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August 15th, 2011 / 2:25 pm
Behind the Scenes

Picture Woodland Pattern

I’ve been interested in Woodland Pattern for years. The bookstore, located in Milwaukee, WI, is so massive, and has been around for so long, that it’s become a vital resource just by virtue of its existence. It’s not too much to call it an anchor of the poetry economy in the USA. Maybe it isn’t selling millions of books, but its role as a stalwart icon can’t be underestimated. Recently Robert Baumann, a WP employee, Milwaukee native, and literature master (and the proprietor of the amazing Mitzvah Chaps), Dropbox’d me a pile of photos from the store and I asked him some questions about them.

Thanks for doing this, Robert. I’ve actually wanted to interview someone at Woodland Pattern since I started writing at HTMLGiant. So, first, can you give us some vitals on the store? When was it started? How many employees?

Woodland Pattern–or Woodie P as we lovingly call it–just celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2010; it moved to the location on E. Locust Street in the Riverwest neighborhood in 1979, when founders Karl Gartung and Anne Kingsbury purchased the building. Immediately, they started hosting events: Anne & Karl did a lot to get the “biggies” of “avant garde poetry” here from the get-go. Right now there are six full-time employees, not to mention our amazing board (all volunteers); also, the help of great friends makes a lot of our events possible.

How many books are there? What do you carry?
In terms of the bookstore, we’ve got an inventory of ~15,000 books, and the vast majority of those–I’d say over 10,000–are small press and DIY. Many of the rest of them are University presses. For years in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, you could find new copies–first editions even–of amazing books at their original ‘70s and ‘80s prices. Unless we get a large number of copies of a book for an event or something and then don’t sell them, we don’t ever return anything, which means that we’ve created quite an archive over the years. (Lately, we’ve culled some of our rarer books and placed them in a special section, repriced them, etc. But there are still some gems to be found.) That’s the benefit of being a non-profit, an organization that’s much much bigger than just the bookstore: we don’t (and can’t) rely fully on bookstore sales–we’re nowhere close to doing that; instead, the bookstore can focus on being a resource for writers and fans of great lit.

Our primary focus is poetry and small press stuff in general. I don’t know if this is weird, but at any given time there’s a better chance that you’d find something like The Drunk Sonnetsby Daniel Bailey on the shelves than something like Shakespeare’s sonnets, because you can get the latter at pretty much any bookstore, used or new, so we don’t make it a priority when stocking our shelves. Conversely, we’ve got pretty much full lines of stuff from Wave, Octopus, Flood Editions, Ugly Duckling, FC2, Gray Wolf, Fence, Dalkey Archive, etc.–even Publishing Genius (thanks for your generosity there) and Magic Helicopter. :) That’s not to say that we don’t have stuff on hand from Norton or Penguin or whatever–we stock great poetry no matter the publisher, we just identify with the little guys. As a reference point, I’d say that the bookstore is about 50% of the AWP bookfair–but it’s static, of course. Imagine having that in your backyard, on a daily basis, and that’s what we have here in Milwaukee.

That’s seems like a paltry intro because it’s just the bookstore portion of WP, but I’m sure will get to the other stuff as we sort through the pics I dropped on you.

Egad, that is not a paltry introduction to Woodie P at all, though maybe it seems like it to you because you know how much deeper it gets. But geez, it sounds so great, I feel like my work is done. But let’s look at these pictures anyway, because they are so amazing. First, how about this one:
This is the chapbook shelf, right? Um, it’s overwhelming. I don’t even know what to ask. What can you say about this picture?
I think the only thing to say is that the actually chapbook selection is probably three times what you see in this pic because there’s another side to this behemoth rack and then there are the fine press drawers which are full of more delicate and/or handmade items, many of which are chapbooks.
Here are some more pictures of the chapbook stuff:

That book, Sound, by Yoshizawa Syoji looks interesting. What’s that like?

