Executive Director and Founder, Woodland Pattern Books -- Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Executive Director and Co-Founder, Woodland Pattern Book Center
“I’m less interested in huge than wonderful.”
We meet in Anne’s basement office in the bookstore. She talks here about opening this specifically-focused bookstore 33 years ago and how and why she has remained true to the original intent for over three decades.
Woodland Pattern Book Store is a nonprofit literary arts center, and we are 33 years old this year. Which I think is pretty amazing for an organization devoted to poetry and small press publications. My husband, Karl Gartung, is the other founder. He is our hidden resource because we realized at the beginning, speaking of money, that somebody would need to have a steady day job with benefits. He went to work driving a truck, and I’ve had the fun of being the point person and meeting people here. He participates when he can on the weekends and sometimes during the week.
What was happening 33 years ago that made you want to open Woodland Pattern?
Well, curiosity. I would say Karl has a boundless sense of curiosity. He’s from Kansas, and he always felt that there was more stuff going on than he had access to. He was looking for the kind of literature he would find interesting, and it just wasn’t available in commercial bookstores. And so here was an opportunity to find and share things that were being done that were not necessarily commercially viable, or at least it wouldn’t support you.
Our mission is to cultivate, preserve (this is not verbatim) and share information and contemporary culture, contemporary literary culture. Big publishers are, as you must know, are concerned pretty much with the bottom line. They can no longer can take as many chances. You might be able to look up the name of the law that was passed, was it maybe between 29 and 30 years ago? Where publishers have to pay tax on their back stock.
It was a law that was originally focused on hardware stores. But publishing got into it. So if you’re a publisher and you published Ulysses, you do it because you really believe in that book, but you also know that that’s a book that needs to have a chance to find its audience. So you publish other books that are maybe more accessible. You’re not ashamed of them, but they’re not Ulysses, but they’re a solid part of your list. Those books can help keep Ulysses in print, because they’re the better sellers. When this law passed, you had to think twice about how many copies of Ulysses you are going to keep in back stock, since you’re paying taxes on it, which wasn’t the case before. It’s become more and more difficult, I think, for people who are doing experimental, cutting edge, and are not yet household names, to get published. It tends to be much more an accounting decision rather than concern about the quality of the book. Although there is obviously still concern about quality of books.
Whereas what we can put on the shelves books that are small press books that are passionate about getting the word out, whatever their particular interest is. Small presses are very democratic, because there are so many of them. Each one tends to be really devoted to the specific thing that they’re doing. I like to say that you’re having a chance to choose the classics of tomorrow, because no one’s telling you, this is what you have to read. You need to just explore and check them out.
I would like to see us considered as a treasure. I’m less interested in huge than wonderful. In Europe, there are cities recognized for the quality of what they offer, and they are valued as a treasure in that particular field. The former executive director of St. Mark’s in New York, poet Anselm Berrigan called us a NAtional Treasure in 2005.
We’re in a transitional neighborhood. It’s partly artists, very diverse, not high economics here. I’ve been on a committee for 20 years over at Pierce Elementary School and they have a 98% free lunch program, and their student mobility is 66%. We tend not to get a lot of walk-ins. We’re a destination. If you come here, it’s not that you just happened to be walking down the street. Although that does happen, it’s more because you’ve heard about Woodland Pattern or there’s a program that you’re making a point of coming to. Our reputation is pretty good nationally, and people will come because they’ve heard about us.
It’s partly because of the mission and that we believe in a human scale that I think of what we’re doing here almost as chamber readings. Because you’re not in an auditorium, you’re in a 30 by 30 room with great acoustics. You’re right there with the person. You have a chance to talk with them, you have a chance to ask questions. Everyone has been very generous about signing their books and visiting with people. Sometimes we have receptions that become a social extension of the reading.
And the other thing that we’ve tried to do, and I think we were really successful the first 15 to 20 years, was going back to finances. As an example, we’ve always sent out a snail mail newsletter. But our first ones were loose leaf in an envelope, and we designed each piece individually for visiting writers, artists, and musicians. We had a good relationship with a family printing business, and they said, “You know, we really hate waste. We’ve got all these cutoffs from other printing jobs. If you want to use them , we’ll charge you for the printing, but you can have the paper for free.
So my husband would go and look at the cutoffs and design each piece to a free piece of paper. We did that for 15 or 20 years, until our mailing list just got bigger than the amount of paper that they had available. Now it’s a more traditional format, but originally, each one was a little, a series of wonderful paper objects.
Each was unique…
I really believe that you can find ways of doing things well that continue your mission. It doesn’t mean you don’t need support, but sometimes, you know, something closes off here and it opens up another vision over here.
Have you always lived that way? Necessity being the mother of invention?
You know, I can’t think of any other way. We all have different scales of what’s success. We’ve never been hungry; we’ve always had a place to stay, and I never feel that buying a book is a bad investment. We don’t eat out, and I cut my own hair, but you can’t spend too much money on books or art supplies or whatever it is that feeds your spirit as well as your body.
You have a lot of books at home?
You rolled your eyes.
We’re getting to the point where the shelves are double-stacked and we’re going to have to decide. Either we need more shelves and I’m not sure where they could go, or we’re going to have to part with some books. We each have different interests, so that’s really tricky. Because what’s a treasure to me might not be a treasure to Karl.
So what do you get rid of?
Nothing. (Laughs) He is a poet. He’s a very serious reader. He, like Woodland Pattern, has been my continuing education. I go for lighter reading. I love mysteries.
