Shelf Space

In the past decade, there’s been a happy trend of independent presses opening their own bookstores. Lit Hub reported on this, noting that some stores serve as a little showroom for the press’s own books, and others expand to include works from other publishers. Melville House Publishing opened a store and an event space in Brooklyn. In Spartanburg, South Carolina, Hub City Press launched Hub City Bookshop. Last fall, Minneapolis’ Milkweed Editions, a nonprofit founded in 1980 that publishes “transformative literature,” added Milkweed Books. We spoke with Manager Hans Weyandt about “the tiny store that is both inviting and surprising.”

How would you describe Milkweed Books to the uninitiated?

Milkweed Books carries titles from all publishers, but with only 600 square feet of space and shared buying duties across the staff, the stock is inclined toward small and independent presses, pretty books, and weird books. A lot of first-time visitors come in and encounter books they didn’t expect and often leave with something hard to find that they’ve been searching for—or something they’d never heard of but that grabbed their attention.

If Milkweed Books were a religion, what would be its icons and tenets?

This feels like a trick question. I worship at the shrine of Amy Hempel, High Priestess of Short Fiction and Impressive Hair. Otherwise, the butterfly is a fine logo, but iconography? Nah.

Which was your favorite event and/or most memorable disaster?

The store had a wonderful event with Gabrielle Civil for her performance memoir, Swallow the Fish. She wrote letters and poems to people in attendance on a very sharp yellow typewriter on loan from Timothy Otte of Coffee House Press. Also, Milkweed Books was in the very fortunate position of hosting a number of events during last January’s Winter Institute. The opening night party was here, as were several other readings and parties, and it was wonderful to have people from all parts of the bookselling world in our home building. 

How does the bookstore reflect the interests of your community?

The store is situated in a fairly unique environment. Open Book is home to Milkweed’s publishing offices as well as the bookstore. Milkweed Books shares the first floor with a cafe and the Minnesota Center for Book Arts, and The Loft Literary Center has its offices and classrooms on the second floor. All of that influences me to stock visiting artists and to develop an attractive, well-designed inventory.

What trends are you noticing among young readers?

The biggest thing, and something that is so encouraging, is the number of teens and people in their 20s looking for and buying poetry. For some time, I’ve thought the mystery genre has made the biggest strides in terms of global perspective, but poetry is constantly reinventing itself in exciting and uplifting ways.

What are some of the bookstore’s top current handsells?

The store’s small size means the inventory changes all the time, but these are some fun ones the staff has highlighted recently: Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada; Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera; The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich;Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash;The Vine That Ate the South by J.D. Wilkes;Fish in Exile by Vi Khi Nao; and Shark Drunk by Morten Strøksnes.

Karen Schechner is the vice president of Kirkus Indie.

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