SEN magazine is the latest to enter scene in Baltimore

Graphic designer Nguyen puts out entertainment publication


Mike Nguyen has no grand plan to become a publishing magnate. He just wants to get the word out.

Working on a shoestring, the 30-year-old graphic designer has put together the first issue of a pocket-sized, full-color magazine about Baltimore nightlife, entertainment, food, bands and other subjects "dear to the hearts of the partying class," he says. It's something he has wanted to do for nine years.

"The impression was always that if you wanted to do anything cool as far as clubs or going to a concert, you had to go to D.C.," Nguyen says in his modest home office on North Calvert Street in Charles Village, where the local Donna's coffeehouse serves as a handy spot for staff meetings. "But the way Baltimore has been improving in the last few years -- better clubs, better concerts and bands, better places to go -- the motivation now is that you don't have to go anywhere else."

The first edition of SEN (pronounced scene), with a run of 10,000 free copies, is already on the streets here. Nguyen, photographer Max Glanville, a small band of freelance writers and three ad salespeople are working on a second edition, due out at the end of August. So far, there's no money to pay anyone.

Nguyen, who says he studied at Maryland Institute College of Art for two years before dropping out for financial reasons, runs a multimedia and graphic-design firm called Retroforward LLC. He put up the money for the first issue of SEN himself and says his publication aims to "fall somewhere" between City Paper and Baltimore magazine.

"The City Paper gets a little bulky to carry around," he says, referring to the tabloid-sized alternative weekly, whose most recent edition had 128 pages. "We're not trying to be another City Paper. The key word for us is portability. Girls can put it in their purses."

The idea, he concedes, is not new. "All the major cities have one," Nguyen said. "I just wanted to bring one to Baltimore."

Nguyen, whose parents emigrated from Vietnam in 1975, worked several years ago as the designer of another niche publication in Baltimore, aimed at the gay market. It folded. More recently, he spent three months designing a makeover for a local nightlife publication, but the project never came to fruition.

"In a way, I'm glad it didn't work out," Nguyen says, "because otherwise I wouldn't have had the motivation to go out on my own."

At first glance, the new 32-page magazine -- which fits snugly in a rear jeans pocket -- is a compendium of party photos, music reviews, concert listings and pithy articles.

A writer named David Policastri reviews CDs and plans in future issues to critique video games and comic books as well. In the first issue, his reviews include one of a bass-and-drums band called Om. He writes of the band's "trudging riffs" and "hypnotic drumming" on the album Conference of the Birds and says, "If you are no stranger to mind-altering substances, then you will more than likely become a fan of Om."

Pete Munsey writes a column called "Drinking Class." Its first outing consists of a "quasi-scientific" tour of Irish pubs in Baltimore in search of the perfect pint of Guinness. Munsey's reverential account of his quest, conducted in the space of a single day in the company of a "comic sidekick" and a presumably abstemious chauffeur, begins with his magnanimous assertion that "there is no such thing as a bad pint of Guinness." (He may be on to something there.)

By the end of the tour, Munsey has cheerfully lost count of pints consumed but pulls himself together sufficiently to declare Slainte, a pub on Thames Street in Fells Point, as the highest-scoring provider of the black nectar.

Another column, "Off the Record," deals with the music club scene, written by a man who identifies himself only as Hal. (Nguyen said Hal "wants to be able to say things without people knowing who he is.")

Hal states right off the bat in his column that he is "an outspoken cynic of the underground club culture." Evidently true to form, he doesn't mince words: "The underground sound has been trumped on the dance floor by overblown commercial hip-hop," he writes, and goes on to decry "purveyors of thug-life" and "forgettable gangsta prose."

The first issue also features a first-person essay by Chris Cowan, a guitarist with the Baltimore band Two If By Sea, on his life as a musician. "We all love living in the creative, nurturing, neo-bohemia that is Baltimore," he writes, "but playing in New York, Boston or Pittsburgh opens up a whole other bag of possibilities."

That would seem to sum up Nguyen's own optimistic philosophy, at least as far as publishing SEN is concerned.

"It was a challenge, but you just have to give it a try," he said. "With the magazine, I just felt I had to put it out. If I'd waited too long, it would never have gotten done."

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