Alice Schenker died at age 88 earlier this month. Alice and her late husband Don opened the Print Mint inside Moe’s Books on Telegraph in 1965, at a time where men with long hair or beards were not allowed in the Espresso Forum at Telegraph and Haste (now the home of Amoeba Records).
When the Schenkers started selling posters and fine art prints, they weren’t only the best at what they were doing —they were the only ones doing what they were doing. Along with espresso, croissants, Gauloises cigarettes, out-of-town newspapers, used books and records, you could now buy posters and art prints on Telegraph Avenue. Odd as it may sound now, it was a revolutionary thing in the mid-1960s. A few years later, the Schenkers started publishing and selling underground comics, another ground-breaking cultural movement.
Alice Olsen was born in Racine, Wisconsin, in 1931. Her parents were Alfred and Mabel Olsen. Alfred worked at the Gold Folding Furniture Company for 50 years. In the summers, Alice worked on local farms. One summer she worked on an onion farm alongside Mexican children, Indian children, and German prisoners of war.
Before puberty, Alice developed scoliosis, a sideways curvature of the spine. Her mother took Alice to a doctor who said that Alice would be in a wheelchair by the time she was 12. Then and there, Alice came to know that adults were often wrong. This feeling was reinforced by a high school English teacher who told her, “You don’t have to take your parents seriously. Please know that your mother’s a little crazy.”
Alice graduated from high school at 17. Her parents wanted her to stay in Racine and marry, but she had saved enough money to go to Antioch College. As part of Antioch’s co-op program. Alice went to New York. New York excited Alice to her core. She did not return to Yellow Springs, Ohio, for the rest of her Antioch education.
Alice’s oldest daughter Ona remembers Alice’s stories of living in a loft with a man who had cared for the animals in the Vienna zoo during the war and was now surrounding himself with exotic animals in his loft; he traveled around the country opening petting zoos.
Alice met Don at a party and knew immediately that he was the one for her. They were loosely part of the evolving Beat/Bohemian scene – they had day jobs but were taking classes at the Art Students League and they eventually had an enameling studio in Greenwich Village. Don wrote poetry.
They married on New Year’s Eve as 1956 rolled into 1957.
In 1957, they set off to Mexico in a 1941 Buick that they bought for $100. They had read an account by a couple of a camping trip made with a donkey caravan through the state of Michoacan. Alice: “What snagged us was their description of Zirahuen, its beautiful lake setting.” Alice wrote a six-page account of their trip years ago that may be seen here.
As they drove through the American South, Alice wrote: “Each night we looked for an out-of-the-way place to sleep in our car without being bothered. Off the usual path, we got glimpses of the segregated South that were the landscapes of novels. Imagination easily conjured up the lurking evil of this segregated system with violence on the edges.”
They stopped in New Orleans and were swept up by “the architecture with all its ironwork, the courtyards and gardens full of fragrant plants and vines, the French market serving that wonderful chicory-laden coffee, the wharves and levees with all their activity, the Bourbon St. Jazz scene.”
Then through Texas, into Mexico. In Mexico City, they met “young Cubans involved with the revolutionary movement brewing in the mountains of that country.” There was some animosity towards the Schenkers until the hotel proprietor showed the Cubans that Don was reading Federico del Sagrado Corazón de Jesús García Lorca, a Spanish poet and playwright who was killed by Franco’s nationalists at the start of the Spanish Civil War. “There was an immediate change in the mood to one of festivity,” Alice wrote.
Their destination was Zirahuen, Michoacan. Alice describes their time there – “Every day was quite a day. Not our vision of undistracted time to pursue the arts.” A social gaffe (giving a young man $5 which he spent to get drunk and raise hell) led to the decision to leave Zirahuen.
They went to Patzcuaro and stayed at the Hotel Ocampo. Alice wrote that by then they were “having some serious doubts about our decision to live in Mexico. We’ve done hardly anything so far to drum up future income, being so busy with just ‘living in Mexico.’” They decided to fix the car and leave, after a mere three months.
