Burning a Literary City

Minneapolis is the city where George Floyd died. Four of the city’s police officers have been charged in connection with his murder: one with committing it by kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes, the other three for aiding and abetting.

It is less well known that Minneapolis and its twin city St. Paul are home to what is probably the most vibrant American literary community west of Manhattan.

Those two aspects of Minneapolis collided in recent days in bloody fashion.

I’ve only been to Minneapolis once, for research at the University of Minnesota library, and I wasn’t terribly interested in it at the time. I knew the Vikings played there. I knew that F. Scott Fitzgerald had lived across the river in a St. Paul rowhouse (top) he described as “a mausoleum of American architectural monstrosities.” And I knew that Mary Tyler Moore had lived there, with Rhoda and Phyllis, in a handsome Victorian house (it was for sale a few years ago for $1.7 million). So I visited the rowhouse and ran into Mary’s statue on Nicollet Mall and otherwise never left the library.

It wasn’t until I decided to start a publishing company that I learned three major independent presses call Minneapolis home — Graywolf Press, Coffee House Press, and Milkweed Editions. All three are regularly in the running for Pulitzer Prizes, National Book Critics Circle Awards, and National Book Awards. Together they may publish more important American poetry than any city in America, including New York.

In addition to the publishing houses are the phenomenal Minneapolis Central Library; the Twin Cities Book Festival, largest in the Midwest, held on the Minnesota State Fairgrounds (above); the Loft Literary Center with its well-attended classes, conferences, and writers studios; the Talking Volumes literary program hosted by Minnesota Public Radio; the Minnesota Center for Book Arts which advances letterpress printing, bookbinding, hand papermaking, and related crafts; at least fiftyindependent bookstores, which has to be some sort of record; and no end of writers, editors, agents, artists, and book enthusiasts.

All this didn’t happen by accident. The Minnesota State Arts Board together with regional and local arts councils have made sustained and generous investments in building a literary sector. They’ve succeeded admirably. Minneapolis, with the third-highest rate of literacy in the country behind only Seattle and Washington, D.C., is an oasis of letters and civility in what’s routinely disparaged as flyover country.

Then came Floyd George. Then came the street protests. Then came last Friday night or, rather, 3:30 a.m. Saturday, when Don Blyly, owner of Uncle Hugo’s and Uncle Edgar’s, adjoining bookstores on Chicago Avenue, selling science fiction and mysteries respectively, received a phone call from his security company advising him that his motion detector showed somebody in the stores.

“I threw on clothes and headed over there,” Blyly told The Federalist website. “When I was two blocks away, I received a call that the smoke detectors were showing smoke in the store. Every single building on both sides of Chicago was blazing and dozens of people [were] dancing around.”

Blyly parked his car and ran to the stores. The front windows were broken. Someone had squirted an accelerant inside to feed the flames, which were high.

Blyly ran around to the back to get a fire extinguisher but as he opened the back door, thick black smoke poured out and he quickly closed it again. Giving up his own premises as lost, he next tried to save the dentist’s office next door but had no luck there, either.

Rather than stand around and watch flames consume his life’s work, he drove home. “Since Chicago Avenue was full of dancing rioters, broken glass, and flaming debris,” he says, “I went down the alley and took Lake Street home. There were blocks of Lake Street where every building was blazing. No sign of any cops, national guard troops, or any help.”

It may be the end of Blyly’s business. His stock of more than 100,000 books, including a lot of first editions and hard-to-find collectibles, was worth over $1 million US. It is in ashes (above). He had insurance but it does not appear to cover civil insurrections. Founded in 1974, Uncle Hugo’s was the oldest independent science fiction bookshop in the US.

The Red Sofa Literary agency went down in flames, as well, but of another kind. The night before Blyly’s shops were struck, Dawn Frederick, owner of Red Sofa, noticed that the gas station on her block in the city’s Groveland/Macalester district was under attack. She turned to twitter, which led to the following exchange:

Other respondents were not so polite. They saw Frederick siding with the police against protestors:

Frederick seems to have intuited that she was in big trouble. She killed her twitter account and the next morning posted on the Red Sofa website that she supported the protestors and that she attends “a lot of protests in support of the BIPOC communities, and have for many years.” She insisted that she was calling the police on looters, not protestors—“there were NO protestors present. Zero protestors… It was straight up looters”—and was upset that her intentions were being misconstrued.

