Nic Esposito may own Philly’s smallest community-supported press, but he doesn’t necessarily see it that way. Rather, his The Head & the Hand Press is an independent publisher that happens to be in Philadelphia—and the difference is sort of really important.
“I think a lot of Philly writers probably unfairly get told, ‘Oh, you’re a local writer,’” says Esposito on the second-floor of the small press’ Fishtown headquarters. “Sometimes you’re not taken seriously because you’re from Philly. A big part of why I started Head & the Hand was that there are great writers and great voices here. This isn’t just a step up from high school, and we’re not just some hobby or club. There are really great artists, and they should be recognized, and they exist in the city of Philadelphia.”
That’s sometimes a tough sell, he says, because most people just assume that publishers are in New York, period. And even though Philly boasts a handful of major indie imprints like Running Press and Quirk Books, it’s often still hard for a new press located outside of Manhattan to be taken seriously. “I try not to really take offense when people see our books and say, ‘This is really nice! This is like a real book,’” says Esposito. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, because we’re a real publishing company.’”
But getting there—and creating a sense of community in a for-profit setting—has forced him to get creative. So, for the last two years, Esposito, who lives a second life as an urban farmer in East Kensington, has created a “Think globally, act locally” kind of business, bringing writers from around the country into his for-profit venture as published authors in both long and short formats, attempting to create something that reflects the uniqueness pulsing through Frankford Avenue’s lower corridor.
With a background in nonprofit business and agriculture, Esposito originally moved to West Philadelphia after about four years of living throughout the Americas, including California, Washington and parts of South America. He co-founded Philly Rooted, a nonprofit dedicated to city agriculture; he even gave a TED talk on the issue in 2010 titled “Urban Green Thumb.”
Calling himself a bit burned out a year later—especially of the nonprofit scene—he’d been working on his first novel, Seeds of Discent, and spoke to a friend who manages artists, asking if that person would help manage him. The friend said no, but came up with a better idea: he said, You know what you should do? You should start a publishing company.
So, Esposito did. And he decided to do it in Fishtown. After all, he was living about three blocks from Frankford Ave. in East Kensington and had begun working at a community farming space next to his property at Dauphin and Emerald streets. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to lay down even more roots.
Since then, he’s put out three novels (his own, Afghan Post by Adrian Bonemberger and Nathaniel Popkin’s Lion and Leopard), an almanac and a series of chapbooks that’ve become increasing popular, made available via vending machines first at Elixir Coffee Shop and now at Honeygrow in Center City. None of that was part of Esposito’s original business plan. The almanac sounded like a cool idea to bring lots of interesting, new voices together, and the vending machine was the product of some spitballing between Esposito and his cousin, who owns a vending machine business and wanted to branch out of candy and soda.
The chapbooks have certainly taken on a life of their own, as has the writer’s workshop Head & the Hand puts together with students and local writers, and their subscription-like publishing project—a take on community-sustained agriculture, in which customers pay an upfront lump sum, then get a package of books throughout the year. Being that Greensgrow Farm is just a few blocks away on Cumberland, Esposito says he didn’t have to explain to neighbors what a CSA or CSP was before moving forward with that idea.
“As Philadelphia takes on some of the metropolitan art and culture that seems to be residual from New York’s out-priced industry, publishing will have to find a dynamic, writer-based schema to be a part,” says the Fishtown-based Jeff Markovitz, whose short story “For Olivia” was published as part of H&H’s chapbook series. “I don’t know if the business model is the next phase of independent publishers, but I do think the next wave is independent publishers … I think all indie presses are going to have to identify a niche market and serve it, both intellectually and aesthetically.”
Now, each week, says Esposito, part of his route around the city includes stopping at the Center City businesses and restocking H&H product in the vending machines. Of the workshop series, H&H estimates around 50 writers have come through since they opened.
Esposito thinks H&H’s presence in Fishtown is something special: There’s no university close by. There’s no big business district. We’re just on our own,” he says. “And if we can make this a vibrant community, that’s monumental. There’s no reason why this neighborhood should be good—except because of the people who live here. And I think that’s really cool.”
Gabriel García Márquez, 1927-2014