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Ten years ago, three groups devoted to books moved into a once-dilapidated warehouse on Washington Avenue. Across the street sat the landmark Liquor Depot, with its garish red and yellow paint. Acres of parking lots became tailgating magnets before Twins and Vikings games, although those revelers were veritable teetotalers compared with some Gopher football fans.
"People thought we were crazy to move into this neighborhood," said Jerod Santek, program director for the Loft Literary Center, who recalled posting security guards at the bathrooms when the U played at the Metrodome. "We knew this would start the change, but it's happened more quickly than we imagined."
"We" is Open Book, which is marking its 10th anniversary as the nation's first such organization devoted to the literary arts. The Loft, Milkweed Editions and the Minnesota Center for Book Arts will host free readings, performances, demonstrations, discussions, sample classes and special giveaways. Events are from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at the center, 1011 Washington Av. S.
Milkweed's publisher and CEO Daniel Slager has witnessed an acceleration of the transformation since he moved here from New York City in 2005. Living near the riverfront, he'd walk to work past the rising Guthrie Theater and the rising MacPhail Center for Music, as well as the rising condos. "Then there's the Mill City Farmers Market," he said. "We're really reaching out more to the community, and I think other arts organizations are recognizing this as a center for them, as well."
Authors from other local publishers such as Graywolf Press and Coffee House Press give readings in the performance hall, and Open Book also is the neighborhood polling place.
"We sought out that opportunity," Santek said. "Getting people in the building and up to the second floor, they become familiar with what's here."
From the city's perspective, the avenue's redevelopment is just the latest in its history. "Washington was the backbone of the city's industrial and employment center, lived through periods of skid row and urban renewal, and has now emerged as the spine that connects the city's top cultural, educational and entertainment destinations," said Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak. "Open Book immediately became an important anchor when it opened 10 years ago, and its creative and intellectual energy has helped spur the many new developments that are making Washington Avenue a regional destination."
In the first year of Open Book, the Loft's class enrollment tripled, partly because of more space, but also because it was more visible and, despite its 35-year history, perceived as more grown-up. "Writers who were not so excited about reading under the basketball hoop of the old school gym now want to read here," Santek said, referring to the Loft's previous digs in southeast Minneapolis.
Space, in fact, is becoming scarce. The Minnesota Center for Book Arts continues to expand its offerings of classes in papermaking, letterpress, printing and bookbinding. Groups of East African writers from the neighborhood meet at the center. The Coffee Gallery cafe feeds people who are there for literary reasons, as well as downtown workers who are just hungry.
From Slager's viewpoint, the much-vaunted literary culture here played a key role in Open Book making it to 10 years, "but there's also a philanthropic culture that makes this place more than the sum of its parts. It's one thing to have the farsightedness to see possibilities, but to also have the wherewithal and generosity to get it done is what makes the difference here."
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185