Joe Skifter - Open Book

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The history of the building at 1011 Washington Avenue South in Minneapolis reads like a palimpsest.   Vestiges of early tenants of the building can be seen by looking at the walls of the place:  Jacob Stoft Hardware once operated here; a narrow staircase ascends one wall (missing a railing and a top landing), leading to a storeroom or office, and might have been part of White Laundry. 

Kerr’s Millinery was here, too.  A newspaper advertisement from Kerr’s, dated 1904, enticed customers to come in because “My girls speak German, Dutch, French, and all the Scandinavian languages so everyone is welcome at my hat shop.” 

Joe Skifter, the general manager of the space, now home to Open Book, celebrates that variety and Kerr’s spirit of inclusivity by welcoming patrons of all backgrounds and influences to the building.  Open Book is a collision of all things book:  here paper is made, books are bound, print type is set, authors are shaped, writing is workshopped, manuscripts are published, and collaborating abounds. 

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Open Book is a unique space.  It’s tag line reads:

Open Book is a space for everyone, a meeting place or quiet sanctuary, a destination for all who are interested in or inspired by the literary and book arts.   

“There is no facility like this in the US,” Joe says with a smile.  The power of the place lies in its origin, “The idea came from the community.  It wasn’t created by a single player or a government initiative.  It came from a group of poets, meeting (as poets do) around town.  They said, ‘Why don’t we create a center for literature and book arts?’”

Minneapolis has always been a tapestry of literature and art.  Open Book is a coalescence of three distinct non-profits that come from separate sectors – Minnesota Center for the Book Arts (papermaking, print, book binding), The Loft Literary Center (writing and teaching the creative process), and Milkweed Press (publishing) – and a public space where those forms, and more, can find expression.   “The outside world can be so frickin’ crazy,” Joe asserts.  Open Book is a “safe haven” for writers, readers, artists and everyday “folks off the street who are curious.” 

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The idea for Open Book and the collaboration came to fruition in 2000 when leaders of the three organizations christened a re-designed 1011 Washington.  Their collective mission was to host their individual work and provide an accessible and united interface with the community.  Open Book binds the three agencies under one roof and hosts the public in a physical space.  Linda Myers, an early leader of The Loft described the impetus:  “If communion is the outward manifestation of an inward grace, I thought we could create a physical building that was an outward manifestation of the grace and power of literature.” 

When you enter Open Book, first you notice openness and light.  Large windows face Washington Avenue.  A cafe smells of strong coffee brewing.  There are long wooden tables and lots of chairs.  A bookstore and retail space entices you to browse pieces created by the artists and curators in residence:  books from Milkweed and other non-profit presses, paper art, hand-calligraphied poems, journals and cards, marbled papers, art supplies.   People come and go, inhabiting all the spaces.  “The days here are varied,” Joe smiles, thoughtfully.  “Never a dull moment.” 

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Two of the atrium’s brick walls once were exterior walls and bare old windows and words in paint from hundred-year-old advertisements.   A central staircase draws you up in an artful curve made of luminescent pages, penciled words and a spine like a book.  The interior design invites exploration.  A description from an Open Book annual report describes “The name itself was ideal because it evoked not only the mission of opening up literature and book creation, but also an open center where people could wander through and feel it was their own.” 

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Joe takes great pride in maintaining the public spaces that connect the three organizations and the people who come.  He oversees building maintenance and he keeps the shared calendar and schedules both private and public events.  Not an easy chore serving three separate organizations that share the public space and Joe’s singular management.  “I am the only employee of Open Book,” he explains.  Under a unique agreement, the organizations take turns overseeing Open Book, each for one year at a time.   “The three organizations are run so well, and they operate with such high standards that it is my pleasure to work with them,” says Joe.   

While each of the building’s three floors has a designated occupant – Minnesota Center for Book Arts is on the first floor; The Loft is on second; and Milkweed is on third – there are common, public spaces throughout the building, including an outdoor terrace facing downtown, an auditorium, and the open-flow lobby just inside the building’s entrance.  Events can happen in any of these spaces (check Joe’s master calendar) and most days there is a quiet though constant buzz.   

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Looking around, one sees individuals and pairs of people, lap tops open, and one might wonder if everyone is here celebrating literature or if it’s just a cozy place to work.  “We aren’t designed as a ‘co-working space,’” Joe acknowledges, “but we don’t judge the reason you are using the space.   We just ask that you treat each other with respect and the place kindly and gently.”  He explains the constituents he sees:

We have people who come in for a sandwich and a meeting, or to work on their laptops.  The upstairs rooms host book groups that come every week.  Older writers, who have been meeting for years, sit and read each other’s work, critique, laugh, have their coffee and then go about their day.  School kids wait by the stairs for a tour or their paper making lessons to start.  The Loft encourages their students to spill out and use the facilities after class.

Open Book is that rare private space that is well kept, inclusive, and joyful and intended for both private functions and general public use.  Open Book hopes people leave with a love of books and the written word.  Joe stresses that he did not come to this work because he was a poet or writer himself.  “No,” he laughs, “I just have the ability to manage my time and contract maintenance services. I give free tours of the place, really to anyone who asks.  And I love the arts.  This is what I want to do until I can’t do it any more.” 

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 Photo credits: Tracy Nordstrom, Open Book, Milkweed Press, The Loft Literary Center