Industry veteran Paul Von Drasek, a well-known and beloved fixture on the Twin Cities literary scene, died in his sleep at home in St. Paul, Minn., on May 16. He was 71 years old.
After earning degrees at the University of Minnesota and at Minnesota State University in Mankato, Von Drasek began his career in the book world working at New York City's Strand bookstore and returned to Minnesota to work at B. Dalton. In 1980 he became general manager at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Bookstore. After three years there he started his sales career, working for a number of publishing companies for more than 30 years, selling both adult and children’s books. After working for Penguin Group USA for 10 years, rising to national field sales manager, Von Drasek remained in sales management at Houghton Mifflin, Little Brown, and Harcourt, before becoming director of field sales-trade at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2008 as the two companies merged.
HMH senior national accounts manager Mike Harrigan recalls meeting Von Drasek more than 20 years ago, when he was starting out as a sales rep at Harcourt. He describes Von Drasek as “a patient teacher, always kind and always curious about how things could be done better. He taught me many of the fundamentals that I still use to this day at work. There are things I do obsessively at the start of each day, reports to read, data to sort, problems to check for -- those compulsions, courtesy of Paul, have saved my bacon many times over the years.
“He approached everyone with a smile and a story,” Harrigan added. “Always ready to listen to a problem, tell a joke, dispense some trademark wisdom. No matter how grumpy or miserable you were, Paul always had something positive to say."
Von Drasek’s last full-time position took him back to Minnesota, where he worked as trade sales manager at Capstone Publishers for six years, leading the company’s expansion into the trade market through the creation of Capstone Young Readers. Capstone associate publisher Beth Brezenoff said, “We are so grateful that Paul was part of our team for several years. He was a consummate book professional; engaging, curious, and most of all kind. He had a deep loyalty to his favorite titles, never missed a chance to congratulate a success, was a passionate advocate for the many organizations he supported, and treated everyone as an equal colleague in the crucial work of children’s publishing.”
Scholastic group publisher Lori Benton says that she first met Von Drasek when they worked together at Harcourt. Years later, they were colleagues once again at Capstone, where he introduced her to the local indie bookstores in the Twin Cities, such as The Red Balloon and Wild Rumpus. "He was passionate about books, music, and Minnesota," she said. "He was an absolute champion of books, especially children’s books and poetry, and equally enthusiastic about music, possessing a vast and diverse library of both. He had an uncanny ability to gently put the right book or music in your path at just the right moment."
Volunteerism was important to Von Drasek: he served on the board of Curbstone Press for 14 years, including a turn as board chair, helping in 2009 to shepherd it into becoming an imprint of Northwestern University Press. He also served on the board of the literacy nonprofit organization 826 MSP/Mid-Continent Oceanographic Institute for seven years. Most recently, he served on Rain Taxi’s board for the past six years, and was board chair at the time of his death.
Eric Lorberer, editor-in-chief of the literary nonprofit organization, which publishes a journal that reviews the offerings of independent literary presses and also produces the annual Twin Cities Book Festival, told PW, “Paul Von Drasek was indefatigable in steering us through countless challenges the last several years, not the least of which was the pandemic upheaval of the past year — and he did so with an unflagging enthusiasm for the book world that inspired us to do our very best. We will miss Paul dearly.”
Having known Von Drasek for decades, author-illustrator Debra Frasier remembered him fondly: “Paul was already a bookselling legend by the time I met him, exactly 30 BEAs ago, when I was a newbie at [Harcourt Brace Jovanovich] and he was a beloved rep. Since I was from Minnesota and he was from Minnesota, he took me under his wing and literally watched over me for three decades. He was definitely old school—and his accounts trusted him and knew that he had actually read the books he touted. Paul loved authors and books in a way that was contagious, and his sheer enthusiasm for a title could buoy it across the country. Publishing has changed a lot since our first meeting, but Paul didn't. He kept up with things through all the upheavals, but he always stayed true to the book.”
Von Drasek’s wife, Lisa Von Drasek, curator of the Children's Literature Research Collections at the University of Minnesota, posted on Facebook Monday morning that a funeral for family and friends will be held on Sunday morning at the Willwerscheid Funeral Home in Saint Paul; a Zoom memorial will be scheduled at a future date. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made in Von Drasek's memory to either Rain Taxi, 826 MSP/Mid-Continent Oceanographic Institute, or the Kerlan Collection Chair Endowment Fund.
This story has been updated with further information.