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Running AMOK

July 21, 1991|DAVID CHUTE | Chute is a recovering film critic

The ferociously eccentric Silver Lake bookstore, AMOK, is a retail outlet that can haunt your dreams. How many others can you think of?

"This country's twisted in so many ways," says AMOK co-founder Stuart Swezey, "that I think it's valid to just document that, and to be very blunt about it."

Blunt is right. Swezey and his partner, Brian King, cast a wide net for twisted merchandise for their retail, mail-order and publishing operations--shoestring concerns that net each of them about $600 a month. "Sourcebook of the extremes of information in print," proclaims the creepy cover of their catalogue and, for AMOK, it seems no extreme is too extreme.

The plain board shelves of their walk-in-closet-sized, mural-adorned shop on Hyperion, near Sunset, embrace French anarchist treatises, hard-core surrealist screeds, brass-knuckled cult/pulp fiction (Philip K. Dick, Jim Thompson), libertarian do-it-yourself guides to smuggling and tax evasion (not to mention torture and assassination), racist and fascist propaganda tracts, even medical and forensics textbooks (and videos!) full of stomach-churning documentary imagery of bullet wounds and oral tumors.

The store is inconspicuous and tiny and, despite its necro-punk atmosphere, inevitably a little disappointing to anyone familiar with AMOK's almost 400-page current catalogue, the so-called "Fourth Dispatch." Leafing through this veritable Bad Earth Catalogue--past subheads that include "Sleaze," "Mayhem," "Neuropolitics" and "Scratch & Sniff," past ads that offer tomes on everything from porno and serial killers to Situationism (4,000 items in all)--can be like tiptoeing through a minefield. The illustrations aren't always keyed to the text, and you never know when you're going to turn a page and be confronted suddenly by a gaping war wound or a Chinese execution by dismemberment.

AMOK seems to have been conceived (whatever you think of the result) as a conceptual art work in its own right, a retail installation in which the odd juxtapositions suggest underlying kinships you've never sensed before.

"It was a genre-busting idea," King agrees. "The idea was a place where you could present someone like Philip K. Dick not in a ghettoized science-fiction section but just as an important author. Or where you could put a forensics textbook on the same shelf as a Jim Thompson novel. Now this sort of low art/high art idea seems to be more accepted; all these things aren't as separate as people think."

King and Swezey have been known to haunt John Birch Society and black-nationalist bookstores in search of product, and King says AMOK never has been turned down by a fringe publishing operation that doubted their bona fides: "All these guys, from the UFO people to the rabid, right-wing Christians, just want their books distributed. We don't deliberately antagonize them. We don't send them dispatches or rub their noses in the new context we place things in."

For all the heavy-duty Left Bank literature and philosophy on display at AMOK, it's the heavy-duty gore that first catches your attention. Why, one has to ask, is this stuff worth looking at?

"People in this country think of death as taboo," Swezey suggests, "the way they thought of sex in Victorian times. They don't want to see it, they don't want to know about it, they don't really want to understand it. And that's why people come to us, because we show them the goods. Maybe one way to live life to the fullest is to erase the mysteries of death."

In fact, that may not be a bad answer. Probably there are very few of us who aren't at least a bit curious about death--and I don't mean what it will feel like, which goes without saying, but just plain what it looks like. Think of it this way: If you had a relative who was a medical examiner, and were offered a chance to take a peek behind the scenes, would you risk it? Some of you certainly wouldn't, but a fair number surely would--or would at least be drawn to the idea even if you couldn't quite stomach it. (This reporter falls into the latter category; although I think about it a lot, I still can't bring myself to pop that tape of "Basic Autopsy Procedures" into the VCR--not even for research purposes!)

The AMOKsters obviously have stronger constitutions than most of us. Swezey was promoting punk concerts and King was a student at CalArts when they started this strange business, making a business of strangeness, in 1985. There's still something earnest and collegiate about them, as befits a couple of warped American bad-dreamers who have transformed youthful fixations into a career.

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