On Self-Reliance, Mormonism and DIY Punk Culture: An Interview with Writer and Book Publisher Nathaniel Kennon Perkins

When I first met Nate Perkins I was giving a reading in a garage in a punk rock farmhouse way out east of Denver, in Brighton, where it’s more Great Plains than mountain country. Perkins was wearing tan Carhartt overalls. He approached Adam Gnade and me after the show and asked us if we had anything to submit to the press he was starting out of a bookstore in Boulder.

Since 1979, that shop, Trident Booksellers and Cafe, has been located on Pearl Street, what might be some of the priciest real estate in one of Colorado’s richest communities. It’s a classic storefront, one that calls to mind bookstores like Shakespeare and Co. in Paris. And like that legendary place, as well as the famous San Francisco bookstore City Lights, Trident is becoming a publishing house and indie book shop, beyond its role as a coffeeshop (with booze) and used bookseller. Walk inside and you’ll find titles from indie lit writers like Scott McClanahan, Mallory Whitten, Sam Pink and Lucy K. Shaw.

Behind the counter you’re likely to find Perkins, the bookstore manager and publisher of Trident Press. But Perkins is more than just a bookslinger. He’s also a writer. His most recent short novel, Cactus, is a spare, quick-moving account of a correctional officer and ex-punk rocker slowly unraveling a mystery in the desert.

I recently sat down with him at the shop over coffee to talk indie lit, book publishing, and writing about the West.

Why do you think the American West is a compelling place to set your stories in?

I grew up mostly in the American West. I’ve mostly spent the past twenty years living between Utah and Colorado and New Mexico. Cactus is set in and around Colorado Springs, where a bunch of my family lives. It’s compelling to me because that’s what I’m familiar with, and that’s what I love. Although I sometimes flirt with the idea of moving to Europe or back to Central America, I can’t imagine myself really ever moving out of the Four Corners states for any significant period of time. I’ve just spent so much time out in the desert, and the culture is so much what I know and who I am. So that plays into both what I’m interested in writing about and what I’m interested in reading about. There’s a sense of identity there and it’s one that I relate to.

What ideals and values of the American West do you identify with?

There are a lot of things about the West that are particularly engaging and interesting. One of which is just the open space. I grew up reading Ed Abbey and spending all of my time out camping and hiking in the desert. So just the idea of the openness of the space and the beauty of the land are really moving to me, and they’ve also influenced a bunch of really moving literature, which has been a huge influence.

So it’s the environment, and the literature that the environment created.

Right. And also I think the culture that the environment created. I grew up Mormon, which is a very Western culture.

Some of the values of the Mormons are really similar to the values of what we ascribe to cowboys, the self-reliance.

And I think it’s very interesting. Now it’s very separated, but I think you can draw a lot of parallels between early Mormonism, especially early Mormonism in the West, and DIY and punk culture. It’s fascinating, because those experiences could not be any more different now. But I identify with that a lot, because I grew up hearing those stories. And I also grew up going to punk shows and hearing my friends read poetry or whatever, doing those parties in shitty basements or punk houses. So that self-reliance, that do-it-yourself, do-it-together attitude is a very Western thing.

Take all the people who have all the same values as you and go find a place to live together.

That’s what I’ve done a bunch of times. After I finished school in Salt Lake City I moved to southern Colorado to live and work on a wolf refuge at a place called Mission: Wolf. We were way out in the middle of nowhere in the mountains outside a little town called Westcliffe, Colorado, in the Wet Mountain Valley. Living at 10,000 feet. We had 36 wolves and wolf-dog hybrids. We’re all working with the same people, hanging out with the same people, preparing meals with the same people, and you’re trying to do something that has some sort of philosophical backing to it, environmentally. Engaging as directly as you can with wolf politics.

That was my first experience in that kind of living. Then I ended up in Boulder living in a housing co-op called the Radish Collective. I lived out in the country, then I wanted to experience the other side of living communally in a city, albeit a relatively small one. From there, I ended up starting something in between, which was a punk farmstead in Tijeras, New Mexico, outside of Albuquerque in the mountains. Those things, the making it work in the West, where’s there no water and it’s fucking brutal, and making art from a punk perspective come together really nicely. The West is the perfect place for that.

So what you’re doing with Trident, is it regional? Does it matter where the books you’re publishing are set?

Trident is not necessarily limited by any regional desires for writing or writers. It just so happens that all the writers, beside the Kroptokin and Emma Goldman pocket collections that we published, are Western writers. So far. Let’s see. There’s Noah Cicero, who’s from Ohio but now lives in Las Vegas. A lot of that book, Blood-Soaked Buddha/Hard Earth Pascal, is about the West. There’s Katie Foster, who’s originally from Denver, although she wrote Major Diamonds Nights and Knives in Philadelphia, I think. Jasper Avery is from Tucson originally. Tanner Ballengee is in Tempe. They’re all people who I’ve met in the West and I’ve sort of watched their work for a long time. The Silence is the Noise is certainly the most western of all of these books, and I love it for that.

So let’s talk about the origin of Trident.

The bookstore and coffee shop have been here since 1979. I started working here when I moved back to Boulder from New Mexico in February of 2017. I was working here for a while, started taking a more active part in the bookstore. This is a predominately used bookstore.

