Allan Kornblum, Coffee House Press

November 24, 2014 by  
Filed under Pipeline

allan_kornblum29020-v1-197x 20141124__AllanKornblum_skyboxMy good friend, long time publisher and poet Allan Kornblum passed away November 23, 2014. He was only 65, and will be missed by many.  Coffee House Press, which he and Cinda Kornblum founded as the successor to the earlier and more informal Toothpaste Press, has been in Minneapolis for over 30 years now, and has become a hugely important literary organization in its local community and far beyond, with national and international reach.

Allan and I first met in the mid-seventies when we attended a range of small press bookfairs around the country, and we shared many interests, both in poetry and in book production. Toothpaste was an early participant in the tiny midwestern literary project I started in 1976 called Truck Distribution Service.

When I traveled to Iowa to sell independently published literary books to local bookstores, I would stay with Allan and Cinda in their house in West Branch (proudly known as the birthplace of Herbert Hoover). They taught me alot about the local literary community and history, and as Allan became more involved in letterpress printing, Allan beautifully produced books and ephemera for my Truck Press (and later for Jim Sitter’s Bookslinger, the successor to Truck Distribution, Allan turned out a long list of beautifully produced broadsides and small books). The list of great books published by Allan and Coffee House is pretty incredible. Visit the press’ website to learn more about what Allan and his colleagues have accomplished, and to see the vibrant work the now well-established nonprofit press is doing today. Some really excellent publishing is going on there, and has been for a long time; no better legacy for Allan could be imagined than the books this press produces.

In later years, we I did not see Allan much more than once a year at the annual booksellers’ conventions, but we kept in contact, did business together, and always shared news of each other’s work and family. I interviewed Allan for Writerscast as part of the Publishing Talks series as I think the history of independent publishing needs to be documented, and first hand accounts by those involved seem to me the best way to preserve some of the knowledge and experiences of an important era in publishing. You can listen to it here if you want to get a feel for Allan and his work.

One moment with Allan still stands out for me. Probably six or seven years ago, when Amazon was first promoting digital conversion of print books, they put on presentations to publishers and distributors to convince us to convert as many of our books as possible to digital formats. I was perhaps naively convinced aready that the reflowable ebook format would be a great boon to reading. But Allan stood up and asked the pointed question – “What happens to the carefully designed pages we create for our books in this new digital format?” The Amazon representative bluntly stated something to the effect that “designed pages don’t matter in our ebooks.” That answer did not satisfy Allan, and somewhat presciently, he told me that this lack of interest and concern for design would be a big problem for e-readers and e-reading. How right he was then, and sadly, his views then about ebook design matters are still meaningful today. As he knew so well, the interaction between the reader and the word is where the magic of reading comes alive.



Publishing Talks: David Wilk interviews Coffee House Press Founder Allan Kornblum

December 5, 2012 by  
Filed under Publishing History, PublishingTalks

In this series of interviews, called Publishing Talks, I talk to book industry professionals and other smart people about the future of publishing, books, and culture.  This is a period of disruption and change for all media businesses.  How will publishing evolve as our culture is affected by technology, climate change, population density, and the ebb and flow of civilization and  economics?

I hope these Publishing Talks conversations will help us better understand the outlines of what is happening in publishing, books and reading culture, and how we can ourselves both understand and influence the future of books and reading.  Over the past couple of years, I’ve been talking to a wide variety of people in the book business, mostly about the future of writing, publishing, and reading. But the future is always built on what has gone before now.  And there has been so much incredibly creative and wonderful publishing work done in recent years, I’ve wanted to share some of the experiences of people who have accomplished so much, with vision, talent and amazing effort.

I’ve known Allan Kornblum, founder of Coffee House Press (and its predecessor, Toothpaste Press), a long, long time.  He and I started out in publishing in similar ways and around the same time, the early 1970s.  Allan started out as many of us did in those days publishing a handmade mimeo magazine.  But he discovered fine printing by taking classes at the University of Iowa with the renowned Harry Duncan (Cummington Press – there is a great interview with him in a wonderful book called Against the Grain, interviews with independent publishers, you can access this book online through Project Muse).  Allan’s Toothpaste Press used letterpress printing to create beautiful poetry books and chapbooks for ten years beginning in 1973, when Allan and his wife Cinda lived in West Branch, Iowa (home of Herbert Hoover).

The Kornblums eventually faced an existential crisis with Toothpaste, to either become a letterpress “art press,” producing limited editions at high prices, with limited readership and distribution, or to aim for a broader audience, which for a low margin literary press, requires financial support.  Kornblum elected to create a nonprofit publishing venture, renamed Coffee House Press, and moved to the Twin Cities in Minnesota, the literary mecca of the midwest (then as now), where the press has thrived along with several other excellent publishers, with a literary arts center, and an extremely supportive community of readers and writers.  Now having published there for almost thirty years, Coffee House is an established an active organization, with a strong board and staff, and a tremendous list of books to its credit, many of which have won awards and have sold extremely well.  Coffee House has maintained consistently high editorial and production standards, but it has also been a successful and innovative book marketer, embracing a wealth of tools and approaches to finding audiences for its books.

Interviewing Allan for Publishing Talks was a pleasure for me.  I’d also like to recommend listeners to a written interview with Allan from 2006 that can be found at  And visit the Coffee House Press website to see their latest books as well as their exceptional and impressive backlist. Listener alert!  These interviews with independent publishers, documenting their history and experiences, are longer than usual.  This one is 53 minutes long.  Pull up a chair….