Kevin Marks has been collecting skateboarding magazines for over 30 years. Initially, he lugged box upon box of magazines from his childhood home in Kansas to college in Colorado and finally to his current home in San Diego, due to what he describes as an “anal-retentive quality” to his personality, more than anything else. It was only by happenstance during a project with a skateboarding nonprofit in Colorado—and this was after two decades in the business as a salesperson for skate companies like Tum Yeto—that he began to see a greater purpose to holding on to these magazines.
“If you’ve never read these magazines, there’s so much history that you won’t know anything about. There’s so many reference points and advertisements that you will have never seen, companies and riders you will have never heard of and skateboard scenes you’ll never have gotten an idea about,” Marks told HYPEBEAST. “Some of that stuff is now covered on Instagram or on the web, but before 2005 or whatever, it was all in these magazines.”
Marks founded the Look Back Library in 2015, using the name for a zine he created in 2014 with his personal skateboarding photographs before the name found its true calling as a magazine archive. Today, the Look Back Library is not a single place, but a network of over a hundred individual libraries housed in skate shops and nonprofit centers throughout the United States, as well as in Canada, Australia and the Netherlands. Marks is at the center of the Look Back Library, but the project depends on collectors from around the world who send him their copies or start libraries in their own communities.
“If you’ve never read these magazines, there’s so much history that you won’t know anything about.”
While Marks sees his role as centered on maintaining the physical archive of skateboarding magazines, ultimately, he is trying to preserve the community that these magazines inspire. “This is a common good. We want the community to think of this as their local resource that they can add to, they can nurture and they can benefit from,” he explained.
We spoke with Marks about how he started the Look Back Library, how he sees it growing and whether today’s teenagers really care about skateboarding magazines from the ʼ80s. (Spoiler alert: most of them don’t.)
Do you recall the first skate magazine that you picked up?
Yes, I still have my first magazine. It’s a September 1986 issue of Thrasher. Another part that connects me so deeply to the magazines is that I grew up in Kansas in the ʼ80s. And I went to a friggin’ Catholic school. So, like, I was the only skater at my school. I felt very isolated from this bigger world of skateboarding, and so my magazine subscriptions were my entry point into learning about this fascinating new activity that I was falling in love with.
Being in that isolated environment, how did you come to even know that something like Thrasher existed?
In Kansas, we didn’t really have a dedicated skate shop in the ʼ80s. There was a bike and skate store on the other side of town. And then there was a ski store that had a sailboarding and skateboarding shop in it.
I ended up working in that shop for two years, while I was still in high school. That opened my doors even more; I’m learning about skateboarding through the magazines. But then I actually get to work in a skate shop where I’m learning about the manufacturers more, telling my boss what to order, putting multiple skateboards together every day for customers—and interacting and sharing my knowledge that I’ve learned from the magazines with other people, and anticipating the new magazines coming to the store.
By then I had subscriptions. There were three magazines in the late ʼ80s in the US, and I had subscriptions to all three of them.
Which were those three?
So Thrasher was the first one I found. Then Transworld skateboarding magazine. And then the third one, which only lasted from like ʼ88 to ‘91 was called Poweredge magazine. I usually point to Poweredge as my favorite out of those three.
When you titled it Look Back Library, what was your initial goal? Did you have a particular mission statement?
It was a struggle to think of a name, right? I’m still not overly excited about the name, but you have to pick something.
I kind of fell into this project at a nonprofit in Fort Collins, Colorado, where I had been asked to be on the board of directors. It’s called Launch: Community through Skateboarding. They are a nonprofit centered on promoting skateboarding along the front range of Colorado, started by a friend of mine. One of my pet projects that summer was to organize their library and use my contacts in the industry.
I went and found the Skateboarding Hall of Fame, which had a ton of magazines that were not organized. I offered to organize them and then create a list of what they needed. And so I was able to take doubles from the Launch library, fill in holes at the Skateboarding Hall of Fame library, take their doubles, and then go to Phoenix, where a friend of mine has a skate shop called Cowtown. He’d been in business over 20 years and had saved all of his childhood magazines and kept magazines from having the shop open, so he had a ton of doubles and crates and crates of magazines but no time to organize them.
“I had this lightbulb moment, like ‘Hey, you don’t want to do sales in skateboarding anymore. But you still want to be involved in skateboarding. You’ve been a magazine collector your whole life. Maybe there’s something here.’”
From the three libraries—Launch, Skateboarding Hall of Fame and Cowtown—was all an effort to try to fill as many holes at the Launch library as I could. And then as I was leaving Colorado that summer, I had this lightbulb moment, like “Hey, you don’t want to do sales in skateboarding anymore. But you still want to be involved in skateboarding. You’ve been a magazine collector your whole life. Maybe there’s something here.”
I really loved the organizational aspect. And the networking aspect of finding people that had extra magazines. So once the concept kind of got put out there, mainly through the beginning of our Instagram account, people started finding out what we were doing and a lot of people have this realization like, well, maybe this is why I’ve been holding on to these magazines as long as I have.
Were those initial donors really excited to offload those dusty boxes? Or did they feel any hesitation about giving them up?
There’s always a degree of hesitation. We had a few large early donations that were pivotal to getting this going on a bigger level, but they were both kind of associates of mine.