Where to? San Francisco. Passing through Big Sur, they stopped and gazed at Henry Miller’s mailbox but didn’t attempt a visit. As they neared San Francisco, they took a motel room just south of the city because Don wanted Alice to see the city that he knew from his time stationed in Oakland during the World War II for the first time in the daylight.
The next day – San Francisco. Don was anxious to see City Lights, the epicenter of the San Francisco/Beat poetry movement. Alice: “Ginsberg’s book had caused a lot of excitement and we were aware that he and others were the center of a ‘poetry scene’ going on in San Francisco.” They went to the store and met Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who was working at the counter.
He invited them to a party with Kenneth Rexroth, a poet who was a central figure in the San Francisco Renaissance poetry movement. Rexroth didn’t consider himself a Beat poet, but Time magazine did, crowning him “Father of the Beats.” Not a bad first night in San Francisco for the Schenkers!
That summer they ran into Jack Kerouac, who was briefly living in Berkeley with his mother. Don and Alice took a very drunk Jack back to their apartment from a party at Baker Beach, pulled down the Murphy bed, and slept as a chaste threesome, Don in the middle.
In March 1958, they returned to New York for six months. When Alice’s brother-in-law Jerry developed medical problems in San Francisco and her sister Darlene was pregnant, the Schenkers returned to help. Then they couldn’t afford to return to New York. They lived in San Francisco for the next seven years. Don wrote poetry, publishing one volume with David Meltzer.
Alice and Don started a family. Don worked framing at Flax Art Supplies, where he perfected a print-mounting technique.
In 1958, Moe Moskowitz arrived in the Bay Area. The Schenkers had known Moe in New York, where he worked for art galleries, studied violin and was a member of the Living Theater acting group.
Moe opened his first bookstore at 1986 Shattuck Ave. just north of University Avenue, currently the home of the Turkish Kitchen. Next stop was the northeast corner of Telegraph and Dwight (until a year ago the home of Shakespeare & Co. bookstore) to join a partnership and run Rambam, a used bookstore. It was named Rambam in honor of Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, commonly known as Maimonides, and also referred to by the acronym Rambam. In 1965, Moe dissolved his partnership at Rambam and moved across Telegraph to what had been Cody’s – who had moved to the new building at Haste.
Don and Alice launched the Print Mint inside Moe’s store, selling and framing fine art reproductions. Moving into Moe’s was more than a partnership; it was a friendship as well. They’d run in the same Beat circles in New York. Moe and Don went to the movies together every Monday night for 30 years.
Then came posters. Alice saw a poster of Jean-Paul Belmondo and a lightbulb lit up. She called the distributor and a path appeared – sell posters.
“The Print Mint was the first and most influential retail store to disseminate the new poster art of the 1960s, said Lincoln Cushing, Berkeley’s poster scholar laureate. “They not only sold posters, they occasionally published them, and between 1967 and 1972 produced dozens of posters on subjects such as impeaching president Lyndon Johnson, supporting the American Indian movement with “Custer Died for our Sins” by Norman Orr, concerts at the Avalon theater, and marijuana culture with a six-foot-tall joint.”
“As a political and countercultural poster scholar, I cannot be too strong in emphasizing the importance of the Print Mint in the Bay Area’s – and later, the world’s – 1960s poster renaissance.”
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Between 1945 and 1965, very few “oppositional” posters – public documents critical of the status quo – were issued because of the deep chill of anticommunism, said Cushing. That changed in 1965 as the influence of San Francisco and the Bay Area’s fusion of counterculture and political activism garnered strength.
Two developments propelled the newfound popularity of posters — they got easier to make and to distribute. Previously, most posters were either printed by hand in small workshops (usually by screen printing) or were produced at offset print shops. In the mid-1960s, there were new ways to create type cheaply.
