Lilith's Library

Joan Drury has led Duluth's Spinsters Ink from the end of one feminist heyday to the dawn of another. How? Dogged vision and deep pockets.

And, if it's not clear already, there is no denying Joan Drury.

The Duluth feminist community may be mostly lesbian, but Spinsters itself is more inclusive. No longer solely lesbian, Spinsters looks for books that "deal with significant issues in women's lives from a feminist perspective... [books by and for] fat women, Jewish women, lesbians, old women, poor women, rural women, women examining classism, women of color, women with disabilities, women who are writing books that help make the best in our lives more possible." Quite the laundry list, this, especially when you think how hard it would be to get a poor, rural woman to trudge into town and make her way past Borders's cappuccino dispenser in order to buy a book like Cancer in Two Voices, wherein a San Francisco sociology professor details her and her lover's reaction to terminal breast cancer, while recounting the history of Jewish socialism in Brooklyn.

"We do need to be more proactive in terms of reaching out to different segments that might not have the same kind of access," Drury says of Spinsters' print priorities. "We can't pretend to be feminists and then only publish the work of white, able-bodied, heterosexual, wealthy, thin women who live in metropolitan areas." The problem is, though, who else has the wherewithal to write books?

Reaching out to your average overworked woman in need of entertainment is a task Spinsters is more likely to accomplish with their less lofty but more lucrative line of inventory: mysteries. At a third of Spinsters' output, dyke detective novels are what makes it possible for Drury to publish more literary works. In other words, if it weren't for bumptious, alliterative titles like Two Bit Tango and Hangdog Hustle, there would be no means to put out Cancer in Two Voices.

Drury's own mystery novel, Silent Words, has recently been nominated for an Edgar Award (the Oscar of mystery-writing) and has been purchased for publication in Japan, Germany, and Britain. But no feminist failure is as problematic as an easy success, and so Drury wonders aloud in an open letter to readers whether it's "exploitive to use stories containing violence" to sell merchandise. On the other hand, as of 1996 Spinsters was still absorbing a $60,000-a-year loss. "I was beginning to wonder if we could keep that up," Drury says. Ironically, it's tales of spilled blood that might get Spinsters out of the red for the first time.

Nothing sells better than violence, except sex, perhaps, and this topic too figures prominently in the Spinsters scheme. Writer Martha Roth reports having been encouraged to add more lesbian sex scenes to her Spinsters title, Goodness. Roth deferred to this editorial direction to balance the book's heterosexual eroticism with the homo-; a small, niche press like Spinsters, she assumed, would know its readers best.

Still, catering to the increasingly balkanized book marketplace is an inexact science--particularly when the explicit goal is to not cater to the lowest common denominator and the bottom line. As Drury expounds on Spinsters and its mission, members of her six-person staff drift in and out of her office smiling and holding mugs of herbal tea. "We had a coffee maker here, but not enough people drank it to make it worthwhile," she explains.

Spinsters Ink takes up the entire third floor of the Building for Women on First and Superior; the building itself is a chunk of real estate that would cost millions anywhere besides a depressed port town. Spacious, airy rooms seem to open into one another, and the windows are splashes of sky, sunlight, and sparkling lake. The best view, of course, is from Drury's corner office. Lake Superior itself seems to wrap around the room's perimeter like a bright blue ribbon on a glass box. The general tranquility here recalls the illustration on the catalog; perhaps this really is Drury's editorial vision made manifest.

In practical terms, it's a vision shared by more than one small, niche-market press. According to Claire Kirsch, Spinsters' PR manager, there are 20 small feminist/lesbian presses active on the market right now. That's twice what it was 10 or 15 years ago, a gain Kirsch attributes to the double phenomenon of women's studies and Lesbian Chic. Lesbian humor books like Roberts' Rules of Lesbian Break-Ups fly off the shelves at Minneapolis's Amazon Bookstore.

Meanwhile, in the mainstream, as always, it's either feast or famine: Sapphire's push, a lesbian-of-color coming-of-age story, received a hefty and much-publicized advance, and presses like St. Martin's carry their own gay imprint (Stonewall). Still, the rising profit-margin demands of the publishing business (and their amoebic hunger to absorb every genre in their wake) make niche-market publishing a gamble. According to Kirsch, publishing companies often approach the big chain stores with a sample of their wares, inquiring point-blank on their sales viability. In short, while splashily Sapphic coffee-table books may be a growing line today, Simon & Schuster's commitment to such titles is at best trendy, and at worst, transient.

In the singularly American struggle to fulfill every consumer's singular desire, even niche markets are being divided into niches. Circlet Press, an erotic science-fiction house, recently launched a new gay imprint, "The Ultra-Violet Library," for gay and lesbian SF/fantasy fans. Back on planet Earth, such endeavors tend to depend less on conceptual ingenuity and more on the depth of the publisher's pocket. "I like to say Spinsters has a deep line of credit," Drury jokes. "Me."

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