Sci-Fi Saviors

Tim Szczesuil, Gay Ellen Dennett, Anthony Lewis, Suford Lewis, Dave Cantor, Rick Katze, Lisa Hertel

Sci-Fi Saviors

Story by Daniel M. Kimmel
Photography by Kelly MacDonald Photography

Magoun Square’s NESFA has worked with literary legends like Isaac Asimov, Neil Gaiman, Frank Herbert and George R. R. Martin. But it’s what they’ve done for the not-so-famous that really stands out.

Hidden away in Magoun Square is a not-so-secret organization with an impact far beyond Somerville. In a space that once held a print shop, a dry cleaner and a barber shop is the clubhouse for the New England Science Fiction Association (NESFA). The major reason for its impact is the publishing imprint it runs as a sideline. NESFA Press will celebrate its 40th anniversary in 2012. And except for the authors and the artists, no one makes a dime from the deluxe editions it produces, mostly in hardcover. NESFA Press is a nonprofit, and its employees are volunteers: They work on the press as a labor of love. All profit is put back into the club so that members can borrow books and get free sodas while at the clubhouse (, 504 Medford St, open Wednesdays 6-10 p.m.).

At a time when some question whether the printed word has a future, people who spend a great deal of time thinking about the future are working hard to preserve the genre’s past. Upon entering the clubhouse what you first notice are the shelves of books spread out over three rooms. The center room is the prime meeting space, used for everything from socializing to convention planning to organizational meetings. A library of nearly 10,000 titles covers the walls, including science fiction novels and anthologies, reference books, videos and magazines. Members – who pay a $16 annual fee – have full borrowing privileges.

NESFA purchased the clubhouse building in 1985, having spent most of its first two decades operating in member’s homes. The $160,000 price was raised from loans by the membership. The loans have long since been paid off, giving NESFA full title to the property.

Somerville resident Susie Husted discovered NESFA as part of an activist librarians’ organization, the Boston Radical Reference Collective (BRRC). In exploring private libraries that allowed access to their collections, the BRRC members were overwhelmed by the depth of NESFA’s inventory. “We held a meeting there,” recalls Husted. “Everyone was just, ‘Wow!’” In addition to borrowing books, NESFA members meet – usually on Wednesday evenings and some Sunday afternoons – to socialize, to compare notes on recent science fiction books and movies, to play games and to work on the publications of NESFA Press.

Having resurrected scores of classics from the brink of oblivion, NESFA Press – which outsources its actual printing to Sheridan Books in Ann Arbor, Mich. – has garnered a great deal of fame and respect in the industry. The irony is, it began as an afterthought, according to NESFA founding member Tony Lewis. In the late 1960s, Lewis recalls, someone put together an index of science fiction magazines, useful for tracking down a novelette that never came out in book form. When that “someone” couldn’t pay the printer, the books were held up. Wanting the index to come out, NESFA passed the hat among club members to settle the bill – and then proceeded to sell the books.

That’s how NESFA Press began. Its parent organization, NESFA, was still in its infancy. These days, NESFA is known to local fans primarily as the presenters of Boskone, an annual science fiction convention held President’s Day weekend. Next February will mark the 49th convention with author guest of honor John Scalzi in attendance. It’s through Boskone that NESFA has worked with legends like Isaac Asimov (Foundation), Frank Herbert (creator of Dune), Robert Bloch (Psycho), Neil Gaiman (Coraline) and George R. R. Martin (A Game of Thrones).

In 1972, NESFA Press began putting out a limited edition book in conjunction with that year’s guest of honor. It might include unpublished stories, essays, collected letters or other leftovers by the writer in question. Most were slim volumes sold at the convention. Eventually these volumes proved popular enough to remain in print long afterwards. “Most years saw the publication of two titles: A Boskone Book and an index,” says longtime editor Mark Olson. “The typical Boskone Book press run was 500-700 copies.”

For the next two decades, NESFA Press did little outside of producing special convention books.

It was Olson who, in 1991, transformed NESFA Press from a publishing curio to a major small press. He suggested putting together a collection of the author James Schmitz, whose work was increasingly unavailable. “We were doing programs on old writers for people who had never read their stuff,” recalls Lewis. “And people would say, ‘That sounds interesting. How do I get them?’”

Olson proposed putting out a series of definitive editions of old and oft-forgotten authors. This simple act made NESFA Press a godsend to the community. “By focusing on reprinting the classics – and even some obscurities – of our field, they are keeping alive [science fiction’s] heritage, entertaining the millions (we hope!) of representative genre readers, and educating new generations of writers,” wrote author Paul Di Filippo in a recent column for Asimov’s Science Fiction.

You can now fill several book shelves with the “NESFA’s Choice” series, which includes the work of Somerville native Hal Clement (real name, Harry Stubbs). Clement’s work is commemorated in three volumes. This mining of the past has been noted by contemporary authors as well – including heavyweights like Martin. “I am a big supporter of their efforts, especially the retrospective collections they put together for classic authors,” he says.

The process of resurrecting classics can be as difficult as publishing any other type of book. The author (or, often, his estate) is contacted to discuss a potential project. Once the deal is made, the NESFA editor amasses the material from various sources, securing necessary permissions and transferring the material into a computer file. It then goes through several people who proofread for errors and inconsistencies in existing texts. NESFA’s Jim Mann, when he was working on a definitive edition of Cordwainer Smith’s Norstrilia, discovered no less than four different versions of the text.

Until his passing, Somervillian George Flynn – a professional proofreader – was the ultimate textual authority for NESFA Press books. “He had an eye not only for typos but also grammar and crosschecking errors,” says Sharon Sbarsky, editor of several NESFA collections. “He was very fast.” Flynn died in 2004, bequeathing his personal library to NESFA, amounting to some 8,000 books. When the barber who had been sharing the building retired, NESFA decided to expand its library space. The new reading area has been named in Flynn’s memory.

It makes the Somerville site not only the headquarters for an important small press, but also a tremendous resource for those who want to delve into the genre. “When you walk into that space you’re surrounded by people are really knowledgeable about the books,” says Husted. “They know the authors.”

So when you go down Medford Street and see several spaces that seem closed up except for one window display with numerous science fiction books in the window, know that you haven’t entered the Twilight Zone. You’re at the NESFA clubhouse where they not only read science fiction… they’re making sure future generations will be able to read the classics as well.

You can access the NESFA Calendar, featuring events at the clubhouse as well as other items of interest to science fiction fans,

Daniel M. Kimmel is a movie critic and the author of five books including his most recent, Jar Jar Binks Must Die… and other observations about science fiction movies (Fantastic Books). A Somerville resident, he is a supporting (non-voting) member of NESFA.


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One Response to “Sci-Fi Saviors”

  1. Please do something about your storefront. It serves no positive purpose to the square in keeping it looking the way it does.

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