Even among the literature-rich Twin Cities’ several publishing houses lauded coast to coast, Coffee House Press is an impressive entity. CHP has built a strong reputation for marketing books of undeniable artistry as well as authentic cultural diversity. Just a few widely renowned authors with titles under the imprint are locally-spawned legends Alexs D. Pate and David Mura as well as iconic national “imports” John A. Williams, Patricia Smith, and Andrei Codrescu.
Coffee House Press had its start in West Branch, Iowa in the 1970s, where then-shoestring publisher Allan Kornblum mimeographed the magazine Toothpaste, putting out handset letterpress books and pamphlets for Toothpaste Press. He stuck at it, bucked the odds and, in 1984, launched Coffee House Press to publish poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction.
A benefit for Coffee House Press will be held Wednesday, October 29, 7:00-10:00 p.m. in the Grain Belt Brewery Bottling House, 79 Thirteenth Ave. N.E., Minneapolis. The event includes a performance by irreverently incendiary poet and National Public Radio essayist Andrei Codrescu (Jealous Witness). For tickets ($30) and information, see coffeehousepress.org.
What was the spirit behind Coffee House Press’s founding, and how faithfully has that spirit been kept to date?
It began with my belief that outstanding writers deserved careful editing, clean elegant design, and respectfully ambitious marketing. Now I am thrilled to share that belief with an outstanding staff and a fiercely dedicated board.
How does it feel, looking forward to that 25th anniversary?
What is exciting is that we’re not just planning to celebrate our past achievements. We’re looking to the future. We’re beginning a strategic planning process focused, in part, on leadership transition, to assure continuity long beyond my participation. Books we’ve already published will stay in print, and new authors will continue to have a resource. During the planning process, we’ll be exploring ways to extend our love for the best traditions of typography and bookmaking into the new electronic era.
What is the most significant difference CHP has made in the literary market?
Coffee House Press has actively published writers of color as writers, as representatives of the best in contemporary literature, first and foremost—then, only secondly, as representatives of minority communities. That might be one of our most important contributions.
Has the loss of independent bookshops to chain stores had an impact on CHP?
As long as books have been printed, bookselling has gone through changes and publishers have had to adapt. In the 18th and 19th centuries, when 80% of the American population was rural, most books were sold by traveling salesmen. They carried book catalogs along with their samples of pots and pans, clothing, and other household products. They’d send in their orders to the publishers, who sent books directly to their customers by mail. Only major cities had bookstores. Today, we love selling our books to the independent booksellers who survived the chain store onslaught in the 1990s and the growth of Amazon in this decade. And we are delighted that new indie start-ups keep popping up. We also work the chain stores. They may not have the charm, the passion, or the individuality of [an] independently owned bookstore, but they [bring] books to readers.
Have you ever thought of writing a book about the experience of publishing books at CHP?
I’ve started such a book. I’m working on it.
Is CHP breaking any new, first-time authors in the coming year?
This spring we were proud to publish Kao Kalia Yang’s The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir, which received a starred review in Publishers Weekly. This fall we published Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire, a first novel by the widely-published poet/memoirist David Mura. In January, we will be releasing the first widely available book by Akilah Oliver. Oliver’s work incorporates literary theory and spray-painted graffiti, blending the privacy of grief over the death of her son with the public persona of the contemporary performance poet.
Anything you want to add?
Coffee House, Graywolf, and Milkweed are no longer just stepping stones to New York. Along with our colleagues, we take pride in providing our authors editing, design, and marketing that rivals the best the commercial sector can offer. That has enabled us to introduce the best Twin Cities authors to a national audience, and exciting national authors to Twin Cites readers.
Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the Daily Planet.