Noah's Ark, Wisconsin
Chcago Madison Minneapolis Syracuse United States

Motoring to Minneapolis, Madison, Chicago & Syracuse

Literary Tourist on the road in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and New York State

If you take the northern route between ground-zero (in this case Montreal) and Minneapolis through Algonquin Park, crossing over at Sault Ste. Marie and then along past Green Bay, there’s pretty well nothing of literary interest to see. Nothing unless you count this

in, yes, rural Wisconsin. One consolation: we came upon a coffee drive-thru that had a pretty good name.

Zinger coffee

As usual, once my wife, Caroline, had thoroughly planned out our dates and destinations, I tapped the Rolodex to solicit suggestions of bookish people on-site who might give-up engaging interviews. This time round I asked John Randle, proprietor of The Whittington Press for his thoughts. I’d interviewed John years ago at his sheep-surrounded studio near the cathedral city of Hereford (with its famed chained-library), not too far from Hay-on-Wye, the Welsh booktown. 

John publishes beautiful fine press books, and Matrix: A Review for Printers & Bibliophiles, a gorgeously printed annual. #31 had just dropped. I dug deep and bought a copy, first to commemorate my visit and our conversation (Listen here):

Second, because it contained an article by David Godine and one on Rocky Stinehour, both of whom I’d interviewed for the Biblio File podcast. The Whittington Press archive also happens to be at the University of Minnesota’s rare book library, along with an important collection of African-American literature and one of the world’s great Sherlock Holmes collections. Curator Tim Johnson is definitely on my interview hit-list. 

John recommended I interview Phil Gallo, a well regarded printer, and visual/concrete poet. Phil and I teed up a meeting at his apartment in St. Paul. We met for a chat early one afternoon several days before Christmas. The first thing I noticed – after Phil poured me a stiff shot of bourbon – was several shelves full of books on typography. A lot of them are type specimen books. 

Phil gallo books

Phil is the proprietor of the Hermetic Press, which kicked off in the mid-1960s. He purposefully doesn’t do much promotion. 

After our conversation I headed over to this little shop 

Against the Current bookstore, St. Paul

It had only recently opened. I didn’t find anything – most of the stock was geared, naturally, toward readers. I did have a good gab with the young owner however, and wished him well. 

Owner, Against the current bookstore, St. Paul

Then it was back to home-base, in Eagan, a bedroom community near Minneapolis. Our dear friends Jeff and Laura Spartz live here. We’ve visited them often over the years, mostly at Christmas time. Jeff runs a food-bank for the local crow population (you can see how successful this is)


Laura knows everything that is humanly possible to know about Jane Austen and the Regency period. The two are the nicest, most welcoming, well-travelled, smartest, politically-engaged people you can imagine –  exactly the kind who give Americans (most of them, anyway) a good name. We’re lucky to be able to call them, and their families, friends. 

Last time we visited, I had the opportunity to interview Gaylord Shanilec, the world renowned fine printer and wood engraver. Listen to his story here

One my favourite books of Gaylord’s is Sylvae, published in 2007 in an edition of 120 copies. As he puts it: “Twenty wooded acres surround Midnight Paper Sales in western Wisconsin. This book documents the journey of Ben Verhoeven and Gaylord Schanilec into the woods to create a work not only about these trees, but of these trees.

I collect publishers’ histories/biographies/memoirs and bibliographies. A bibliography of Midnight Paper Sales, Gaylord’s press, was written by Rob Rulon Miller. I traded Gaylord a copy of my Paper Making at Hayle Mill for one. There’s a funny story about Hayle. Caroline and I had trekked into the Northeast Kingdom part of Vermont so that I could interview its maker, famed book artist Claire Van Vleet. Our conversation ran fairly late. Once it was finished Claire jumped up and said, if you buy me dinner, you two can stay here overnight. It was pretty rainy out, and in fact it looked like a big black storm was imminent, so we gratefully agreed, had a good meal in town, and made our way back to her place just before the tempest hit. I don’t recall much booze being consumed. I know I had a bad cold which fogged things up a bit. But I do remember that I fell in love with her Hayle Mill

A splendid gathering consist[ing] of the history of the mill (with tipped-in samples) printed on Finale, the last paper produced at Hayle, a map of Loose Valley (1856) showing mills on Loose Stream, a gathering of 19 historic photographs laid in a wrapper and a collection of 12 original paper samples laid in a wrapper. All are preserved in a clam shell box.

Except for the photographs and the mill diagram, all the papers used in this project were handmade by Barcham Green and Company at Hayle Mill, Maidstone in Kent, England.

The four components come in a linen covered clamshell box lined inside with Martian Badger paper.

