Open Book turns 10


Open Book is the home of the Loft Literary Center, Milkweed Editions and the Minnesota Center for Book Arts.

This Saturday Open Book is celebrating its ten year anniversary as a center for the literary and book arts.

After watching the center grow and thrive over the past decade, the biggest surprise is that Open Book remains unique in the country for what it offers.

There are centers for the literary arts (that focus on reading and writing), and there are centers for the book arts (that teach printing and book-binding). And in the years since Open Book opened, its three tenants - Milkweed Editions, the Loft Literary Centery, and the Minnesota Center for Book Arts - have fielded numerous inquiries from organizations seeking to bring the literary and book arts together under one roof in their own communities. Yet nothing has emerged from those initial conversations.

So what makes Open Book such a singular entity?

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Milkweed Editions Editor Daniel Slager points to the then directors of the three non-profits who, more than a decade ago, realized together they could become something greater than the sum of their parts.

I think it's really a Minnesota story, in terms of the level of cooperation between the three organizations. I got a whiff of that when I first arrived [in 2005], but didn't really get it until a few years later. I feel such admiration for the visionaries who put this together in the first place.

Those three founders were Emilie Buchwald (Milkweed), Linda Myers (Loft) and Peggy Korsmo-Kennon (MCBA). While their vision was in part aspirational, it was also practical; they were facing increasing rents in their respective buildings, and wanted a permanent, sustainable home. Thus Open Book was born, located on a strip of Washington Avenue in Minneapolis that was known best for metrodome parking and the Liquor Depot.

Since the spring of 2000 a lot has changed both inside and outside the building.

Open Book is looked upon as a pioneer settler in what is now a cultural corridor, featuring the Guthrie Theater, the MacPhail Center for Music, the Mill City Museum, a farmers' market, several restaurants and upscale condominiums.

Open Book Board Chair Moira Turner says the vibrancy of the community is feeding right back into the health of Open Book:

The building is buzzing; ten thousand people a month come through the doors. I'm just amazed.

None of the three original founders remain, but the legacy of their work is evident. Loft Director Jocelyn Hale says what once seemed like an excessive amount of classroom space is now almost at capacity.

Working in this building is an absolute pleasure. And all the run-ins, the coincidences that happen because there's so much activity in this building - it's really enhanced our work.

Hale recently ran into Milkweed Editor Dan Slager in the hall, and started talking about the Loft's newsletter, which has been offering insights on the writing process for 35 years. Fast forward several months, and Milkweed is now working on publishing an anthology of "A View from the Loft."

Jeff Rathermel, Artistic Director of the Minnesota Center for Book Arts, says he's enjoyed having the freedom of letting his shows bleed out into communal spaces:

Something that I've been able to do over the past six years, is look at the building itself as an exhibition space - moving it out into the building in general - lobby, literary commons, there are many more opportunities for artists to present their work.

Rathermel says he's also thrilled to see other organizations adopt Open Book as their home base for meetings and events.

As for Milkweed's Dan Slager, he says by being based in Open Book, Mildweed Editions is able to have a direct relationship with the community and many of its readers - something few publishers have.

Yet for all its success, one key component has yet to fall into place for the center: a bookstore.

Over the years the space next to the coffee shop has been occupied by Rosalux Gallery and Ruminator Books, but nothing lasted. Daniel Slager says he's eager to see a place on the first floor where people can buy Milkweed's work. While past efforts have failed, Slager thinks now may be the time to try again:

My own take is that the book store was a little ahead of its time with the neighborhood. Our area has changed, we've changed. We have a new opportunity to engage with a growing community here, and to establish not just a traditional bookstore, but books in all sorts of formats. It would have to be something beautiful, in line with the aethetics of the three organizations, but also innovate and forward looking.

A bookstore was just one of the ideas discussed as part of a recently developed five year strategic plan to further "open" Open Book. Other plans debated - and approved - include removing a wall on the first floor so that the MCBA's gallery is visible as soon as a patron walks in the door, and installing more outlets to accomodate all the laptops people bring with them. And this fall the Loft Literary Center will offer its first online writing class, for people who can't afford to commute into the Twin Cities week after week.

Looking ahead to the next ten years, Slager thinks Open Book should work on raising its profile. While the individual non-profits have varying national reputations, the Open Book building does not. Considering its enduring singularity, and the community destination Open Book has created for book-lovers, it's time to spread the word.