There was a lot of trust involved. It took a while for it to really take form, but ultimately, as people find out about what we’re doing, they’re pleased that their magazines are gonna go somewhere they’ll actually be seen. Anybody that’s collected magazines to where they still have them, they’re important to them. And there’s this inherent hope that more people can learn from and appreciate them.
“Anybody that’s collected magazines to where they still have them, they’re important to them. And there’s this inherent hope that more people can learn from and appreciate them.”
Is there a completion point with the Look Back Library?
I look at it as a never-ending story. Because right now, if you asked, “Do you have all of the U.S. major magazines from the last 45 years?” I would say yes. But where it gets tricky is with the self-published zines and the international magazines. I’m continually finding out about a magazine that only ran 10 issues in, let’s say, Argentina or Chile, or Costa Rica. We just got a magazine donation from Costa Rica. They’ve done 29 issues of a magazine that I just found out about this year. And Brazil has had quite a few over the years.
It can be a real challenge to find out how many issues were actually made of this magazine and if they were they all numbered correctly, if they started out on volume one and did four issues, if volume two had eight issues as they were growing? There’s always this element of detective work that I enjoy, and just always networking. As I see international names start following us on Instagram, I need to spend more time reaching out to those people to say like, “Hey, what magazines are in your area? What’s your local skate shop like?”
Are there plans to scale up the production? You have libraries in Canada and Australia. Are there other international locations that you’ve planned to open?
We have some in the Netherlands now. Outside of the one in Vancouver, Antisocial—I did that one myself—all the other international ones have been set up through volunteers, where either the skate shop owner has some magazines or one of their customers has magazines. I send them a PDF of our sign that talks about the program and they put it up. I don’t have any plans of doing some European tour, just because I don’t ever anticipate there being a glut of funding, you know, to do that sort of thing.
If there were any kind of sponsorship from a big skate company, would that be of interest?
Well I don’t fly, so that limits me. Part of this is a big recycling program for me. And yes, I do drive a lot, but I’m a very simple person. I’m conscious of my, you know, environmental impact. And so I’m anxious not to fly on airplanes, and I like the idea more of empowering people in other countries to duplicate or emulate this model that we’re trying to set up.
Are there any specific copies that are really personal to you that you want to keep at your own house as opposed to in a library?
Well, our primary collection is kept at my house. And that’s what I call the Look Back headquarters. I have an overhead aversion. I never wanted to be paying rent on a place just to showcase these magazines. But in the event that we’re able to partner with some youth-based organization that has a room for us in San Diego to house our primary collection, that’s something that maybe we’ll work towards. Right now, I’m happy just housing that at the house where it’s secure, and I can have people over on an appointment basis.
I have these high hopes that I’ll have architecture students doing their thesis work, who want to come over and look at how skateboarders have utilized public space. There’s a load of different academic potential needs for it that I hope to fill, versus students just trying to scan the pages of old magazines.
Would you ever want to create a fully digitized version of the Look Back Library?
I get asked that question all the time. And I don’t have the interest in creating that digital archive. I don’t really feel like I have the mental capacity of databasing and everything that would be involved in making that happen. My contribution is that I will have the physical archive for somebody that has the equipment and skill set to come over and do that. My interest is just on the physical archive right now.
When younger skaters come in who weren’t around when these big magazines were initially publishing, what’s their reaction to discovering these old issues?
I think the main reaction is indifference. Jason Carney, former pro-skater who runs the skate shop here in San Diego, loves to say, “Yeah, it’s like pulling teeth getting a kid to take a free magazine from the shop.” It’s like, I don’t even want to make the effort to take my backpack off my shoulders and put it in my backpack. There’s such a disconnect. That’s a burden. Why would I want to flip through this thing when I’m so used to getting all my information by sliding this way or that way on my phone screen?
Another key factor is how excited the skate shop owner is to share the information on that shelf with his customers. There’s always a certain aspect of me having to kind of pitch it, and it’s hard for me to read how genuinely interested the skate shop owner is. So, with that kind of skate shop owner, there may not be that much interaction where the owner is showing this kid, “Oh, you bought this board, this is one of their early ads,” or, “This pro used to ride for that brand.”
They have to have that knowledge themselves to share that.
I also want these libraries to be a resource for skate shop owners to liven up their Instagram accounts. So many skate shops, all you see is the new footwear that comes in. Certain skate shop Instagram pages get so homogenized.
Well, hopefully it’s the long-term payoff as opposed to quick engagement and likes.
One thing I’m encouraged by these last few years—Launch kind of being one of the first ones—is that there’s more skateboard-focused nonprofits. I see that only growing in the future, and those end up being our best partners because usually they have space. Skate shops are under pressure to merchandise every square foot of their store because they’re paying top dollar for retail space. Our fourth or fifth largest library is a nonprofit in San Francisco called San Francisco Skate Club, which does after-school programs for skaters.
They see it as a resource to help their kids learn about skateboarding, or just reading in general. Certain kids who are interested in skateboarding may not be the best students—maybe they have some challenges with reading—but they actually like to read about skateboarding.
If you’d like to get in touch to donate your skate magazines or to seek Marks’s assistance in building your own private collection, reach out through Instagram, @lookbacklibrary, or via email, email@example.com.