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Coffee House Press shakes up publishing

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Letterpress type at Coffee House Press
Coffee House Press began publishing letterpress books in the 1970s. It has since evolved into a literary publisher that releases 18 trade books a year and has an operating budget of over $1 million.
Courtesy of Coffee House Press

Twenty years ago, Chris Fischbach got an internship at Coffee House Press in Minneapolis.

Today, he's the publisher.

For anyone who thinks that "print is dead," Fischbach would like to politely disagree.

"A lot of people say the sky is falling," Fischbach said of the publishing industry, but Coffee House has taken it as an opportunity to explore new programming.

Fischbach joined MPR News' Euan Kerr to discuss the press and how it's evolving in a changing publishing scene.

Coffee House Press publisher Chris Fischbach
Coffee House Press publisher Chris Fischbach
Courtesy of Coffee House Press

"What we really do is connect readers and writers, and there's a number of different ways we can do that. Publishing is a tool that we can use, but so are different kinds of programming."

Coffee House, of course, still prints books. The small, independent press usually releases 18 titles in a year, including fiction, poetry and essays. But it has also started "putting writers in other contexts." 

Most people think of writers working alone at their desks, or speaking into a microphone at a reading, but Coffee House has created a residence program to put writers in new places, like libraries or even on a canoe.

With their library initiative, Coffee House has installed writers at different libraries around the country. The point is for authors to explore all kinds of different library collections and archives; to produce new work inspired by what they find; and then to share that work with the public.

In Minneapolis, Coffee House placed poet Ed Bok Lee at the American Swedish Institute. Lee became fascinated with the institute's collection of Swedish poems and decided to translate them — even though he didn't speak Swedish. Using context and drawing on his knowledge of other languages, he created "meta-translations" — his version of the original poems. The museum later built an exhibit around the poems.

If this sounds untraditional, that's the point. As an independent, non-profit press, Fischbach said, Coffee House works to publish books and present programming that crosses boundaries — "boundaries of race, of culture, of form."

The press' next adventure is the launch of their first imprint. Coffee House is partnering with Emily Books, a Brooklyn-based feminist publishing project, to release original works that "speak to the aesthetic excellence, experimental boldness, and social concerns of both organizations." 

The press will celebrate Fischbach's 20th anniversary at Coffee House — and its fall line-up of books — with Housequake on Sept. 21. The ticketed event will be held at the Fulton Tap Room.