We were in another location. We shared the space with two other art groups: Theatre X, an experimental theatre company, and Friends Mime who are now called Milwaukee Public Theatre. We had The Lobby, and I think maybe we had as many as 200 books, and we paid $100 rent a month which included utilities. You could see daylight through the cracks in the walls, but the man who owned the building wanted someone there. He liked art people, and so he didn’t charge what he could have charged. After he died, a more realistic person came, and we all started looking for other space. Theatre X went one place, Milwaukee Public Theatre went another, and we found this location, and it was a real handyman special. We’ve always had the point of view of not having debt and not taking on more than you can sustain. So we started chipping tile and cleaning up the day after Christmas, 1979, in this space. We opened in February, 1980.
Well, one room. Then a few months later, we could open the gallery, and finally we opened the room that people enter right now. It took us several years before we had enough money to empty the basement and away very rancid vats of fat, from when the building was a restaurant. There were old freezers and fridges and things, and a furnace big enough to do human sacrifices in. It was so big. Those old ones with the tubes going up. Now, of course, it’s pretty much a working area.
Where did you grow up?
Turtle Lake, Wisconsin. It’s about 70 miles inland from Minneapolis, but it’s still in Wisconsin. Very rural. My parents were both teachers. So it was a good childhood, yeah.
Did you, what was the financial situation like for you as a child?
I was not very sophisticated about money. Again, we weren’t hungry. Both my parents worked, and I was in college, and one of the professors said, well, you know, do you consider yourself lower class, middle class, or upper class? And I wasn’t even sure what to think, so I figured, well, we’re probably upper middle class. At that point, I can’t even think of what my dad was making, but it was not that rate. We were probably, well, we were lower class, I’m sure, if you go by the financial stuff.
I guess I grew up with a kind of a naïve fantasy that if you really wanted something, you worked toward it, it would be possible, and when I went to college, when I went to graduate school, I went to River Falls first, here. That was a good place, because they were beginning their art program and they were very supportive of young kids who came with no backgrounds from rural situations. So when I wanted to go on to school, I just picked a school and I ended up catching a bus. You know, I went without a lot of resources. But I got a scholarship. Other money came in. My parents helped me. I took out a student loan. At that time,you could take a student loan and get 10% forgiven if you taught in low income areas. So I did that. It was a very good situation.
What did your parents teach you about money?
Well, in my family, my mother was the person who handled the finances, and her mother handled the finances, and I don’t know whether it went back farther than that, but they were very thrifty women. You knew how to make things stretch. I was in college before I knew you could drink a whole Coca-Cola by yourself. It was always shared with other people. I mean, this sounds really kind of peculiar, but she was very thrifty, that just was the way you did things, you know? There wasn’t waste. I don’t know how to explain it. You made soup, you did those kinds of almost clichéd things.
I know that there are times that a person can be penny wise and pound foolish, and that you need to guard against. But we try to be careful here, and people plug in pretty well. So we try to recycle our paper and make sure the lights are turned off and, you know, and think about how you’re spending your money. I have to say that I still look at every bill, write the checks, and I still balance the checkbook.
Can you tell me about the time when the store’s struggled?
Always. Well, we’ve had some really good times. Leslie Marmon Silko [Native American writer] came here to read, and we hit it off very well. I’ve got a great recipe from her mom, a chocolate rum cake that will just knock your socks off. So when Leslie got her Macarthur, she had to designate an organization to receive a certain amount of money from the Macarthur Foundation. And we were fortunate enough to get that for two years, and we socked it away. That was a buffer for us that lasted up into the tight times now, so that was very, very important.
So yes, it’s a struggle. But, on the other hand, we’ve paid people’s insurance for over ten years, 100%. There might be jobs you could make more money at. But there needs to be a human thing, and the insurance seemed like a really important way of supporting the people who will support you by being here, working here.
It’s not that we’re saying, oh, isn’t it great we’re small and poor? No, no. It’s just, you make do with what’s there so that you can keep going and do it better with more. So it’s a matter, again, of pragmatism. This is where we are, and this is what’s important to us, but we sure want to get better. I’m not against growth, but I don’t want growth for growth’s sake. I want it because it’s a natural evolution that can be sustained.
Say you won the lottery…
(Laughs) Oh, we’ve talked about that a lot. First of all, we’d probably tie it up in some kind of trust thing. But we would enlarge the space, we would be able to make sustainable salary increases, we could, oh, there’s just all kinds of possibilities, you know? We’ve always had the principle that people shouldn’t have to pay to come here to perform or read, but we could offer more money to people who are coming, you know? We could share that way.
You’ve outlasted Borders…
Well, Borders was a good place. You remember at first it was in Ann Arbor, then they spread out. I think the mistake was trying to grow too fast. Instead of saying, we’re going to have one or two in a city, we’re going to have ten Borders in a city. Well, you’re going to compete against each other. When that didn’t work, they brought in CEOs that weren’t book people and didn’t have a sense of the business. All the ideas about how to be financially viable or feasible took them further and further away from their mission. I had a friend who was a manager at Borders, so I knew some of the things that they were trying about working with a different coffee company or the sidelines that they brought in. Lots of bookstores have sidelines, that’s how they survive. But Borders had a good product and had a good way of working, if they could have been satisfied to be only really successful. (Laughs)
See also my interview with Michael Powell, owner of the sprawling Powell’s Books in Portland, OR.