“And as people started wanting posters to put on their walls, new distribution channels evolved,” said Cushing. “Head shops, bookstores, and poster stores provided the physical space to see and buy posters, and artist-run cooperatives made it easy to order them by mail. The Print Mint was ground zero for that deliriously powerful cultural bloom.”
Right here – in our dear old Berkeley!
In late 1966, Moe decided to open a store in Haight-Ashbury. The Print Mint followed, and for a year that included the Summer of Love, the store operated at 1542 Haight. Si Lowinski (Phoenix Gallery, College Avenue, Berkeley) ran the Haight store, with frequent visits from the Schenkers who kept the Telegraph Avenue store going.
That summer, mainstream America discovered what the Print Mint had known for a few years – posters were cool.
Moe never got his Haight store off the ground. He got into a quintessentially Moe battle with the licensing authority and abandoned the plan. As the Haight slipped from the Summer of Love into the Winter of Hard Drugs, the Schenkers closed their Haight Street store and focused on the Telegraph Avenue site.
Two things happened next, as the Big Changes swept Telegraph and Berkeley and the Bay Area and California and the United States.
Moe’s moved a few stores south when Moe decided to demolish the old Moe’s with the Telegraph Hilton above it and build a new store. The Schenkers at this point set up their own shop next to Moe. When Moe moved into his new building, the Schenkers moved into what had been Moe’s temporary store next to the new building.
The second big change was the Print Mint’s embrace of the burgeoning universe of underground comics.
The Schenckers’ first comics job was an April 1966 reprint of Joel Beck‘s Lenny of Laredo, but comics weren’t a big part of the business until a few years later.
In 1968, Print Mint launched Yellow Dog, a newspaper and then comic book that featured many of the superstar artists of underground comics.
Eventually, the Print Mint published such underground stars as Robert Crumb, Trina Robbins, Rick Griffin, S. Clay Wilson, Victor Moscoso, Gilbert Shelton, Spain Rodriguez, and Robert Williams.
Alice and Don were half a generation older than the artists in the comix scene and were grounded in the Bohemian/Beat movement, not the hippie counterculture. But Alice was endlessly curious about their work and lives. She brought them home at times for dinner with her young family.
As the comics took off, Don and Alice made Bob and Peggy Rita partners. It was Don’s hope that each couple could work for six months and then take six months off. That sounds good, but it didn’t work out that way.
Don did the organizing, editing and layout of the comic books, working with the artists. Bob and Peggy Rita and Alice handled the distribution and the day-to-day operations of the business. Alice also oversaw the Berkeley store. In other words, Alice did almost everything.
The main office of the Print Mint Press was located at 830 Folger Avenue in Berkeley.
Publishing and distributing underground comics was not without its risks, as the Schenkers learned.
The first issue of Zap that they published was #4 in the fall of 1969. One of the themes that R. Crumb explored in the issue was incest in a “normal” middle-class family. The Berkeley police arrested the Schenkers on Oct. 21, 1969. They were charged with violating California Penal Code Section 311.2, which said it was illegal to make or exhibit or distribute pornography.
Moe’s Owner Moe Moskowitz was arrested at about the same time for selling obscene materials – R. Crumb’s Zap Comics and Snatch Comics, the S.C.U.M. Manifesto by Valeria Solanas (who shot Andy Warhol in 1968), Horseshit Magazine (The Offensive Review), and Mah Fellow Americans, editorial cartoons by the Underground Press Syndicate’s Ron Cobb.
Their friend Simon Lowinsky, who put up an exhibition of the Crumb’s original drawings, had been arrested on the same charge. His case came to trial first. He was acquitted after supportive testimony from Peter Selz, a Cal professor and the founding director of the Berkeley Art Museum. The charges against the Schenkers and Moskowitz were dropped.
Don Schenker had never stopped writing poetry. In 1970 he published Say X, complete with a blurb on the back: “Schenker’s talent staggers me. His range is enormous…” Did I mention that he wrote his own blurb?
