A Couch, Spaghetti, and a Salad:
HOW BOOK FAIRS BROUGHT COFFEE HOUSE PRESS TO THE TWIN CITIES,
AND THE LITERARY COMMUNITY WE FOUND HERE
I was born in New York City, and grew up living in several communities in the Northeast. But since 1985, I have called the Twin Cities my home. How did I get here? It all started with a book fair.
When I arrived in Iowa City from New York, in the summer of 1970, I was determined to become a poet, and thought starting a mimeographed poetry magazine would help me build my literary career. When I took a class in letterpress printing, I thought knowing how a book was made would help when a New York publishing house published my poems some day. I had no idea what poetry and/or publishing would lead to, but I do remember having a fear of becoming a dilettante, a superficial dabbler. I remember hoping that I was on the path to my life’s work.
As it turned out, I was. During the summer and fall of 1970, I started to fall in love with the woman who later became my wife, and I started to fall in love with publishing. I’ve been dedicated to both—albeit with somewhat different rewards—ever since.
By May 1975, I had been married three years, I had published seven issues of a mimeo magazine called Toothpaste, three mimeographed poetry books, and I had started printing poetry letterpress books under the Toothpaste Press imprint, inspired in part by my teacher, Harry Duncan, one of the great American letterpress printers of the twentieth century.
But I was also inspired by the idea of the day that starting a small press was a political act, that as a small press publisher I was participating in something we proudly called, the counterculture. Part of the drive of the small press publisher was to get those books we were publishing into the hands of readers. And one of the ways small presses accomplished that goal was to exhibit, and hopefully sell their books at book fairs. So I sent a carton of books by special fourth-class book rate to a friend’s apartment in New York, and set off from Iowa City on a Greyhound bus. After spending the night on a mattress on my friend’s floor, I took off for the book fair in the old Customs Clearinghouse in lower Manhattan, and arrived on May 26th at 9:00 a.m., with my wild Bob Dylan hair and my handsome, almost conservative-looking letterpress books, and I sat during the first two days, with my hands folded meekly, almost like an unctuous funeral director, and said nothing unless spoken to.
As I saw it, I was selling poetry books, and I guess “the dignity of the letterpress tradition” got the better of me at first. In fact, the reality of the letterpress tradition was then, and is now, vastly more rich, complex, and complicated than the image I had of wealthy book collectors and fine press hobbyists. But that’s another discussion.
As I said, I sat with my hands folded for the first two days as literally tens of thousands of people walked by. The show began on a Friday, and by close of business on Saturday, I believe I’d sold about a dozen books, and taken in all of $50.00. I don’t know what led me to do so, but for some reason, I decided to take a different tack on Sunday. Treating the show like street theater, I began shouting, “Step right up, step right up. Don’t be another blasé New Yorker. We’ve come all the way from Iowa to show you the most beautiful books at the New York Small Press Book Fair. So step right up, step right up. These Toothpaste Press books will make you think of poetry every morning and every night as you brush your teeth. They’ll even make your mind feel fresh and clean.” I think I took in $500, and that was the last time I sat with my hands folded at a book fair.
I didn’t realize at that time, that I was participating in a tradition that went back to the beginning of civilization. Religious festivals in every culture had always included a fair where potters, cabinetmakers, weavers, and the weapons dealers of the day could show their wares, make some sales, check out the competition, and sometimes learn a thing or two. In the thirteenth century, stationers began appearing routinely in the list of exhibitors at European fairs, but they sold more than parchment and quill pens—they bought, sold, and traded manuscript books for their noble, their wealthy, and even some of their “merchant class” clients.
Once printed books began appearing at the fairs at Lyons, Leipzig, Basel, and at the major show of the year, Frankfurt, publishers and booksellers began to demand more and more booths, until finally the book business had to start throwing its own fairs. Our associate publisher, Chris Fischbach, represents Coffee House Press at the Frankfurt International Book Fair each year now, participating in a literary tradition that began a full two hundred years before Gutenberg.
Now I’ll admit that at times, the Renaissance Festival verges on campiness, but the fact is that the medieval and later the Renaissance fairs actually were big, brawling, bawdy commercial opportunities, and if you didn’t hawk your goods with some vigor and vinegar, they didn’t get sold. And so to this day I stand at small press book fairs—as long as my sore back permits—and I keep up a running patter. Step right up, one and all. Remember that Coffee House Press books are all fully caffeinated! Our books give your mind a literary wake up call! Step right up! Remember, the only books you really regret are the books you don’t buy, so don’t leave with regrets, leave with a Coffee House Press book! I still love doing it, after all these years.
