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Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Devoted to Literature

Woodland Pattern’s founding philosophy

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Tucked in the basement at Woodland Pattern Book Center, amidst cluttered staff desks and carefully maintained overstock, exists a remarkably complete archive of the organization’s history. Every newsletter, flyer and check the bookstore has ever written is here, along with audio recordings documenting almost 30 years of readings and musical performances. That’s a lot of stuff. Woodland Pattern, both when it opened and today, stands firmly as the state’s foremost center for contemporary literature and art in the broadest sense.

  Not simply a bookstore, the center actively seeks out top contemporary writers—both known and unknown—to read here, shows high-quality art in its gallery, screens independent and experimental films, hosts WMSE’s new music series “Alternating Currents Live,” conducts free workshops for neighborhood kids, works with other agencies in town, and more. It’s a lot of activity, and a lot of history.

  More than an overgrown shoebox filled with sentimental odds-and-ends, there’s an archeology here in the archive. Anne Kingsbury, who founded the bookstore with Karl Gartung and is currently the non-profit’s executive director, says it’s so important for the story it tells. “There’s different kinds of economic information; information about many writers who are not household names, and the presses who took a chance and published them.”

  “I think the canceled checks are fascinating, because you have a history of what people spent their money on,” Kingsbury says. “It starts to define through the negative spaces what was happening at a certain time.”

Cultural Crossover

  In 1979, when Woodland Pattern moved into its present building on Locust Street, Riverwest was a haven for artists and college students; a diverse blue collar neighborhood known for its cheap rents and strong community, not unlike today. Nearly 30 years later, Riverwest remains a perfect location for a place like Woodland Pattern.

  “Moving here was a combination of a pragmatic decision and a philosophic decision,” Kingsbury says. “The philosophy was that this is an area that, first of all, had no book place; it’s not even close to a library. We saw a need here. Secondly, this area has always been an artist’s area. The rents have always been pretty inexpensive…pragmatically, we could afford it.”

  Woodland Pattern fills a hole for the entire region, not just Riverwest. Stocking over 25,000 small press titles not found elsewhere in the area and prominently featuring chapbooks and broadsides created by local and national writers, it’s clear this is not a commercial operation. It couldn’t be—the primary focus in the bookstore is poetry, and poetry isn’t profitable. If you want to make contemporary literature available to the community, you can’t rely on the occasional reader who wanders in and plucks a book off your shelf. “There are a few people who are willing to try out books and are interested in cutting edge, but we had to build that core,” says Kingsbury. “We did it through various programs; not just literary programs, but cross-over programs, so if you’re interested in cutting edge film, maybe you’re interested in cutting edge literature.” Rather than stocking what is sure to sell, Woodland Pattern stocks worthy works by a broad cultural range of authors of which readers are often unaware.

  And so, to meet their goal of putting literature in the hands of readers, Woodland Pattern is, by necessity, a non-profit organization supported by book sales, memberships, programming, and sometimes unstable arts funding, which means it’s a continuing scramble to keep everything afloat. Kingsbury estimates this year’s grant from the National Endowment for the Arts is likely to be smaller than the very first one they received nearly 30 years ago.“As a non-profit, we are constantly reinventing the wheel.”

Keeping it Fresh

  Reinventing the wheel, in part, means a balancing act of keeping pace with the times and staying true to your mission. Kingsbury credits the bright, young staff with helping keep the store in touch. “Continuity is interesting and important and you need to have a sense of history, but you also need to have new eyes that can see what the opportunities are,” she says.

  Those eyes are certainly keeping things fresh, and they’re impacting everything from programming to marketing. Log on to MySpace and you’ll find that Woodland Pattern has nearly 1000 friends. This sort of marketing is vital to the store, which doesn’t advertise, preferring to put the money into the many programs offered through the center each year.

  All the activity, in turn, keeps it fresh for the staff. “What really puts this place on the map for me is the incredible energy here,” says Chuck Stebelton, the center’s literary programming manager. That energy, and the love the staff has for the literature, will likely keep the archive in the basement growing for decades to come.

  On Sunday, June 8, Woodland Pattern hosts readings by Riverwest authors and art activities for all ages during the 32nd Annual Locust Street Festival (taking place 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. between Humboldt Boulevard and Holton Street).