As a 26-year-old, I’m not supposed to love print.
I’m a digital native, spend my days on social media and grew up googling my homework answers. Yet I work at a magazine, keep a pile of them by my bed and picking up a stack of glossies from the newsagent is the high-light of my week.
Luckily, I have also discovered my place of worship — I’m at Hymag, the world’s largest collection of magazines. The archive sits in an 18th-century former cannon foundry in Woolwich Arsenal and there I find a staggering sight: bookcases holding more than 120,000 magazines, from Nineties issues of The Face to the art deco cover of a 1922 Vogue. Young media types and studious anoraks alike chatter away as they pore excitedly over the pages.
‘There’s something so real about a physical magazine,’ says James Hyman, the archive’s founder, who chats to visitors as we walk among the shelves, answering their questions with encyclopedic deftness. His favourite copies include ‘a great run of Vogues’, Interview (‘the Richard Bernstein covers are phenomenal’) and anything with Grace Jones. ‘You can treasure [a magazine], it’s collectable. The more they get published, the more they get destroyed, the more they don’t exist, the rarer they become.’
Digital media may be steadily growing but there continues to be a fascination with print. ‘It’s the luxurious nature of it, the way it lives forever,’ says Tory Turk, curator, archivist and Hymag’s creative lead. ‘And fashion is all about hierarchy. Spending money on big-budget shoots — it’s the absurdity of it, that’s what makes it fashion.’ Even today, to be featured on the cover of glossies is a real statement for celebrities. Any actor or musician can be written about online but there’s an air of exclusivity to securing a printed cover.
Needless to say, Turk and Hyman are obsessed with magazines, from those big-budget shoots to what Hyman calls ‘visual gold’: the seemingly inconsequential markers that show a magazine’s age. There are vintage cigarette adverts with models smiling as they light up and adverts for Boo.com, one of the first online shops, which boasts the clunky strapline ‘sports and streetwear on the net’. Then there’s the copy: in one interview from The Wire magazine in 1986, journalist Mark Sinker says of email: ‘It’s a street thing and all way over my head.’ These snapshots of decades gone by make for an incredible read; I wonder what will appear so laughably outdated in a few years’ time — adverts for superfast broadband or a reference to YouTube?
‘Every magazine you open, there’s so much that has been lost in time,’ says Hyman. And time is what it’s taken to amass a collection like this. In the Nineties, Hyman worked as a scriptwriter at MTV, where there was a practical reason to compile a physical reference library. ‘Magazines were your internet,’ he says. ‘When I was having to write about Madonna or Jean Paul Gaultier, the best place to start was a great Rolling Stone article or an NME spread.’
But he soon realised that his collection was more than just a library. ‘The more I treasured these things, the more I felt there was value in this stuff,’ he says. ‘I had 450 crates sitting in storage and my wife had been sleeping on Playboy magazines for years.’
That’s when Hyman found Turk. In 2011, they spent a year sifting and cataloguing, posting their finds on social media. An appearance on Radio 4 triggered donations from other collectors looking for a home for their magazines and ‘the phone went into meltdown’, laughs Hyman. Since then, donations have flooded in, from small-time hobbyists to the late magazine publisher Felix Dennis and fashion writer Colin McDowell, who has loaned Hyman more than 2,000 magazines from his own collection.
Hymag has been utilised by academics, students, photographers and designers — Hyman tells me that one of the major fashion houses is coming down later to glean inspiration. Previous visitors include Marc Jacobs, who ‘didn’t just want to look at the Vogues but at music magazines and rave magazines that would give them some odd fashion’.
Hymag’s importance as a reference point for the fashion industry (which, in the UK, is worth about £32 billion) makes the archive much more than just a passion project. It’s a valuable resource and a testament to the significance of print publishing. And Hyman is currently planning a mammoth project: to digitise the entire collection within three years. Currently it costs £75 an hour to visit (give or take, depending on your needs). A digitised version would mean subscribers could browse for longer, potentially at a lower cost.
But isn’t putting this celebration of print online a contradiction in terms? ‘It complements what this place stands for. Digital and physical have their synergies,’ counters Hyman. ‘It’s not one or the other, it’s both.’ The archive itself will still exist after digitisation. ‘We’re not trying to replace the physical,’ Turk insists.
Irreplaceable may indeed be the word for this vast temple to publishing. As I get up to leave, picking my way through waist-high stacks of Vice, Zoom, Pop and countless niche trade magazines, the visitors are still feverishly leafing through the archives. ‘As we always say,’ smiles Turk, ‘you want to find what you didn’t know you were looking for.’