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.

The cover of the book catalog promises almost utopian tranquility. On a sun-drenched hardwood floor swathed in Native American rugs, two African American women in bright, comfortable clothes play with their dog, a cheerful mixed-breed collie. At their feet are the scattered details of joyful domesticity: sneakers, a half-empty wine glass, the comics section of the San Francisco Examiner, hardcover notebook journals, and a stray Gloria Naylor title. It's another Sunday morning in the promised land.

Between the covers, however, things are considerably more tumultuous. Women are presenting the graphic details of their own imminent deaths to breast cancer. Lesbian detectives are cracking international conspiracy rings in Edinburgh. Biracial, differently abled lesbian couples are adopting children and forming new family units. Poignant characters in multigenerational novels are dying of breast cancer. (Breast cancer, in fact, is like a ubiquitous evil spirit here, hovering in the wings and entering all too frequently.) But the struggle is never lost: Courageous single mothers adopt a rainbow coalition of foster children, struggling to give the youngest, an AIDS baby, a happy, if abbreviated life--all the while assuring that the other five children maintain their unique cultural identities.

Welcome to the world of Spinsters Ink, the feminist publishing house in Duluth that has been fighting the good fight for nearly 20 years. It's equal parts alternate universe and business as usual around these parts. Although the staff is given "necessary days" instead of "having to lie for sick days," and can take time off if they need to grieve the death of a pet, Spinsters Ink owner and publisher Joan Drury is not the least bit fuzzy when it comes to issues of leadership:

"When people think of a feminist business they immediately imagine a collective. This is not a collective, this is a hierarchy. It's my dream, my vision, and my money. I'm the boss."

Not to put too fine a point on it, it's also her building.

Founded in upstate New York in 1978, Spinsters was part of a blossoming of feminist presses in the early to late '70s: presses that picked up and published such now standard tomes as Rubyfruit Jungle and Our Bodies, Ourselves. They soon headed west, moving to San Francisco in 1982. Eventually, Spinsters split in two, with founder Joan Pinkvoss forming Aunt Lute books, a house dedicated primarily to publishing women of color. In 1991 Joan Drury bought Spinsters, briefly moving it to Minneapolis before resettling in Duluth, where there is a small but thriving community of North Shore lesbians.

A Twin Cities native who grew up summering in Lutsen, Drury claims a kind of spiritual connection to the North Shore, and it seems to have seeped into her almost physically. If one of the granite boulders around the iron-cold lake suddenly took human form, it might look a lot like Joan Drury: She's large and round, and has cropped gray hair. On a warm morning in late July, Drury has just been dismissed from a jury pool for the second time. Both trials involve domestic abuse, and, even if you knew nothing about Drury's work, one look is enough to guess that she's not exactly tabula rasa. "The prosecution wanted me, all right," she declares gaily.

Beneath Drury's merry persona this morning, however, is a monumental force, the kind that men's-movement lunatics rave about on the Internet: She has money, power, and no compunction about using either to promote a "feminist agenda." Drury's wealth originates from her family's solid-waste disposal business, Woodlake Sanitation, which she managed until her mid-30s, at the same time raising three children. After picking up a degree in women's studies and English, she worked for the Loft. And then there came her sundry foundations: the Harmony Women's Fund, which supports social services and arts endeavors; the Norcroft Writing retreat for women; and the Duluth Building for Women itself, to which Drury lent $400,000, and which now houses Spinsters' offices as well as a women's health clinic and sexual-assault center. Drury is, in a phrase, a Save the Males nightmare; in 1993, Pro-Choice Resources named her "feminist mother of the year."

Drury is also part-owner of the Seal Press in Seattle, a publisher of self-help titles, but it is Spinsters Ink that represents a huge part of Drury's life, and she takes enormous pride in being its proprietor. So much so, in fact, that it's hard not to tweak her about being the "owner." Cooperative feminist business practices, after all, are the subject of their own "light bulb" joke; how, one wonders, does Drury's management style conform to the feminist fantasia she publishes? Apparently, she's heard this line of inquiry before, and while it doesn't make her bristle, she doesn't chuckle much either.

"Tools are tools," Drury says, matter-of-factly. "They're neither good nor bad. Just because some tools have been used by the patriarchy for oppressive purposes doesn't mean we shouldn't use them. Besides, in a collective situation it's never really a collective anyway. A leader will emerge... someone older, or who knows the business better or maybe just someone who talks louder. At any rate it's not necessarily the leader you would choose. And then, they don't have to take any responsibility for their decision, because they can deny the fact that they are the leader--[deny] that there are leaders."

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."

With such talk abounding, it can be tempting to categorize Spinsters as an involved philanthropic project--or a vanity press with a noble cause. "Radical feminism," as Drury defines it, is not a "reactive response to all the rampant sexism in our society. It's a proactive response against all kinds of oppression." Welcome to school, readers. Yet, ultimately, Spinsters must reckon with the slippery (and allegedly patriarchal) specter of quality. In other words, it doesn't matter much if the paradigm being pushed is Mike Hammer or Joan Drury's Tyler Jones, Dyke Detective. If the writing is good enough, the idea will make its way into the world.

Like any other publishing house, Spinsters puts out some mediocre writing, but not nearly as much as you'd expect from an organization whose mission seems to be ameliorative rather than aesthetic. Drury believes in "reclaiming the word excellence," looking for that "elusive gasp quality," while admitting that what makes one gasp is completely subjective. "I do believe in that word's necessity and appropriateness," she adds. But translating that belief onto the page can't be all that easy.

Good writing--like a good woman--is hard to find, and if you're looking for it on the mountaintops of ideological purity, the population is especially thin. Which makes a book like the annoyingly titled, but surprisingly lucid Mother Journeys such a feat of editorial intrepidity. How easy can it be to find an adoptive co-mother in an "alternative, trans-racial family"? An alternative, trans-racial, differently abled family, in fact. And then, to find one who can write vigorous, accurate, and witty prose? It's no mean editorial feat, and one for which the editors, despite all their precious, wind-socky morality, should be commended.

At the Amazon Bookstore, Spinsters books are everywhere. There is the much-praised novel Trees Call for What You Need and, of course, their best seller, Lesbian Sex, a household name in coming-out handbooks.

You would believe, standing in this store, that Spinsters' battle has been won. The books seem to line up in a silent chorus of women talking about being women. Feminist writing, it would seem, has outgrown its label--maybe even outgrown its store. A magazine carries the headline "Beyond gym teacher: Dyke jobs for the nineties." It all seems like the warm new world Joan Drury has made a career of championing--the (revisionist) storybook image come true. Except, that is, for a single ad on the bulletin board:

The Land O' Lakes Girl Scout Council needs a receptionist/secretary. The list of duties is 16 items long and includes computer skills and "the ability to handle a fast-paced, hectic office schedule, and to prioritize assignments." The salary tops out at $15,600 dollars a year. Less than you'd make for delivering canned vegetables in a truck, hauling sod, or moving furniture.

Women of color, says the notice, are encouraged to apply.

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