During the middle of all this, Don left the family for a year to engage in primal therapy, a trauma-based psychotherapy created by Arthur Janov who believed that repressed pain of childhood trauma is the root cause of neurosis. For that year, Alice handled it all – work, home, kids. Her go-to dinners were chuck steak, spaghetti with a meat sauce, tamale casserole, and spaghetti with clam sauce. She tried to enlist the children to help around the house with a chores list, but they rebelled and the project failed. Jenny: “Her needs weren’t important.”
Jenny remembers her siblings and herself as feral children. They went to the Walden School and in the summer, went to the Timber Hill Camp.
The Schenkers rode the wave of Print Mint in its full-throttle glory until 1975 when the Schenker/Rita partnership dissolved. The Ritas took the publication/distribution end of the business, and the Schenkers took over the store and framing business. The Rita end of the business retained the Print Mint name, and the Schenkers renamed the store the Reprint Mint. After another ten years, the Schenkers sold the business completely.
Within days of selling the business outright in 1985, Don was diagnosed with metastasized prostate cancer. He died in 1993. Moe Moskowitz said this about his friend Don’s death: “I couldn’t speak because I’m incapable of praise, too critical. I’ll miss our movies and I’ll always love you, in spite of myself. Love forever from a very critical friend.”
Alice was now alone raising the children, but she was at least free of the Reprint Mint duties. She rediscovered the joy of painting, which she kept up into her 80s.
After a first visit to Bristol by Jenny’s best friend in 1978, a regular back and forth between the two towns ensued. Jenny: “Several Bristolians have lived here now for 40+ years, including Ona’s husband Kev, and we all have dear friends there. I go back and forth a lot still. There was a stream of kids passing through here in the early 1980s, most of whom stayed in my parents’ house, hence the Cream of Bristol Manhood.”
Alice lived out her days without another partner. She had strong friendships with a number of women, and was a doting grandmother to grandchildren who called her “Grooms.” Her daughter Ona says that the grandchildren saved Alice’s life after Don died.
Throughout her life, she was known as “Madame Malaprop.” She said “egotesticle when she meant “egotistical.” She said “Idiotard” when she meant “Ididorad.” She was an aggressive atheist and non-conformist. Alice Schenker’s life was often filled with hard work and drudgery, but she never lost her sense of wonder, her curiosity, and her joy.
Ona Rose-Williams, the oldest of the three children, remembers the egalitarian nature of her mother. “She talked to us as people. If she was stuck on an art project, she’d ask me how I would do it.” When I used the adjective “feral” as Jenny had, Ona laughed. “We only had two rules. No feet on the table. Eat what you can and leave the rest. I myself could have used a little more structure.”
The children tired of Alice and Don always talking about business at the dining room table. “One night Jenny just said that there would be no more talking about business at dinner — and there wasn’t.”
Noah, the youngest of Alice’s three children, writes: “She was a life-long rebel. She always was suspicious of conventional ways of doing things. She was an atheist, and pretty suspect of all religions, although she did meet with a meditation group regularly for many years. She loved art, and though she was never scholarly or snobbish about it, she actually knew the names and styles of lots of fairly obscure artists of the European Renaissance. She was very modest about what she knew, as well as about her own considerable artistic abilities. She was also quite self-critical about her own painting. We could never get her to show her work. We do plan on showing some of it at her memorial.”
Doris Moskowitz of Moe’s Books has known Alice for almost her entire life. Doris writes: “Alice was a real friend to me when I was a kid. A beacon of creativity and the present moment, she continued to nurture me after Moe died and will always be in my heart. I know she was one of the wonderful friends that Moe followed to California for more freedom in the 1950s. She led me to more freedom too. What a loss for everyone who knew her.”
Alice is survived by her three children, Ona Rose-Williams, Jenny Hurth and Noah Schenker. Memorial services are pending.