By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
In an extremely literate metropolitan area that boasts three of the most successful nonprofit publishers in the country—Milkweed Editions and Coffee House Press are the others—Graywolf is having the type of run a small press rarely sees. Jim Sitter, who for nine years ran a trade association for literary publishers—the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses—and who occasionally does literary consulting for Graywolf, says 2007 could well have been the most successful year for any comparable press. "They're competing with Random House and Simon & Schuster, with organizations that have a budget of a billion dollars or more, in some cases," he says. "That's very hard to do when you have a small budget. In effect, they're taking on competition that can be 1,000 times their size, and they're succeeding."
A THOUSAND MILES from midtown Manhattan, just east of Highway 280 on University Avenue, sits the yellow-bricked Chittenden and Eastman Building that houses Graywolf. The battered edifice looks abandoned to time. One of its storefronts is occupied by an empty office furniture showroom, and its dusty windows and unvacuumed green carpet suggest that its landlord has given up trying to rent the space. Rumor says the warehouse building's owner hangs on to it in hopes that light rail will increase its real estate value.
Graywolf's offices are on the second floor, down a fluorescent-lit hallway of '70s-style linoleum, tucked away in a dark corner across from the freight elevator. Having been at the location for over two decades, the company gets a pretty sweet deal when it comes to rent. Low overhead is a perk of Midwest operations, although there are downsides to being located outside New York. "It's not like I run into editors at parties," says public relations director Mary Matze. "Sometimes a [New York-based] assistant will be like, 'Can you just courier that over today?'"
Graywolf, which has about 10 full-time employees, including four in-house editors, was even further off the map when it was founded in 1974 by Washington state idealists Scott Walker and Kathleen Foster. Just south of Port Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula, in the microscopic burg of Irondale, they constructed a small edifice surrounded by raspberries that they called the "print shack." They couldn't have done it without the assistance of the guy next door who raised chickens.
"The neighbors were all builders and fishermen, and they were all very tolerant of the ink-stained wretch who lived next door," remembers Walker, who now does marketing for an environmental organization in Williamstown, Massachusetts. "I had the only phone in the neighborhood, so whenever a fisherman was out on a boat somewhere in Alaska and called home—it could be three in the morning—I would wake up and go down the street and get his wife or girlfriend."
Borrowing its name from nearby Graywolf Ridge and Graywolf River, as well as the federally protected canid itself, the press had early successes printing the poetry of heavyweights like Denis Johnson and Tess Gallagher. To Walker and Foster, the production quality of the books was nearly as important as their text, a value Graywolf maintains today. In the press's first years, letters were set by hand and copies were bound by needle and thread. "The pages, once printed, were folded one by one and gathered into booklets, which were sewn together into books," Walker recalls in the introduction to the 1999 retrospective The Graywolf Silver Anthology. "On quite a few of those little books the buyer would find the blood of the binder smeared in the center seam." It took them nine months to put together 1,500 copies of Gallagher's Instructions to the Double; they took so long that she added a whole new section before it was completed. The company neared the financial precipice during its first year, Walker notes in the anthology. "Every day was a wild, pressure-filled, anxiety-producing adventure."
Attempting to ease its transition from a hand printer of limited-edition books into a full-on trade publisher, Graywolf came to the Twin Cities in 1984 on the suggestion of a few advisors, who correctly predicted that foundation money would be easier to come by here. Ten years later Walker relinquished his duties to McCrae, a director at a major publishing house who was born in Kenya and grew up just north of London. She had a background that couldn't have been more different from that of Graywolf's freewheeling founders, having risen through the ranks at Faber & Faber headquarters in London. "I [first] worked for this grand old chairman called Charles Monteith. He had found Lord of the Flies in the slush pile. He was really an old-fashioned British publisher. Beckett was his author, and he'd get little postcards from him in the mail." In the mid-'80s she worked under editor Robert McCrum, whose authors included Milan Kundera, Peter Carey, and—in her first introduction to Minnesota—Garrison Keillor. "I thought it was much more fictional than it turned out to be," she says of his work. "I had no idea until I moved up here."
McCrae, who describes her age as "49 and three-quarters and a half," wears thin, black-framed glasses, and talks in a sort of Maude Lebowski accent, came to Graywolf after a stint at Faber's Boston offices. She had long been aware of Graywolf's reputation for quality work. "It just seemed like an absolute dream job," she says, adding that the prospect of venturing into the hinterlands didn't daunt her. "I remember people trying to put me off, saying everyone was 'nice' here. I thought, 'Well, if that's the worst thing you can say about the place....' I like the fact that Minnesota is far enough away from New York so it's not under that city's shadow, so Minnesota has its own identity. Because people have this idea that it might or could be a backwater, they make sure it isn't, by going to plays and engaging with the culture locally."