Arts & Culture

With quirk and funk, motherly only in name

By
Arts & Culture Editor
Monday, October 24, 2011

Like the newspaper itself, the logo of the free monthly publication Mothers News is undeniably unique.

The flag at the top of the front page — the equivalent of The Herald’s Van Wickle Gates motif — is a cameo-like portrait of a Victorian man. His collar is buttoned just so, and his hair is perfectly parted. But unfortunately, his face has been ripped off. Without the top layer of skin, the literal mechanics working hard beneath the surface are visible — wires, pipes and machinery twist in and out of each other in a convoluted catacomb structure.

On the front page of one issue, lurking to the right, the “o” in Mothers News has been replaced by a dung beetle and his namesake meal. While this local 8-page paper is called Mothers News, it is definitely not your mother’s newspaper.

The good word

Written and illustrated almost exclusively by founder, editor and publisher Jacob Berendes, Mothers News is a distorted take on a newspaper. There is a gossip section, a comics spread, a space dedicated to fashion news and a top-10 list — which does not always list 10 things. Olneyville resident Berendes also writes on music and holidays.

 Berendes said his favorite section is the “jump-off” — a front-page article that sets the tone for each issue.

There are other regular features, such as Mothers Good Word, a sort of word of the month. This month’s word is “chthonic,”  an adjective for things of an underworldly nature.  “If you need a semi-public password for any reason, and you need it to expire in a month, please use Mothers Good Word,” entreats October’s issue.

Berendes also challenges his readers to “Find the Batman!!!!!!” hidden somewhere in the advertisements of each paper. Find it and you will get a free pin, he promises.

The paper’s center spread is always a surprise. Berendes said he sees the centerfold as a “confusing moment” where either he or an artist inserts a large graphic image that could potentially be used as a poster. In a paper weighted down with dense text and lots of small, intricate images, the sudden blank space of the centerfold is jolting. September’s issue contained the giant phrase, “EXECUTIVE REALNESS” spread out over two pages. October’s featured a large praying mantis.

Another unique aspect of the paper is the shoutouts section. By logging on to the paper’s website, readers can pay $3 to give their friends a shoutout. “It’s a way to interact with the newspaper,” Berendes said.

“Shoutout to drunkiko from Fern Gully” and “Davey sez Hi Monica & Tony :)” are examples from September’s issue. Shoutouts are entirely written by readers, with the sole requirement that they all be positive statements. “This is pure buddy-ship,” Berendes explained.

Origin of the species

Mothers News can be found in several Thayer Street locations, including Rockstar Body Piercing and Shades Plus, and as far away as California, Texas and Japan, according to Berendes. But its origins hark back to a junk shop in Worcester, Mass., owned by Berendes before the days of Mothers News.

 Berendes called the shop HBML, initially short for Happy Birthday, Mike Leslie, a tribute to a friend of his. He later changed it to the backronym Hermes Barnum Monkey Legba, “which was sort of more what it was about anyway,” Berendes wrote in an email to The Herald.

When business began to slow, Berendes created a one-page advertisement modeled after the national weekly restaurant publication Coffee News to stir up interest.

After the junk shop officially shut its doors, Berendes began to toy with the idea of starting up a publication. “I was looking for something to pour my energy into,” he said. “And, to make money.”

The paper he created is a quirky testament to the fact that, according to Berendes, “Business sometimes operates in the exact opposite of what you think.”

Your ad here

Ads, all original creations by Berendes unless specified by the buyer, are unique, strange blips decorating the edges of the paper. “People like (the paper) and want to be a part of it,” Berendes said. “It’s really cheap and it works.” Mothers News ads cost $15 per vertical inch.

Ad designs range from simple, etched cartoons to intricate drawings, interspersed with photographs and ironic witticisms. There are a plethora of tattoo parlors, record stores and coffee shops among the advertisers, but there are also musicians, headhunters and a bookstore in Texas.

Some advertisers are wary of handing over complete control to Berendes, he said, but he often finds they end up trusting him. “If the ad is (expletive) up, more people will like it,” he said. “So now I do whatever I want.”

Berendes’ style has paid off — “by the second issue, (Mothers News) had paid for itself,” he said. “By the fifth, it was paying my bills.” November’s issue will be the 19th.

But Berendes said he does not want to sell the newspaper for profit, choosing instead to rely on funding from ads and merchandise, which he sells on his website and at several stores in Providence. “I wanted it to be as free as possible,” he said.

Monstrously real

Berendes emphasized that Mothers News, despite its far-reaching readership, is a local paper in multiple senses of the word. The paper is printed in Rhode Island and primarily features local content, yes, but it also captures a funky and slightly off-kilter spirit found in Providence and serves a community of people who relate to that spirit, he said.

Funky it may be, but fake it is not. “A distressing amount of people thought it was a joke.” Berendes said. “Everything is real.”

This month’s issue, an ode to Halloween, is “truly monstrous,” Berendes said. “It is not for humanity,” but rather the ghouls and goblins of Halloween lore. “The newspaper really creates a world.”