The Sincere, Disarming World Of Dream Baby Press
Zack Roif and Matt Starr’s readings in unexpected New York City locales have made Dream Baby Press a refreshing literary voice to watch.
Zack Roif and Matt Starr may have held an erotic reading at the Penn Station Sbarro that included a woman stripping down to her underwear and getting smacked with a riding whip — but trust me, your grandma would love them.
Roif and Starr are the BFF duo behind Dream Baby Press, which hosts reading series in unexpected New York City locales that some would go so far as to call unsavory. In addition to the Sbarro, an East Village old-school porn shop, and a FiDi boxing gym, which has featured readings by the likes of Annie Hamilton, Jemima Kirke, Jason Buford, Allie Rowbottom, and more, they will be at Chinatown’s Dirty Shirley-slinging bar The River on Tuesday, May 23.
Through Dream Baby Press and Perverted Book Club, their erotic reading series, Roif and Starr want to reskin the places you walk by every day and never think twice about, and make them the sites where core memories are born — places where, in 10 years, you might meet someone who will ask, “Were you at that erotic reading at a Sbarro in Penn Station?” What they really want to do is give you experiences that make you feel like you’re where you’re supposed to be.
“I think it always goes back to: What do we want out of New York? And why can’t we make that instead of waiting for someone else to do it or just never getting it?” Roif tells NYLON. It is a Friday in April, and we’re in a booth at Remedy Diner, which serves as Dream Baby Press’ HQ. “I think especially when it comes to events, we live in such a great city where you can kind of figure out how to do things.”
Their first event was a reading in November 2022 at Blue Door Video, the scuzzy East Village video store where a small army people gathered among packaged dildos to hear people like writer Liara Roux and actor Robin Lord Taylor read erotica. But their second event was unprecedented: In December 2022, nearly 300 people (including a New York Times reporter) packed onto the lower level of the Penn Station Sbarro, the level that is on the same floor as the subway station. (They knew it was the perfect location when they saw that the location was considered “the saddest place in New York City” on Reddit.)
Over the course of two hours, 10 people read everything from horse sex fan fiction to AI-generated pornographic scenes between Love Actually characters while families dined upstairs and subway commuters peered into the windows. It was a week before Christmas, the Knicks had just lost. I went with a friend who told me halfway through the horse sex fan fiction reading that she was so glad she had taken mushrooms.
The reading was part of Starr and Roif’s Dream Baby Press offshoot Perverted Book Club, an erotic reading series that is about anything but sex. It was one of the best nights of Roif and Starr’s decade-plus in New York City. And it was the same for me — it’s the stuff that makes you feel alive: a wholesome, post-ironic experience that resists contemporary impulses to say something.
“It’s not this sex thing: It’s funny, sweet, and we wanted it to be a really warm, inviting environment,” Starr says. “Zack and I really like spaces that we think are taken for granted for people. Times Square past 10 o'clock is a really magical space in New York City.”
“I think this is all to say, it’s finding non-spaces that we take for granted and repurposing them is really important for us. I think that’s what makes it special,” Roif says. “A place you walk by a million times.”
There’s a long history of this kind of unexpected alchemy that Starr and Roif were inspired by, a blueprint that could push what a reading can become — whether it be The Cramps performing at a mental hospital, or the punk shows Roif attended in college in Colorado at batting cages. It’s not just a party; it’s not just a reading; it’s not just erotica; it’s not just an unexpected venue: Starr and Roif are in the business of tapping the elusive magic that brings it all together.
“It’s one of those science experiments where you put five of those sodas together and shake up the bottle,” Starr says. “We’re the explosion.”
Starr and Roif throw the kinds of events they would want to attend themselves. Starr doesn’t like bars or loud music. He wants to be home by 11. Mostly, they want it to be for everyone, to remove guardrails that can come with literary events.
“It’s open for everyone. If you write, if you don’t write, if you like poetry, if you don’t like poetry,” Starr says. “And a lot of people say, “We don’t like poetry, but we like coming to these things,” which is kind of awesome.”
In order to get any of this, you have to understand that they’re not being ironic. At the diner, Roif and Staff gab, breathlessly, for hours. They show me the genesis of the name Perverted Book Club in their text messages. They show me an Adam Driver perfume commercial. They show me their collaborative Notes app. They finish each other’s sentences; they reference a seemingly endless number of mutual friends. As Roif explains to me the extent of Starr’s dietary restrictions (“He only eats, like, four things,” Roif says, to which Starr explains he gave up gluten and Adderall seven years ago), it’s not hard to imagine them as two old men sitting on a park bench, in their own world of deep, earnest conversation.