The Syoji chapbook that you see above is pretty rare. Thing.net, one of best named websites in existence, has a very nice scan of it here, but I’m not sure that one could find it for purchase elsewhere. The chap is from Karl Young’s Light and Dust Books–he’s made a lot of cool stuff over the years and is currently working the “ideal anthology.”

Do you have a database of all these books? It seems like there’s a market for these chapbooks, and in some cases WP might have the last remaining copies. But only people in Milwaukee can see them. That’s kind of beautiful, I think. Or, but, do you ever sell anything online?
We have some stuff online at abebooks.com, some of our rarer stuff that we’ve repriced, but it’s not been a great investment for us–not to say anything bad about ABE. But in the store, every book we have is in a database, yes, and while it’s a bit of an outdated system, we can’t really afford to upgrade at this point. It would be a massive undertaking considering that so many of our titles don’t have ISBN’s let alone barcodes that can be scanned for easy database entry, like the Syoji book. We don’t even have a barcode scanner; when someone purchases a book we have to look up the books by title or author and then select the book. It’s comical, especially if someone pays by credit card: then the whole store is filled with the clacking of ancient machine, the thunder of the abacus clapping against the tele-epoch.

I think we have fantasies about getting everything online, because it would be a nice source of income for us, but it’s also nice to know that people in the Milwaukee area (or people who visit us when they’re in town) have access to some things that no one else does–sort of draws attention to objects-in-context. That said, if there’s something you’re looking for, people can call us or email us and ask. If you live out of state we don’t charge tax and our shipping fees are very reasonable, haha.

Has anyone ever called and asked for, like, a chapbook from Bronze Skull Press, and you were like, “Oh yeah no problem?”
Stuff like that has happened yes. People have been like, “Wow, I didn’t think there was any chance . . .” Back when I was the bookstore guy between 2003-2007, I used to look forward to Roberto Harrison bringing in those Bronze Skull chaps–they were always hot off the press.

What’s going on here? How much are these kids getting paid? Do your neighbors understand what you are? 

These kids are not being paid: washing the Woodland Pattern windows is its own reward! These kids actually won a contest to get  to do this; several saddened cherubs were turned away into the alley.

For really though, this is an image from when the 30th Anniversary mural was being installed on the front of the building. Lots of community members showed up to help clean and paint that day; much of the neighborhood, particularly the for-profit establishments, is very supportive and is well aware of what we do. That said, there are people from the neighborhood who stop in and say, “I never realized this was here,” or they ask, “Is this a bookstore or a library?” or “What the hell is this place?” Partially, that’s due to WP’s location, and partially that’s something that we have to strive to overcome. We always tell people, “Well, the books are for sale, but feel free to just sit and read if you want.” Often, they do.

There’s another bookstore down Locust St., at Downer I think, called People’s Books, and it has a great selection of Chomsky-type things. But it seems kind of ordinary compared to what’s happening at WP. Everything does, I guess.
People’s Books is very cool–they’re a cooperative now. I think People’s and WP complement each other in that we fill separate niches in the Milwaukee literature community, People’s focusing on politics and philosophy. I don’t think they do very many events, though.

Oh good, I’m glad People’s is still there. I remember there was a dog. And I wanted to talk about events at WP. Here’s a photo of the music stand in your event space:

What are all those broadsides?
I think that was the 30th Anniversary exhibition, when many of the event-based broadsides were on display, along with old newsletters and other strange ephemera from over the decades. Anne Kingsbury, co-founder and executive director of WP, loves to keep everything around, so we have, for example, all these old hand-written sales records in boxes in the basement, before there was a computerized register. That’s pretty cool, I guess, but there are stories that emerge from that ephemera that are sort of timeless. One that comes to mind is the bit about Robert Duncan sitting at the kitchen table at Anne K. & Karl G.’s house, handwriting errata on 100+ broadsides and signing them. Those Duncan broadsides have got to be some of the coolest, rarest  things we have here (there are still a number on hand to purchase), and often Karl G. will just tell that story and then give one away in excitement.