That didn’t work. This is representative of the tenor of responses to her posting:

One of Red Sofa’s agents resigned that morning, citing as her reason “the owner’s decision to call the police on protestors in St. Paul who were demonstrating to demand justice for George Floyd.” Two more agents followed that one out the door in the afternoon, leaving Frederick’s agency with a single junior employee. Authors, too, headed for the exit. “I was appalled to find out that the agent I was about to sign with, Dawn Frederick of Red Sofa Literary, called the cops on people protesting the killing of George Floyd,” tweeted Julie Kliegman.

A day later, Frederick returned to her website with this:

Two days ago I tweeted about calling the police to report looting at a nearby gas station. The consequences of calling the police, for any reason, during this time frankly didn’t occur to me, and I’m sorry that it took this situation for me to see it. Property isn’t worth more than a human life. And in that moment I didn’t equate calling the police to report property damage with the reality that doing so could cause harm to the people currently fighting racism in my community. I’m deeply sorry for anyone I hurt with this careless action. The authors and agents who may now question whether or not we share the same ideals have every right to feel this way. My actions were tone-deaf and the product of my own privilege—even if they were unintentionally so. All I can do is own my mistake, learn from it, and continue to find ways to be an ally to those fighting against the injustices that got us here. Thank you for holding me accountable and teaching me, even though it’s not your responsibility to do so. I will work to be better.

By yesterday, there was some hope for Uncle Hugo’s and Uncle Edgar’s. A GoFundMe page started by Blyly’s son has raised almost $86,000 of its targeted $500,000.

From Red Sofa, not a peep has been heard beyond more writers tweeting their departures.

Minneapolis business owners, or at least those contacted by Forbes, seem to be uniformly sympathetic to the protestors, if baffled by the indiscriminate looting. Black-owned businesses and Asian-owned businesses were hit along with white-owned businesses.

Some minority owners put up signs on their storefronts reading “minority-owned” or “black-owned” but they weren’t spared. This led many of them to believe that the looting was done by outsiders (a belief held without much evidence in many of the cities where looting occurred).

“The maliciousness in them,” said Shantae Holmes (above), owner of Minneapolis’s All Washed Up Laundromat and one of the city’s most interesting people, “or the disconnection of how much that laundromat meant to everyone and not just me, that’s the part that made me say that may have not been a community member.”

It goes without saying that what happened to a couple of bookstores and a literary agency matters little in light of the larger issues raised by Floyd’s murder. My own feelings are similar to those of the Minneapolis business community: appalled by the police, supportive of the protestors, baffled by the indiscriminate looting.

There’s a good backgrounder on Minneapolis’s history of police violence against its black community in this week’s New Republic.

A few timely books

David Faris believes what we’re seeing on the streets this week is a harbinger of the American future. A new generation of progressives is demanding to be heard, and as the Republic Party’s base dies off over the next couple of decades, they will not only heard but shape the policies and politics of their country. Arguable but interesting.

Zena Hitz argues that our world is too practical, that we are unable to defend anything that is now somehow economically or politically useful, and that we need to more frequently escape into our minds for the pleasures of learning and informal intellectual life. She describes the process through which she rekindled her love of learning

I remembered professional intellectuals, as I was, consumed with the prospect of ‘making a difference,’ and so losing touch with what they cared about most. I thought of many academics who fled from the work of the intellect after years of grinding competition and relentless banality. I remembered other ordinary people—library users, taxi drivers, history buffs, prisoners, stockbrokers—doing intellectual work without recognizing it as such or taking pride in it. I tried to envision what authentic intellectual work might be, how it might draw in ordinary learners without losing its reach to the depths. I pored over my experiences, looking for clues.

Hitz, by the way, arrived at the insights in this book while living in a remote part of Canada. I’ll let her tell the story. She now teaches at St. John’s College in Annapolis.

Out this week from Sutherland House is Philip Slayton’s Nothing Left to Lose, which argues that Canadians take their individual freedoms for granted, hold their tongues when they should stand up for what they believe in, and are far too deferential to authority, whether in the form of politicians, bureaucrats, or unelected judges. In other words, we’re sheep.

Conceived, written, and edited in a different world (2019), this book couldn’t be more relevant to the moment we find ourselves in today.