In an old cannon foundry in South London, the world’s biggest magazine collection is growing every day – and is now set to become “the Spotify of magazines”. We meet the man behind it all
James Hyman talks fast, like the former DJ he is, and his default mode is enthused: about fake cigarette adverts in satirical magazine Mad in the late 1960s; about 70s issues of Man, Myth and Magic, a surprisingly cerebral magazine of the supernatural; even a hyper-saturated advert for Tesco supermarket food in a 1971 edition of Family Circle magazine. “Just look what people in Britain were eating in the 70s!” he says. “Horrific. But weirdly fascinating.”
I meet Hyman and his team on the second floor of an old red brick cannon foundry in Woolwich, Southeast London, surrounded by his life’s work: 150,000 magazines, crammed tightly into narrow rows of shelves more than two metres high. It’s like the Hogwarts Library of 20th Century pop culture, especially from the late 20th Century.
And the world’s largest magazine collection is growing every day. Yesterday, Hyman received a personal donation of Time and Newsweek issues covering the entire period of the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s. This morning, he opened a box from another benefactor to find an entire run of Cigar Aficionado magazine.
“These magazines are important historical documents,” says Hyman, sitting in a battered chair at the end of one row, with electric heaters protecting him from the icy February air (it’s even colder in here than outside). “Every magazine tells you something about the time and the culture in which it was published. Look at an old issue of Athletics Weekly, and you might learn something about the history of trainer design, or the time when Bruce Jenner was simply an athlete.”
Look at an old issue of Athletics Weekly, and you might learn something about the history of trainer design, or the time when Bruce Jenner was simply an athlete.
Many of the magazines on the shelves are pop-cultural touchstones in their own right. There’s the May 1990 issue of cult magazine The Face, which featured a 15-year-old Kate Moss on her first magazine cover; the 1980 special issue of Newsweek after John Lennon’s death; or the 1985 issue of National Geographic, with its Steve McCurry cover portrait of Sharbat Gula, the 12-year-old Afghan refugee with the famously hypnotic gaze.
Now, Hyman and his team – creative lead Tory Turk, and editor Alexia Marmara – are waiting for a license to create a digital magazine archive, available to subscribers, which Hyman hopes will become “the Spotify of magazines”, with royalties going to the people who did the work.
He shows me a prototype of the software on his laptop. Typing in ‘Kate Moss’, hundreds of covers, spreads and adverts pop up, each with reams of searchable metadata. “You can search every shoot she did in London, say, or every blue-coloured shoot, or everything she did with hair stylist Sam McKnight,” says Hyman. “It will be a whole new way to find information.”
The digitisation of the Hyman Archive will take it full circle from the analogue days in which it was born. In the late 1980s, while a media student in London, Hyman took a summer job at MTV, where he graduated to writing scripts and becoming a producer/director. He’d later become a DJ at British radio station XFM, specialising in dance music culture, as well as a voiceover artist and music video producer.
“Back then, magazines were the Internet,” he says. “If you wanted to unearth a gem about Bob Dylan or Duran Duran, you had to read their interviews in Rolling Stone. If you were interviewing Moby, you wanted to ask about the dodgy experience he’d had at a rave, which you’d read in the NME.”
He also discovered the now-shuttered Vintage Magazine Company in Soho, which had a basement full of back issues of The Face and i-D, two game-changing magazines of the 1980s. “It fuelled the collector’s bug,” he says. “I was hooked.”
By 2010, he had more than 100,000 magazines, more than 40,000 CDs and a child on the way. “There were towers of magazines, CDs and books in the house,” he recalls. “It was all getting a bit overwhelming, and I was constantly moving stuff into storage.”
In 2011, a friend introduced him to Turk, whose Master’s degree in fashion curation had taught her the basics of archiving. Turk was intrigued, and – in a pivotal moment – offered to help. The pair spent a year sorting through the collection, which they initially stored in an old meat factory in Islington, North London. “Going through it all with Tory was like therapy,” says Hyman.
In 2012, the collection was recognised by Guinness as the biggest in the world, and in 2015 the team moved the whole lot to its current site. Today, it’s a very niche library (borrowing a magazine for three days costs a whopping GBP50), used mostly by serious producers or curators. Magazines from the archive have starred in everything from Beatles documentaries to the California: Designing Freedom exhibition at London’s Design Museum.
Hyman is keen to stress that the collection is ongoing. “I’m just as excited by new mags like [indie film magazine] Little White Lies or [slow news title] Delayed Gratification,” he says. “It’s a really exciting time for independent magazines, and it’s just as important to document right now as it is to document the past.”
Still, there are historic gems aplenty here: like a complete set of The British Journal of Photography, which launched in 1854 but didn’t feature any actual photographs until around 1890; or the first ever issue of British high society magazine Tatler, from 1901, which features the Duchess of Sutherland on the cover and an advert on page two for the Claridge’s hotel restaurant (“The last word in modern restaurants”).
Even as the archive grows and morphs, it’s still deeply personal to its founder. Hyman gazes lovingly at an issue of Jocks, a DJ magazine from the late 80s, and in particular the dense, almost staccato track reviews of James Hamilton, an expert on any given song’s beats-per-minute. “He was this swaggering, pompous guy in a top hat,” recalls Hyman. “But he was revered by DJs like me at the time – he was like the Laurence Olivier of the dance world.”
Another of Hyman’s favourites is 2600 magazine, a still-running quarterly magazine for hackers that dates back to the early 80s. It is named after the 2600 hertz tone that allowed users to access the operator mode of telephones, which could be produced using the plastic whistles given out with Cap’n Crunch breakfast cereal. Hyman proudly shows me the infamous 1984 issue that gave readers the direct telephone numbers of Ronald Reagan and his White House team.
While the authorities haven’t always looked quite so fondly on 2600’s founder Emmanuel Goldstein (whose name references Orwell’s 1984), for Hyman he symbolises the creativity, ingenuity and humanity of magazines.
Magazines are things that someone crafted in order to express something, and there’s a magic to that which you don’t often get with all the noise on the Internet.
“Ultimately, magazines are as diverse and weird as people are,” he says. “They are things that someone crafted in order to express something, and there’s a magic to that which you don’t often get with all the noise on the Internet. You couldn’t get robots to produce The New Yorker, which is just one of many reasons that magazines will always be loved. They’ll never, ever die.”