines, how do you find out about them?
Ideas on Paper came about because with the books and magazines that I sell, you can’t normally find these sort of titles in many places. I get my information from a number of websites and blogs that celebrate independent print. A great one is Stack. You subscribe to Stack just like you would a magazine, and you get a different magazine every month. You have no idea what it’s going to be, but you just trust that they’re going to send you something that is really great, whether it’s great photography, writing or illustration. It’s an interesting concept because in a world of almost infinite choice, we really value the role of the curator. There are a couple of other great websites, MagCulture, which does what is says on the tin, and Cover Junkie - the guy who runs it says, “I know a cover is good when I want to lick it.”

A lot of your magazines are so well made, but they’re no more expensive than your standard magazines. Why is that?
A term that people use a lot is “book-like.” These magazines aren’t something that you would read once and then throw away. They’re something that you would read and treasure it in the same way that you would a book. You’d put it up on your shelf and then you’d buy the next one, and you’d put that next to it and build up a nice little collection.

Where do you see print in, say, five or ten years time?
It still has a place and will do for the foreseeable future. You have to remember what makes us tick as human beings. We’ve got five senses, anything that can stimulate those is going to be something that appeals to us. When you hold a magazine it’s feeling the paper, smelling the ink, holding it in your hand, looking at the design, in a way that it just pops out at you. On a computer screen images don’t look as strong as they do on paper. We’re not going to stop finding those kind of things exciting - just because contact lenses were invented people didn’t stop wearing glasses. There’s always been a love of books in our consciousness. I can’t see a time when we just look at everything on screen.

You’re often seen on your bike, do you do deliveries?
I go out to see customers simply to deliver, and also do pop-up events as well. At the moment I’m using a City Card bike but my plan is to buy a tricycle from Denmark. Danish postmen use these tricycles that have a big box on the front. Getting one would mean that I can deliver more than I can currently.

We twisted Alex’s arm and got him to tell us his top three magazines at the moment...

Delayed Gratification is a magazine that believes that slow journalism matters; they deliberately reject today’s ultra-fast news cycle which rates being first above being right. They like to let the dust settle on a story and cover it with the benefit of hindsight, thus giving a greater sense of perspective and a more well rounded approach.

Ernest Journal, for the curious and adventurous, is a guide for those who appreciate true craftsmanship and love to build fires and embark on road trips camping under the stars. The magazine is an inspiring mix of breathtaking photography, inspiring stories and beautiful illustrations that make the reader want to pack a rucksack and head off in search of mythical characters – dressed in a fine tweed jacket, of course.

Monocle magazine is a combination of design journal, current affairs briefing, and guide on how to live well;. Describing itself as a briefing on global affairs, business, culture and design it has grown to be one of the most influential publications of the past ten years, contributing to the debate on how to build a more creative and welcoming city, but also which loafers one might wish to wear while strolling around it.

Ideas on Paper website

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