Coffee House Press founding publisher Allan Kornblum died at his home in St. Paul, Minn., on Sunday, November 23, from complications from chronic lymphocytic leukemia, a disease that he has been battling since a 2006 diagnosis. His wife, Cinda, reported on his CaringBridge page that before he passed away, she bade farewell by reading to him “The Descent” by William Carlos Williams as John Coltrane’s song “Love Supreme” played in the background. Besides Cinda, Kornblum leaves behind two daughters, Gwen and Annabel.
Kornblum was one of the leaders of the small press movement that emerged out of the 1960s-era passions for social change. Kornblum, 65, founded Toothpaste Press in Iowa City in 1973 to publish poetry pamphlets and letterpress books. After moving to Minneapolis in 1984, Kornblum relaunched his press as a literary nonprofit and named it Coffee House Press. It was one of the original eight literary small presses distributed by Consortium Book Sales and Distribution. The press, which specializes in literary fiction and poetry, but also publishes nonfiction, became renowned for publishing writers of color under Kornblum’s leadership, particularly Asian-American authors.
Karen Tei Yamashita won a 1991 American Book Award for Through the Arc of the Rainforest, and was a finalist for the 2010 National Book Award in fiction for I Hotel. Other American Book Award winners from Coffee House include Somewhere Else by Matthew Shenoda in 2006 and The Ocean in the Closet by Yuko Taniguchi in 2008. Ron Padgett’s collection of poems, How Long, was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize for 2012. Firmin: Adventures of A Metropolitan Lowlife by Sam Savage, a 2006 release, became an international bestseller, and more recently, Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station (2011), received international critical acclaim. Coffee House published in the U.S. this fall Bailey’s Prize winner Eimear McBride’s A Girl is A Half-Formed Thing.
In 2008, telling PW that it was essential that Coffee House have a succession plan in place in the event that he unexpectedly “keeled over,” Kornblum announced that Coffee House would undergo a transition: editor Chris Fischbach would begin an apprenticeship to succeed Kornblum as publisher. Fischbach officially became the press’s publisher in 2011 and Kornblum was named senior editor. The following year, Kornblum received the prestigious Kay Sexton Award for outstanding contributions to literature in Minnesota from the Friends of the St. Paul Public Library, which administers the Minnesota Book Awards.
Even after he retired from Coffee House three years ago, Kornblum remained active: he was working until he became too ill to do so on a book on the history of the written word from ancient times to the Kindle as well as on his memoirs. In 2013, Kornblum wrote a Soapbox column for PW advocating that U.S. founding father Henry Knox be named the patron saint of independent booksellers. He also edited most recently, a novel, The Blue Girl by Laurie Foos, which will be published in July 2015, and a collection of poems, Streaming, by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke, which is being published in December.
In a statement sent out by the press on Sunday morning, Fischbach, who was first hired in 1995 by Kornblum as a letterpress intern, noted that Kornblum’s influence extended far beyond Coffee House and its books and authors. “For 42 years he championed new voices and new publishers and fought tirelessly to get them the attention they deserve. It was a lifetime of service 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.”
PW contributing editor Michael Coffey, whose collection of poems, 87 North, was published by Coffee House in 1999, wrote about Kornblum, “Allan was a longtime friend and presence at the various book fairs, particularly the BEA, where he would appear with a printer's apron and visor and a new broadside of a poem beautifully typeset and always having to do with the wonder of language and books. Allan published a book of my poems because, he told me, ‘Michael, I can see these poems matter to you—and it comes through. That's what I want to publish.’”
Coffey added, “Allan, ever the visionary, also saw his own end approaching, and managed a brilliant succession, selecting, grooming and then adjudging that he had his man in Chris Fischbach, who now steers the press with his own independent and unique tastes—which Allan told me was as important as anything—but also with a spirit that is the continuation of Allan's. Allan's passing does not mark, for publishing, an end, but rather highlights a bright legacy that has been handed on, for which we should be thankful.”
Tributes to Kornblum from publishers, authors, and others in the publishing industry also poured onto social media websites Sunday and onto the CaringBridge page his family set up almost a month ago as his health deteriorated and he entered hospice care.
Visitation will be held at the Willwerscheid Funeral Home, 1167 Grand Avenue, in St. Paul on Friday, November 28, with funeral services there scheduled for Saturday, November 29, at 10 am.
UPDATE: Coffee House Press has informed PW that the press will hold a public memorial service for Kornblum on Saturday, January 17, at 2 pm at Open Book, 1011 Washington Ave. S., in Minneapolis.