Then you started bringing in new books.

Trying to up the small press stuff. That’s been going really well. Then I started managing the bookstore and some time in between there, Peter Jones, the general manager of the place, sort of sat me down and asked me ‘Nate, what the hell are you doing with your life?’ and I was like ‘I dunno, I guess I’m staying here. I like this. I like this town. I like working here.’ And he said ‘Well, I’ve had this idea for a long time to start a press based out of the Trident.’ Sort of based on the idea of City Lights, or something. And he asked if that was something I’d be interested in. And of course that was something I’d thought about for a long time but had never had the financial backing to do.

That’s a dream for a lot of people.

Totally. They said ‘we’ll pay for it. We’ll buy the ISBNs. You’re going to have to do the work. It’s your baby. But we’ll give you the start-up money for it.’

You have to say yes.

I had to say yes. What other chance am I going to have in life to run a bookstore and run a press and not have to worry about the money? I mean, I have to do my best to ensure that the business makes money, obviously. I love this place, and I want it to remain sustainable. But it was a huge opportunity that Peter handed down to me. He taught me so much.

So we started that in November of 2017. Noah’s book was the first.

From the business aspect of you managing this bookstore, and then starting a press, these things can kind of feed each other, right?

Exactly. That’s the whole idea. To not only create this outlet for creative work that I really give a shit about, but also keep a literary space like this rolling at a time when it’s hard to run a bookstore.

It sounds like the people who own this place are committed to literature.

They’re very committed. I have so much respect for them. They’re committed to this space and what it means to the community, in a town that’s changing so much. This is one of the things that’s still around from the old Boulder.

Do you have a lot of college students who come in who are interested in small press lit?

There’s a decent amount of students who are interested in it. Sometimes somebody will come in and be like ‘yo, do you have the new Sam Pink book?’ And I’ll be like ‘fuck yeah I do. Who are you?’ More often than that though, it’s stuff that I know kids in this town, living in a college town, will be interested in but maybe don’t already have the exposure to. But they already come in here to drink coffee and to study then I can turn people on to these books that mean a lot to me.

You don’t really see a lot of these books in bookstores. When you go to Powell’s in Portland, and you go to the small press section, you see this whole wall of books by people you’ve known on Twitter for 10 years, and they’re all together on one wall. It’s very hard to find in other bookstores. Coming in here and seeing all the same people on the shelves is pretty awesome.

This is a great town for bookstores. There are what, six bookstores here? That’s a lot for a small town. There’s Innisfree, which is exclusively poetry, and has a bunch of great readings and does a bunch of cool shit. There’s Boulder Bookstore, which just won an award from Publishers Weekly for being the best bookstore in the country. New books generally. Great fucking bookstore. There are three other used bookstores in this town, two of which are on this same street. One focuses on Beat stuff. Y’know, it’s Boulder.

So I thought ‘what are we going to do here to make it different from any of those other places?’ Bringing in indie lit, and creating a literary culture surrounding those kind of readings, rather than just poetry readings or open mics, has been what’s been setting Trident apart as a bookstore.

How many readings are you doing?

We do one a month, but we’re trying to get more going. There are always locals who come in who say ‘I have a book that I put out’ and I want to support the local community even if it’s not something that I’m putting out. But we’ve had some pretty good readings, and you’ve been here for those, where the whole places fills up.

The other day Anne Waldman came in and bought some of her own books, and I gave her a bunch of the books we’re putting out. She said ‘I’ve been waiting 20 years for Trident to do this.’ It’s the right community for it. And Trident has the right history for it.

It’s easy to forget that Boulder has this literary tradition. But with the Naropa Institute -

And CU. For example, Stephen Graham Jones teaches here and puts out a lot of stuff. It’s a town with a lot of that stuff going on. Multiple MFA programs, a lot of working writers living here, plus an interesting artistic and literary history.

What are your plans for the press?

I want to keep putting out more books. I want to grow it. It’s kind of hard right now because I’m taking on the bulk of the editorial, design, and acquisitions work. I have a few other things in mind after The Silence is the Noise comes out. So I think the focus will be on promoting that and trying to find some new titles. Hopefully get something in the works by October or November.

How many books do you want to put out every year?

We put out eight in 2018 so far. My original dream was to put out one a month. But it’s so much work. But I’ve got my eyes on a couple of people.

What are you working on with your own writing?

I’m working on a couple of things, personally. I’ve got a manuscript for a short story collection, which is almost entirely set in the West. Entirely Western-themed. It’s all influenced by these Western things we’ve talked about, by Mormonism, by DIY culture, by punk shit. I’m just going over the last round of edits before I try to send it off to people. A lot of these stories have appeared in different literary magazines over the years or in my zines. I’ve also got two novel projects I’m working on, which are too early along to talk about. But both also set in Colorado.

It’s good to hear that you’re a working writer as well. It’s good to hear that you know the pain.

So many years of trying to make stuff happen and working really hard at it and knowing that I can make it happen. But knowing how much it takes. Knowing how much I rely on someone else to ultimately put it out and to say yes. To edit it. I also want to be part of it, where I can be like ‘these are all people whose work I really admire and I know they working fucking hard.’ It’s really cool. I’m in a position where I can put that out into the world, so I’m going to do it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.