Allan Kornblum, who founded Toothpaste Press in 1973 in Iowa City, and reinvented it as Coffee House Press after moving to Minneapolis in 1984, died on Sunday of complications from leukemia. He was 65. First diagnosed in 2006, Kornblum continued to run Coffee House until 2011, when he turned the press over to Chris Fischbach, although he stayed on as senior editor until his death.
To understand the significance of Kornblum's work at Toothpaste Press and Coffee House, we have to remember what the American publishing landscape looked like then. Largely homogenous, based in New York and bound by its own peculiar hierarchies, it was an exclusionary business for those who didn't fit the mold.
Kornblum was one of the pioneers who changed that, publishing on his own terms, aesthetic and otherwise. Along with John Martin (Black Sparrow Press), David R. Godine and Scott Walker (Graywolf Press), he followed in the footsteps of City Lights Books' Lawrence Ferlinghetti, focusing on work that might not have otherwise seen the light of day.
For Kornblum, two particular areas of attention were women writers and writers of color, although he insisted that such labels were beside the point. "Coffee House Press has actively published writers of color as writers, as representatives of the best in contemporary literature, first and foremost — then, only secondly, as representatives of minority communities," he told the Twin Cities Daily Planet in 2008. "That might be one of our most important contributions."
Among the writers he championed in his more than 40-year career were Frank Chin, David Mura, Andrei Codrescu and Karen Tei Yamashita, whose novel "I Hotel," was a finalist for the 2010 National Book Award.
"I was so blessed" to have him as an editor, Yamashita told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. "He had a hand in all of my books. He was always training in new folks, new editors, but I would always see his marks in the margins. He had a very light hand and a broad vision about everybody's work. I'm a part of a community of writers that he brought together over so many years."
The sentiment was echoed by Fischbach in a statement Sunday, after Kornblum's death was announced. "It was a lifetime of service," he said, "not only to literature but also to the field of publishing, of which he was a devoted scholar. Whether it was choosing just the right font, navigating the changing marketplace of bookselling, or understanding the historical pattern of the changes in printing technology, his wisdom and devotion were unmatched."