DIY has gone through many phases since the concept first took root in the 1960s and 1970s, in the mid-1990s, I was right in the middle of a great DIY community in Bloomington, Indiana. For a small town there was a lot going on, especially in the arts community. Boxcar Books was collecting books for prisoners and just beginning to create zines. The local cable access show, JB on the ROX, broadcasted conversations about anything cultural or political. Christy Paxton and Greg Der Ananian started doing craft nights where they would make things like glitter, epoxy refrigerator magnets. Greg later moved to Boston and co-launched the craft fair, “Bizarre Bazaar” in the early 2000s, so I like to think of Bloomington as where the seeds of today’s DIY craft fair movement were first planted.
There was A LOT happening in music, too. While the label Secretly Canadian started in 1996, there is a long history of great music happening in Bloomington, (probably even earlier than Hoagie Camichael !) and the Indiana University music school is pretty tops! I’d go see bands like The Walking Ruins, The Smears, Sardina, and so many different types of bands playing in the same few venues or many different basements (great resource for Indiana bands: musicalfamilytree.com). Eventually, some of them became a bit known outside of Bloomington, the town was pretty remote (especially before the internet was widely used) so most of the bands just belonged to our community – and it was fun. There is something really special about people making art and music as part of that community without really being concerned about being famous, it was about having fun, honing a skill and making things happen.
Bloomington in 1995 was the kind of place where you could ride your bike around town and you didn’t have to lock it up to keep it from getting stolen. You could go down Kirkwood Avenue and run into things to do. There was a lot of access to information (the libraries were great!) and a lot of smart people around. At the same time a lot of just plain enjoyment; drinking booze, eating well and hanging out and talking. I got a job working at this coffee shop called The Runcible Spoon, which was a big social hub for professors, students and locals. Later on, I worked at the bar and music venue, Second Story, where I first saw Guided By Voices (a year or so before they were my first customer!) and experienced an array of folk, salsa, punk, indie, etc. music.
My best pal and bandmate, Teri convinced me to do a work-study semester in London in 1995. After endless nights of going out and meeting people, I found a calling. Buttons hadn’t been popular in the US since I was a kid, but I noticed they were still a thing with my friends in London, they never really went away! My friend Mark Pawson, an artist whose been making buttons for a long time and also runs, Disinfotainment, a comic distribution company, offered to show me how to get started. When my work-study was over, I came back to Bloomington to finish my classes and see if I could get any interest with my button idea, Guided By Voices said that If I started a button company, they would order from me (!). After doing research at the local library, I found a machine, sent pricing postcards to all the labels in my record collection. Through making buttons, I loved meeting more people involved in music and art outside of Bloomington. Everything was done through mail order back then, and people would send letters, records and orders to my P.O. box. A few people asked if I knew Icki from Sty Zine since lived in Bloomington, too. So I crammed a note in his P.O. box and we became pals.
The original name of the company was The Little One-Inch Button Company but in 1996 I renamed it Busy Beaver Buttons because I knew I wanted to do more than just one-inch buttons at some point. The name came from an old children’s book my mom had called Busy Beavers, which was about these very industrious beavers plus, I thought it was funny. That day when Mark Pawson showed me how to make buttons, I also purchased several other items from him, including Archer Prewitt’s comic book,“Sof’ Boy.” I liked his art so I wrote to him and said, “Hey, I’m starting this button company. Would you be interested in drawing a character for it?” He ended up drawing our logo in exchange for 300 buttons. He’s still nice enough to do a few drawings per year for us!
From the start, my customers were spread across the country, and I found Bloomington to be the perfect home base. It was so easy to live there. I could bike anywhere and it was super cheap. When I told my fellow Bloomingtonians that I had started a button company, they were supportive. Looking back, I mostly remember Bloomington in the 1990s as a place where people were really excited about creative projects, new ideas and were willing to help. It isn’t unlike the Chicago I know now, but at that time I was lucky to find a community and friends around me who were inspired, creative, and willing to get involved. It wasn’t really a “scene,” it was just something happening.