During the next two years I began attending the New York fair regularly, and began adding additional shows to my annual calendar. And then, in early 1977, a flier arrived in the mail, promoting the first Twin Cities book fair, to be held in April at the College of St. Catherine. The flier also announced that upon request, couches would be found for out-of-town publishers who needed a place to stay, and at the end of the book fair, the organizers offered a free dinner for the exhibitors. (It was just spaghetti, meatballs, and salad, but it meant a lot.) I still remember reading the flier, and then turning to my wife and telling her, “I like their attitude. This town wants us.”
The set-up was just a variation of what was quickly becoming a familiar scene: a hall filled with aisles of 2-by-6-foot tables, each laden with little magazines and small press books. And behind those tables stood a colorful assortment of dreamers of all ages, each hoping to leave the fair with their pockets full and their cartons of books completely empty. And that was my first introduction to the Twin Cities.
But of course a city is only as good as the people who live there, and we quickly met an array of terrific people and began forming fast friendships. First of all my wife and I met the main organizer of the fair, Jonis Agee, who was teaching at St. Kate’s at the time. Since then we’ve published about a half dozen collections of her stories, including a letterpress edition under the old Toothpaste Press imprint. Filled with energy and intelligence, her red hair made her striking figure, as she strode down the aisles in her cowboy boots, asking the exhibitors if all was well, and if they needed any student help. At about noon, on the first day of the fair, a young guy with shoulder-length hair and a rope substituting for a belt walked up to our table and said, “Hi, I work at the Hungry Mind bookstore, so you can call me Hungry Jim. Would you like me to get you each a sandwich?” Well we certainly did want a sandwich, and we gave Hungry Jim a twenty. He seemed surprised that we were giving him money in advance. When he returned with sandwiches and change, we offered him a book for his good labors. Again, he seemed surprised and pleased. I later learned we were the only press that paid him in advance, or that gave him a free book. He decided we had good manners. And that was our introduction to Jim Sitter, who later turned Bookslinger into the most effective small press distributor of the day, then left Bookslinger to start Minnesota Center for Book Arts. It’s another friendship that has continued to this day.
One of Jim’s best friends from high school up in Fargo, Gaylord Schanilec, was also present at that book fair, selling his linoleum and woodcut prints. Gaylord illustrated a number of Toothpaste Press and early Coffee House Press books, and is now regarded as one of the finest wood engravers in the world. I used to call him up at a moment’s notice and we’d line up a drawing for a project—now he has a two-year waiting list, bringing added luster to the local bookmaking community. Just before his waiting list got that long, he did collaborate with the press on a deluxe letterpress edition of a story by W.P. Kinsella about baseball that we printed in 1991, the summer when the Twins last won the World Series. Gaylord created a stunning sequence of multicolored wood engravings for us.
I mentioned the Hungry Mind when introducing Jim Sitter—of course I also met David Unowsky, the store’s proprietor at that show, and later, I met Dan and Michelle Odegaard, Gail See who was running the Book Case, and Jim Dochniac, who was part of the Mayday Books collective, where the most left-wing literature of the day could be found. It was an exciting bookselling community back then.
I continued coming back in 1978 and 1979 for the book fairs that were held at St. Kate’s, but eventually the organizers lost some of their energy, and perhaps some of their funding—I don’t know the whole story. But by then I had made many local contacts, and when a new organization launched the Great Midwestern Bookshow in 1981, I showed up in the new location, Willey Hall at the University of Minnesota. By then we had also attended book fairs in Chicago, Milwaukee, Washington DC, Philadelphia (where my father lived), and San Francisco, but when my wife and I started talking about relocating, the Twin Cities area was our chosen destination. Aside from the good people we had met, the great bookselling environment, and the local funding for the arts, there was a generosity of spirit about the Twin Cities literary community that might not have been unique, but it was, and still is, rare, and should be treasured.
New York was too big for any one “school” of poetry to dominate, but that didn’t stop people from trying. During my time there I can’t tell you how many times I heard the New York School poets trash the uptown poets, and I watched the uptown poets freeze out the other groups when it came to the distribution of grants. Meanwhile Amiri Baraka was so disgusted by the condescension he detected from most of the New York City poets, as he tried to develop a community of writers of color, that he moved back to his hometown in Newark, New Jersey, where he lives to this day.