And here’s a better photo that shows the whole room where events take place:

What are all those portraits? And what are some of the events that you do there? I went to the 24 hour poetry reading once, but not for all 24 hours.
This was the east gallery wall during Clarissa Sligh exhibit in December 2010. Clarissa is a book artist and photographer, amongst other things; we have some of her books in the aforementioned fine press drawers. I like this picture because it shows how nice of a space the gallery can be for performances. It would be pretty cool to read in front of that show, IMO, and plenty of people did. I think it was even still showing there when we did the Poetry Marathon in January, so something like 70 people read in front of it that day alone.Nice, 70 faces in front of all those faces in the pictures. It looks like the Periodic Table. What other kinds of events do you have there?
Beyond readings, we do a lot of other events–we’re really an event driven non-profit. The gallery houses an Experimental Film & Video series, which you might be familiar with, that’s curated by Carl Bogner in association with the UW-Milwaukee film department. There’s Alternating Currents Live, which we present in conjunction with WMSE 91.7 FM in Milwaukee, curated by Hal Rammel (some legendary folks have come through in that series, for real). We’re open to hosting a variety of things, and we try to collaborate with any arts group or organization that will do something; we want the space to be public. There have been neighborhood meetings here, reading groups organized by patrons, orgies (I’m speculating: all the office doors have locks on them). In September, we’re the end point for the 100 Thousand Poets for Change event in Milwaukee wherein something like 40 area poets will march and read.

What is this picture from? Is it actually in the store?

I wish this was in the store. It’s at Anne & Karl’s house. Sometimes after a reading from a visiting writer or some other special event, they’ll have people over and Anne will fix these amazing spreads with homemade savories and snacks and sometimes a lot more. Here, it’s a giant salmon that people picked to the bone. Often, it’s a hefty whole turkey. The best artichoke dip. Et cetera. But the point is that no matter the event, everything feels very intimate at Woodland Pattern, very homey.

Does this photo come with a story?

Sure. This thing–which is a wolf head made with fox pelts or something–is sitting in our storage closet in the gallery, on top of a stack of chairs. A couple times a year Anne K. gets it out and makes people wear it for photo opps or to embarrass them. It’s a rite of passage at Woodland, not only for employees, but for dear friends as well. Like the post-reading vittles spread at Anne K. & Karl G.’s place, it’s another thing that makes WP simultaneously intimate and welcoming to the people. It would probably look pretty good with your beard, if you still have it. The wolfen will come for you with books!

You started to say that WP does a lot of community stuff. Does this picture of kids have anything to do with that?


Yes, sort of. This pic was taken during the Locust Street Festival, which benefits Woodland Pattern and some other neighborhood organizations every year. We always have some creative table set up for kids, often with teachers from previous kids camps and workshops volunteering.

Beyond that though, for two weeks every summer, WP is delightfully overrun with local grade school, middle school, and high school students that attend our art camps. We hire hip teachers in writing, book arts, film & video, dance, and the like that collaborate to make an awesome, well-rounded experience for the kids. They also go on field trips to museums and places like Growing Power and Cream City Collectives. During the school year, we often have after school workshops that are either free to kids, whether through the other grant writing and fundraising that we do, or through MPS funding. We also do off-site stuff, where our teachers and/or staff will go to a location that’s more convenient for a group of kids.

Once again, this seems to be such a thin representation of the work people at WP actually do.

This is a nice picture of a bookshelf — has some HTMLGiant faves on it. I like that my book is next to Babyfucker. Do you have any idea about what sort of stuff is selling the best? I mean, like, do you think you sell more old stuff or new stuff?

Well, no one really buys anything. The people who work here buy stuff, and there are a few regular customers that drop some good blingy, but it’s generally slim.

That Charles Bernstein book Attack of the Difficult Poems is too expensive.

We will give you a discount, Adam.

OK, next time I’m there. Are sales different than in years past?

Probably to some extent, but we’ve always been walking up hill since we’re focused on small presses. I think we’re actually doing ok compared to previous years because we’re able to dedicate more time to book sales, and we do a lot of off-site sales for events. Like, we have a huge Native American lit section, and we always sell books at the Indian Summer festival in downtown Milwaukee.