The Mill is just down river from Tunbridge Wells where my father grew up, and where his grandfather established a construction company, Beale & Sons, which was responsible for building many of the brick houses in town. You can still see plenty of them today.

So I bought a whole whack of Hayle Millses from Claire, figuring I could trade them as I did the rounds interviewing various fine press proprietors in North America and Great Britain. To a good extent this has happened ( although I still have plenty on hand. So please, make me an offer!). 

During my first trip to Minneapolis I interviewed Rob Rulon-Miller at his home on Summit Drive, along which you’ll find plenty of impressive looking mansions, some of which probably made an impression on a young F. Scott Fitzgerald who once lived not too far from here. Rob has an impressive stock of books-on-books, and a particular interest in dictionaries. Listen here to how he started off, and subsequently flourished, in the book business:

If you’re in Minneapolis you might want to check out the Walker Center. It has an excellent collection of artist books, thanks to curator Rosemary Furtak (now deceased) who I also interviewed during an early visit. Plus there’s Magers and Quinn, a good new and used bookstore that I’ve pulled some very nice things out of over the years, including a signed copy of Eric Ormsby’s Time’s Covenant, Selected Poems.

One of the best things you can do before visiting Minneapolis, is to consult Rain Taxi‘s Twin Cities Literary Calendar, it’s a great source of information about what’s going on in the region, and serves as a model for other cities wanting to promote their literary activities. Rain Taxi also publishes a nation-wide literary review, and puts on an impressive number of local literary events. For more info: listen to my conversation here with it’s editor Eric Lorberer. 


From Minneapolis we drove over to Madison, where I interviewed James Pollock – a Canadian teaching Canadian literature to Americans – about his book You Are Here: Essays on the Art of Poetry in Canada. We settled in to a gripping (for me at least) marathon conversation about honesty in book reviewing and other pressing poetic issues. Listen here

If you have a day or two in town, you might want to check out the Little Magazine Collection at the University of Wisconsin special collections library. It’s one of the best in the world. 

From Madison we headed down to Chicago – driving right past Wadsworth, Il, where on-line bookseller Jeff Hirsch hangs his shingle. I had hoped to drop in on him to check out his selection of Coach House and other Canadian titles. Time unfortunately didn’t permit. I happened to be on a bit of a Paul Rand jag at the time – and wouldn’t you know it, he also stocks a number of interesting Rand-designed books. Upon arriving home I sent him a bubbly message on Facebook congratulating him on his taste. Didn’t hear anything back, so perhaps a visit wouldn’t have been advisable. 

First thing we did when we arrived in Chicago was to drop into the Armadillo’s Pillow

In another pleasant coincidence, the shop offered this Rand item at a really good price ( I’d checked for Rand titles sold by Chicago-based booksellers online before heading down here). 

Imagine how pleased I was to learn that the shop was right on our route. Its stock is as quirky as its name suggests. Great place to browse for unusual titles and good deals. Next stop was my friend Levi Stahl’s place where I dropped off some Iris Murdoch titles I’d promised him. 

Some of England’s best artists designed dust-jackets for her works, running from the fifties through to the seventies. I subsequently interviewed Levi. He’d just been promoted to Marketing Director of the University of Chicago Press. I wanted him to talk about his new role. He has many useful things to say on the topic, and on how authors can best use Social Media. Listen here: 

We got quite the smorgasbord of weather while we were in Chicago – cold and crisp –

rainy – (The American Writers Museum was just the place to visit during a wet afternoon. What a fun time! Accessible, interactive, and informative. Although many of the authors are dead, this place was definitely alive. Listen to my conversation with Carey Cranston here):

– and foggy –Foggy Chicago

Unfortunately we didn’t have time to hit the Newberry Library, or the Poetry Foundation this time round. Both are worth visiting. Both were visited last time we were here. And yes, there’s an interview to listen to, about the latter, here: 

After shoe-horning a big-screen smart TV onto the back seat of my decidedly medium-sized car (and covering the seat in a snowfall of Styrofoam pieces) on New Year’s Day morning, we hit the road again for the long ride back, via Syracuse, where I always make a point of stopping in at Jim Roberts’ Books End shop. There’s usually something interesting here. Several weeks earlier I’d seen a copy of The Spice Box of Earth – a Frank Newfeld-designed book that I covet – online for $75. This was the paperback edition, but still, highly desirable. I should have pulled the damned trigger immediately upon seeing it. Before I knew it, the freakin thing had sold. 

Image result for spice box, cohen

Nonetheless, I was able to find this Paul Rand number in Jim’s shop for

a mere $10. 

Happy, I got in the car, and we embarked on the final leg of the journey home. 

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