Iowa City was small enough for one group of poets to dominate, and during my time there, a group somewhat informally known as the “confessional” poets, dominated. This group seemed to push out anyone who didn’t fit in. Actually Robert Bly came to town one year and gave a reading with the intent of shaking things up, but the academia changes slowly. Speaking of Robert Bly, he has become one of the most well-known poets in America, but to his great credit, he has never attempted to turn the Twin Cities literary community into a group of his own, personal acolytes. Nor has the Loft ever picked one group of poets to promote over all others. As I look at the local community today, I can think of at least one “concrete” poet who uses words and letterforms in a visual way; the local scene includes more than a few political poets; writers of every color and ethnicity also contribute; some writers could be considered cutting edge, and others more traditional. But here’s what makes this town so great—on the whole, they don’t attack each other.
It is perhaps unfortunate, that that fact really does make our community remarkable. Once, the great West Coast poet and translator, Kenneth Rexroth, was asked what made poets so bitchy. “Too many pigs, too small a trough,” was his reply. Well, the trough may be a bit bigger here, as a result of local funding for the arts, but I think there’s something more afoot—maybe “Minnesota nice” is more than a legend. At least within the literary community, I really have to say, it’s a reality.
When I moved to the Twin Cities, one of the great pleasures was the high level of my colleagues. Bill Truesdale at New Rivers, Emilie Buchwald at Milkweed Editions, and Scott Walker at Graywolf, were among the pioneers in developing small presses that could effectively compete in the quality of design and production, as well as editorial quality, with the better literary publishers in New York. Bill Truesdale is no longer with us; Scott Walker moved on to internet projects and did very well; Emilie is still with us, but has left Milkweed Editions and has started a Gryphon Press, which published books about dogs. New Rivers migrated to Moorhead State University when Bill passed. Scott Walker’s successor, Fiona McCrae, has become one the true leaders in small press publishing, and Emilie’s successor at Milkweed, Daniel Slager, is proving himself worthy of that press’s great reputation.
When I arrived, the Twin Cities area was continually enlivened by little magazines—and that is unchanged. One such magazine—Rain Taxi Review of Books—has very ably taken on the mantle of running an annual book fair, the Twin Cities Book Festival, where Coffee House always exhibits.
But in addition to our justly acclaimed literary publishing community, our area boasts a considerable range of other publishing ventures that have made their mark on the national stage. One remnant of the hippie era has actually flourished here—Llewelyn Publishing is one of the biggest producers of New Age books and other products. Lerner Publications and Meadowbrook Press are among the largest children’s book publishers in the country, and Lerner has probably never gotten its due for plunging into multicultural children’s books long before it was popular. Thompson West is possibly the largest publisher of print and online legal books and information in the world. Quayside Press, located in Minneapolis, is the umbrella headquarters for an incredible conglomerate of magazines and books, including the largest publisher of books and magazines about cars in the world, Motorbooks International. They also publish books and magazines about history, food, graphic and fashion design, pets, sports, and much more. Also located in Minneapolis is Inscape Publishing one of the world’s largest publishers of materials intended for business training and business solutions, headed by one of our board members, Jeffrey Sugerman. Each state has a historical society, but none boast as dynamic a publishing program as the Minnesota Historical Society Press. And the University of Minnesota Press continues to make waves in academic circles with its own bold publishing program. And even though Minnesota Center for Book Arts focuses most of its energy on its educational mission, it also publishes the Winter Book each year, giving local fine printers an opportunity to display their chops. Meanwhile other Minnesota presses focus on mysteries, the great outdoors, and practically any subject imaginable.
I don’t have the facts and figures, but book and magazine publishing has long been a substantial contributor to Minnesota’s gross annual production of goods and services, generating millions in tax dollars, and employing thousands of highly skilled people. Sitting here in this lovely library, I think we can all take pride in the role Minnesota publishing plays in our state’s economy, and in our nation’s intellectual life. It has been an honor to participate in this great tradition as the founder and publisher of Coffee House Press.
Adapted from a talk delivered at the Wentworth Library in St. Paul, commissioned by the Metropolitan Library Service Agency. It was delivered on October 21, 2010.