Starr and Roif’s friendship was born of breakups. The two met through their exes, and after they both ended their relationships in succession, they found themselves talking to each other — a lot — and basically never stopped. It didn’t hurt that they lived a block from each other on the Upper West Side.
“Everything got masterminded on the Upper West Side over lattes,” Starr says.
“Now it’s up to three hours a day, actually,” Roif says of how often they talk.
“And if it was up to me it would be five,” Starr adds. We’ve already reached an unprecedented level of intimacy as he takes a bite of coleslaw that was served to him in a tub-sized bowl we were all assuming would be side dish-sized. He scarfs it down with apologies.
Starr and Roif’s sincere and disarming approach to both erotica (a raunchy art form) and literature (an often gate kept one) is the alchemy that makes it all work. It’s not exactly the high-low formula that so many cultural institutions hang their relevance hats on; it’s something sweeter.
“It’s more like, naughty and nice,” Starr says.
“It’s very sincere,” Roif adds. “We really love working with each other. I think one thing that we both probably would agree on is we’re both people that just like to make things and see where it goes. And we like to say yes to each other.”
A glance at Starr and Roif’s past ventures is a laundry list of projects standing at the intersection of kitsch and heart, with an earnestness that only two sweet-looking dudes can get away with. (Starr’s best friend, after all, is a 99-year-old named Harry, whom he met while filming a remake of Annie Hall with senior citizens in 2018.) The two have been collaborating tangentially for years, working together on a series of fancy dinners at the Whole Foods on Bowery, where everyone would buy food and then they’d plate it in the seating area with nice glassware. Starr spearheaded the babycore trend in 2015. In 2020, Roif founded Merch Aid, where he, along with Chloe Saintilan and Matthew Woodward designed a series of restaurant merch with millennial appeal to benefit small and Black-owned businesses.
But Roif and Starr’s first official venture together, like the fate of many, didn’t pan out. They kept it vague, but explained they flew to Los Angeles to fundraise for a project that they immediately knew they had to abandon upon arrival. They went to a patio bar and were brainstorming names for a new venture and were talking about bands and songs they liked when they came to Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream.” They had a name and nothing else — but having the container was the first part.
“It became this thing that all of our ideas, we were able to execute them under this label of Dream Baby,” Roif says. “It was like, how can we have an entity together where we can just make all the things that just are in our heads keeping us up?”
Their latest reading, Dream Baby Press’ Royal Rumble, was held in late April at the Church Street boxing gym, which was inspired by another one of their shared loves: sports, particularly the theatrics of sporting events. Attendees sat in metal chairs and leaned against punching bags to watch and sip on free Ebbs beers. Starr and Roif hired MMA fight announcer Steve Peacock to introduce readers, who all entered the ring to entrance music to read in 360 degrees.
“We’re really interested in the idea of what happens when you apply the ideology of sports to literature and readings,” Roif says. He and Starr have become obsessed not only with watching sports but sport as an event and as a production. “We’re taking nods from a lot of the tropes of sport and what results when you apply the trope of the competitiveness of athleticism to readings.”
Roif and Starr don’t just ask writers to read; they’ll ask anyone they think is interesting — which you can see in their “Love/Hate” lists, where people like Michael Imperioli and Parade founder Cami Tellez name 10 things they love and 10 things they hate. The same is true for the “press” arm of Dream Baby Press. At book fairs, they saw that the types of books they wanted more of weren't necessarily getting made — so Roif and Starr plan to do it themselves. The first book from the press comes out next year. They want the ethos of their publishing to be not to be unlike Nicolas Cage’s filmography, Roif says.
“I’m always obsessed with how every three years Nicolas Cage just puts out a f*cking batsh*t movie that’s not for the money,” Roif says. “That’s an artistic expression in and of itself. We would hope to be a place that asks: How do we put out that unconventional, off-the-cuff, totally out there book by someone that’s well known for something else? How do we put out the Nic Cage Mandy of literature?”
Roif and I are polishing off a slice of red velvet cake the size of a brick. We’re talking about places that would make good settings for readings, places that people don’t know about, places that don’t even make it on the radar for being gatekept.
“I think there is a sweet undertone to everything we do, and we don’t want it to be pretentious,” Starr says. “It can be provocative, but the goal is not to provoke. We’ve only done three events, so we’re still figuring out what it is. And I think being really open to what they can be.”
Starr looks up from his Notes app and turns to Roif. “Wait,” he says. “I just got an idea for one.”