Oh that’s brilliant. You mentioned Locust St Days above, too. Do you get to do any of the other festivals in Milwaukee? The city of festivals.

We’ve done Irish Fest before, but we don’t have enough pertinent books on hand to make that worthwhile. We have like ~2000 Natve American titles, so it’s easy for us to have a kickass booth at Indian Summer.

I see. That makes sense. What are some cool Native American books? How come you have so many?

I think that Anne K. has an interest in them, and so does another employee who’s worked here for years, so the section just grew over time. We’ve developed relationships with various Native organizations, especially First Nations, and we sell a lot of books to them. In fact, we created a whole library and database for them a few years back. This is one of the ways that the bookstore stays viable, too: selling large numbers of books to organizations, or at off-sites.

Regarding cool NA titles, Stephen Graham Jones has a couple of books out on FC2 which are pretty good; I like that there’s a cross over between small press and Native American lit there, sort of a perfect combo of our specialties.

Oh yeah, I have heard of him. I thought you were going to say something far out, like Robert White Eagle’s greatest love poems. But, speaking of festivals, with AWP in Chicago next year, will WP do anything there?

At this point, I don’t think there’s the funding for it, but I think it’s a good idea, especially since I’ve had such a blast going to AWP the last several years. But the bookstore gets a decent amount of Chicago traffic as it is–I don’t think there’s anything like WP down there, though there are some great used bookstores. An AWP table would probably drum up some more Hiawatha traffic.

Here’s another bookshelf photo.

I notice it has some of your Mitzvah Chaps on there. That Anne Boyer book is so great. I know you told me before that you weren’t even in Milwaukee when that photo was taken, but do you take advantage of the bookstore to sell your books or the books you really love?

I feel honored just to have my books at Woodie P, honestly.

Me too.

I think I just donated the chaps to them, and if it helped to get the word out about Mitzvah, that was just added coolness. People do just walk in, look at the display books, and purchase stuff on impulse on occasion, so it was great to have the chaps out on display. The Boyer chap sold well; she’s a delight, and a genius, so it’s no surprise that it did.

All the people that work at WP (there are only 6 of us) each of us intimately knows and loves part of the stock. When I was bookstore manager here, and I think Karl Saffran does the same now, I definitely ordered books by the people that I liked, or if I liked their press, and it’s a boon to the organization if a bookseller can talk about books with knowledge and, even more importantly, with enthusiasm. I think that’s what’s always gotten me about people like you and Mike Young and Matt & Katie Henriksen: you all just really love the writing that you put out, believe in the writers. But we do that anyway, as lovers of indie lit, of books as objects, etc. I tell people all the time about Say, Poem, and I have no vested interested in its proliferation, haha.

Does working at such a great and literary bookstore influence what you publish? What about what you write?

Yes, very much so, on many levels. First off, WP was my introduction to the chapbook form; though I had probably seen chaps floating around before I started interning here, it never really registered with me as a medium. When you walk into WP, they’re pretty hard to ignore. Book arts is big here, too. We’ve had a lot of bookmaking workshops, we’ve exhibited book artists in the gallery on a number of occasions, and we’ve been doing an edible book show here as a fundraiser for 3 years running. So, alternate forms of “the book” are always on display here.

Beyond just the format, WP is the place I learned that literature, at the indie level, is largely a labor of love. It gave me the confidence to make connections with people that I admired, to try to publish things (I still feel weird calling Mitzvah a publisher). There were pieces out there that I knew of that weren’t going to reach any audience if I didn’t do anything with them. Like Anne Boyer’s book: she was sort of like, “Nobody wants this. Do you want it?” and I was like, “Uh, sure. It’s sort of the best thing ever.”

Here are some more of the photos that you sent me. They’re all wonderful, though I think you’re right — it’s hard even for photos to convey what an amazing thing Woodland Pattern is. Thanks for trying though. And here’s to 30 more years.

If this were a photo essay, it woud be fitting to close with this message:

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