Woodland Pattern Book Center enriches Wisconsin readers' lives
by Tammy Kempfert, PortalWisconsin.org
"How can I possibly describe to you how wonderful Woodland Pattern is?” Katy Lederer asks in her book tour blog.
The New York poet and author appeared at the legendary Milwaukee literary center in November to promote her latest poetry volume, Heaven-Sent Leaf. Lederer's affectionate account of her visit there concludes with a wish for more Woodland Patterns in the world, “a real store with real people who care and can tell you what’s happening.”
Regionally, patrons of Woodland Pattern Book Center know it as a bookseller with a massive inventory of small press poetry--and much more. The community-based, non-profit center also serves as a venue for art exhibits, experimental film screenings and writing workshops for both adults and children. According to Anne Kingsbury, who founded Woodland Pattern in 1979 with husband Karl Gartung, "Our mission was, and continues to be, what I call audience development for contemporary literature and for today’s classics.”
She speaks passionately on behalf of that mission, stressing that the more diverse one's literary repertoire, the more critical a thinker she or he becomes. "It's important not to be boxed in, to understand that the more you know the richer your life will be." To that end, Kingsbury and Gartung have reached out to curious readers in some novel ways.
“We've tried to make the word available in all its various forms, not just as text on the page,” she says. Woodland Pattern’s art gallery, for example, very often features book arts exhibits. And Kingsbury, a mixed media artist who has exhibited in the gallery herself, creates word- and woman-themed art pieces with beads, feathers, recycled textiles and other found objects.
The center also co-sponsors a music series with a local radio station, Alternating Currents Live. It favors Midwestern artists from the experimental and improvisational music scene, "artists whose creativity is taking place right in the performance, where the audience is seeing creativity as it happens," Kingsbury says.
Yet the bookstore, home to the nation's largest selection of small press poetry, may well be Woodland Pattern's hub. While shoppers will not likely find the latest New York Times bestseller there--that's a need Kingsbury says commercial booksellers have adequately filled--the center's non-profit status affords it the freedom to stock books hard to find elsewhere. Readers can browse more than 25,000 small press titles, including chapbooks, fine print materials, broadsides and multicultural literature. And bargain hunters with patience can almost always find a good deal: the center prefers to archive unsold books at their original retail value rather than returning them to the publisher, as most commercial retailers do.
Poetry comprises nearly half of Woodland Pattern's inventory, and many of the poets who have read their work there--both well-known and obscure--are now featured on its Web site. One poet in particular, however, seems singled out as a favorite. Asked about the center's affinity for Wisconsin poet Lorine Niedecker, Kingsbury explains: "Back in '77 or '78, only a few years after her death, my husband [co-founder Karl Gartung] discovered her poetry. He was very taken--interested, first of all in her work, and then with the regret he felt about not knowing about her and meeting her."
Kingsbury says Gartung set out to share as much of Niedecker's work as possible. Books by and about Niedecker, continually in and out of print, were some of the first works Woodland Pattern stocked. They saw the centenary of her birth in 2003 as a chance to widen her audience. "And really recently, her reputation has been growing," Kingsbury adds. "I like to think that we’ve helped."
In nearly thirty years, Woodland Pattern's mission has remained in place, but the ways Kingsbury and her staff carry it out continually change to meet the current circumstances. "We’ve realized that you can’t just expect someone to come to you, sit down and listen," she says. One observable difference is the center’s online presence. Besides its own exhaustive Web site, Woodland Pattern has a blog, and MySpace and Facebook pages. They have also begun offering a portion of their catalog through an online service, AbeBooks.com.
Like most businesses these days, both non-profit and commercial, Woodland Pattern staff are looking uneasily to the future. When the center opened its doors, at least 20 other independent booksellers existed in Milwaukee: today, Kingsbury says, it's one of four. She recently found the documents confirming the center’s original National Endowment for the Arts grant, and she says she was somewhat surprised. “We received more NEA grant money in 1980 than we did in 2008,” she explains. “These are the changes you have to learn to deal with.”
With the increased and legitimate demands for money that will surely result from a troubled economy, Kingsbury says she hopes Woodland Pattern's patrons continue to support the center and to believe in its value.
This year, Anne Kingsbury was named one of seven 2008 Fellows of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, for her contributions as an artist and community arts activist. A self-described plodder, she says, "In my visual work, I choose projects I can do with my hands, rather than have the filter of technology in between myself and the material." She was inducted to the Academy November 2.