At the Open Book building on a recent Friday, the Loft Literary Center’s Nancy Gaschott pulled out a black-and-white photograph of a meeting room in shambles. The photo depicted the same room she was standing in — a large conference space that retained its old wood column and brick walls.
“We wanted the building to continue to tell its stories,” Gaschott said.
A staircase is suspended against the wall where it originally stood, old exterior sign paint is still visible in the Milkweed publishing offices, and an artist’s tapestry hangs next to the vintage wallpaper by which the piece was inspired.
The architectural history is intriguing, but the building’s most compelling stories appear to be taking place in the present.
Ten thousand people use the building each month, according to Brian Bergee, the building manager. The tables are covered with coffee-stained paper and dotted with open laptops, and the building is filled with focused people buried in their work. A survey of building users on a recent afternoon revealed that many of the people who come in stay for hours and feel a sense of ownership for the space.
“This is our spot,” said Lorita Janas, a writer who meets at Open Book every two to three weeks with seven other friends who write creative nonfiction. The women come to the building from as far as Lino Lakes, Maple Grove and Fridley.
“We met at a Loft writing group five years ago, and we come to talk and write. This is one of my favorite buildings,” Janas said.
Kate Wolfe-Jenson has just finished the first draft of a memoir, and her friend Barbara Brooks has read the manuscript. They are trying to figure out where the book would sit on bookstore shelves in order to fine-tune the book’s presentation.
Upstairs and down the hall, a freelance copywriting class is about to begin. There are more than 30 people in the class, and the participants range from stay-at-home moms to career journalists and marketing professionals. Instructor Amy Simso Dean tells them the point of copywriting is sales, not literature.
“You don’t want them to say, ‘That’s really good writing,’ you want them to say ‘I want to buy that product,’” she said.
A neighboring class called Parents with Bylines has about 10 women paging through parenting magazines, determining how to phrase headlines for their stories and asking instructor Sheila Eldred which editors would be best to hear a story pitch.
Between the classrooms stands the publishing house Milkweed Editions, where one of three editors pores through manuscripts looking for distinctive voices of literary merit. Milkweed publishes 20–22 books each year, and receives 3,000 manuscripts each year.
“It’s a steep cut-off,” said Associate Editor Ben Barnhart. Even when a book is chosen for publishing, there is a one to two year editing process ahead. One of Milkweed’s poets is renting a writer’s studio a floor below.
“There is great synergism,” Barnhart said. “A lot of our authors have taken classes and use the writers’ studios.”
Writers who don’t opt for the private studios can stake out a spot at any of the open tables in the building. Two novelists tried writing at Open Book for the first time last week and found the environment to their liking.
Ann Bleakley was taking a look at her second draft of an historical romance novel. She and her friend Greta met at a writers’ group.
“The building has a nice vibe, a literary feeling,” said Greta, who was in the middle of writing her sixth romance novel. She attributed the good vibes in part to the industrial architecture but mostly to the patrons here, who are more focused than those in a traditional coffee shop.
“It’s pleasant, low-key and a little bit bohemian,” she said.
Upstairs in the Minnesota Center for Book Arts offices, staff member Emma Allen opened a door and entered a walkway above the main floor. She said she loves passing through this hallway to catch snippets of the interesting conversations below.
One of the interesting people who camped out for the day was Michael Kutscheid, a co-owner of Sanctuary, a restaurant set to open this month in the former Frank’s Plumbing Building on Washington Avenue. He had architectural drawings of the restaurant spread out on the table, and he was preparing to meet with his purveyors for a wine seminar.
At a neighboring table, Anne Hagood, a visitor from France, spent some downtime in conversation. Hagood is visiting U.S. cities as part of the International Leadership Program, a program designed to improve relations between the United States and other countries.
Before she arrived, her table was occupied by members of the United Nations Association of Minnesota. For the past two years, the nonprofit staff members have met at Open Book once a week to coordinate the Global Classrooms program they run in St. Paul schools. Kate Vansickle’s first visit to the building was a job interview for her position there, and now she works in the building after each meeting.
“I spend the rest of the day here,” she said. “It’s pleasantly anonymous; you just get your coffee and do your thing.”
Traffic into the building for coffee has picked up in the past year, according to Coffee Gallery Manager Lori Rivers, and she expects that to increase all the more when the Bridgewater condominium project opens across the street. She said the catering business has increased as well.
Next to the Coffee Gallery, a group of women are learning to make paper from Amanda Degener, a woman who started with the Minnesota Center for Book Arts and is now one of the biggest names in paper. She teaches her class to cook paper in boiling water with soda ash and then beat the fiber into pulp.
Below the classroom area, Jennifer Gaelang has finished printing wedding invitation envelopes on the letterpress. Her membership in the artist co-op allows her 24-hour access to the equipment, and she’s a bit tired after working in the basement since 7:30 a.m. With the remaining ink, she is printing up some stationery for herself.
“There is a lot of good energy here,” she said.
Reach Michelle Bruch at 436-4372 or firstname.lastname@example.org.