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Robert Bly was the first person to do a reading at the Loft, long before “Iron John” was popular and long before the words “literary center” were part of the Loft name. It was just the Book Loft then, the upstairs of Marly Rusoff’s bookstore in Dinkytown, a couple of cozy rooms with bookshelves, a couch and a coffee pot, where people could hang out and talk about writing.

The reading was spontaneous, prompted by the death of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda and by the fact that Bly, who had translated some of Neruda’s work, happened to be in the store. On impulse, Rusoff handed him a book and asked him to read a few of Neruda’s poems. “The customers all stopped,” Rusoff said. “It was incredibly moving.”

That was on an afternoon in late September 1973. In the years since, the Loft Literary Center has grown and grown — bigger and stronger than anyone might have imagined. It quickly outgrew Rusoff’s loft, outgrew its next space across the street, its lodgings above a Powderhorn Park cafe, its spaces at the Playwrights’ Center and in Prospect Park.

Now firmly ensconced in the Open Book building on Washington Avenue S. in downtown Minneapolis, the Loft is one of the nation’s largest and most venerable literary centers, and a key to Minnesota’s stature as a vibrant literary oasis. This week it celebrates its 40th anniversary as an incorporated nonprofit, with 40 events planned over 40 hours Aug. 21-22, while also marking the transition to a new executive director, Britt Udesen.

The Loft now has an annual budget of $2.2 million, and in the past fiscal year it conducted more than 400 classes (in-person and online) and 60 literary events involving more than 10,000 students and participants.

Readings are no longer spontaneous, like that first one, but are planned and marketed, and sometimes — as with Claudia Rankine last fall, or Roxane Gay and Amber Tamblyn in April — draw hundreds of people, filling an auditorium as well as several overflow rooms.

But back then, it was just Rusoff and a bunch of poets.

A modest beginning

In 1970, Rusoff and business partner Bill Savran opened a bookstore near the Varsity Theater in Dinkytown. By 1973, the place was hers alone. She filled the store with books she loved — especially poetry, lots of poetry. “You could fit a lot of those little skinny poetry books in there,” she said. “And because I had poetry, I attracted poets.”

Robert Bly and Jim Moore, Mary Logue and Phebe Hanson, Patricia Hampl and Jim White, Michael Dennis Browne and Garrison Keillor all flocked to the store.

“That’s in a sense how the Loft came about,” Rusoff said. “I wanted people who cared about literature. I’ve always found that writers are among the most exciting people to be around.”

Writers found Rusoff just as inspiring. “Marly was the Sylvia Beach of Minneapolis in those years,” said Hampl, referring to the founder of the famous Paris book shop Shakespeare and Company, “her store a meeting place even before she cooked up the idea of the Loft.”

Rusoff began asking friends to read aloud at a children’s story hour — her own stepfather, radio personality Charles Irving, hosted many of the readings. So did Keillor and Moore and others, including some actors from the Guthrie Theater.

Writer friends were looking for a place to hold workshops, and Rusoff offered them the loft. “So we had classes, we had the children’s story hours, we had celebratory events,” Rusoff said. “Like when Patricia Hampl had a story bought by the New Yorker, we had a huge bash. We also did book parties — Allen Ginsberg and Susan Sontag, a lot of people would come to my little bookstore. It was a place that welcomed writers.”

Browne, who moved to the Cities in 1970 to teach at the University of Minnesota, remembers the Loft as a welcoming place from the beginning.

“There was a lack of pretension to what we were doing,” he said. “We just wanted to share writing. I feel that we all kind of pulled together, and that’s part of the reason why people have thought well of the Loft. It’s been amazing to see it grow the way it has.”

Bumps in the road

The Loft was not the only arts organization to spring up in those vibrant years. Others included COMPAS, Women Poets of the Twin Cities, Minnesota Poetry Out Loud, the Playwrights’ Center, the American Composers Forum and Women’s Art Resources of Minnesota.

“It was incredibly fertile, this moment in the early 1970s,” said Rebecca Weaver, who wrote her doctoral dissertation on poetry communities. “There was so much going on.”

The Loft survived, Weaver believes, partly because of a crucial decision made in August 1975 to incorporate as a nonprofit and to accept grant money.

This was not an easy decision. Some board members were concerned about becoming dependent on grants and corporate interests, and many preferred to have the Loft supported solely by members. “And then there were others who said, ‘Well, you do have to pay people who are doing this work,’ ” Weaver said.

There were other controversies, other bumps along the road to the big 4-0. When the Loft moved to the upstairs of the Modern Times Cafe near Powderhorn Park in 1979, the neighborhood objected, fearing an invasion of hippie poets. An elderly woman “incited by neighborhood rumors came down to Rusoff’s very literary bookstore one day to check out the ‘pornography’ she’d heard was planning to move into Powderhorn,” the Minneapolis Tribune reported in a story Sept. 29, 1979. Finding no pornography, the woman ended up defending the store at a public meeting of protest, which drew more than 150 people.

By the 1980s, the Loft was faced with an image problem; many viewed it as an elite clique of white women. In 1990 it started the Inroads Program, a mentoring program that worked with emerging writers from minority cultures. But in 1993, Loft program director Carolyn Holbrook quit, feeling there were too many roadblocks to making the Loft more diverse.

“I think the Loft hired me at a time when they were trying to be more diverse, or at least they thought they were trying to be more diverse,” said Holbrook, who had founded a writers’ workshop in the nearby Whittier neighborhood. But she ran into obstacles when she tried to bring in other writers of color — Sandra Cisneros, for example, and poet Quincy Troupe.

“An organization has its culture,” said Holbrook. “And it’s really hard for someone to come in and change that culture.”

Over the past 20 years she thinks the Loft has done pretty well. “They’re so much more diverse. They’re doing things that are better for people like me, in addition to those rich white women.

“I’ve gone full circle. I’m going back this fall to serve as a mentor.”

A national reputation

Eric Lorberer, editor and founder of Rain Taxi Review, has watched the Loft grow since he moved to the area in the early 1990s, and he believes that its move in 2000 to the large and airy Open Book building — which the Loft shares with the Minnesota Center for Book Arts and literary publisher Milkweed Editions — was crucial.

“It was very quiet rumblings that have grown into a loud and nationally recognized cacophony, and it’s been great to see that evolution,” Lorberer said. “What’s so great about the Loft is they have a space. They’re sort of a gathering point through classes and through events, and Open Book just took that to a new level.”

Others in the writing world are paying attention. “We watch everything the Loft does with awe,” said Jynne Dilling Martin, associate publisher and director of publicity for Riverhead Books in New York City. “The expanded teaching and awards programs have been fantastic to watch.”

Gabrielle Brooks, vice president and director of promotion for Alfred A. Knopf, has been sending authors out on the road for 20 years and sees the Twin Cities as a vital market. “To have so many choices in one market is extraordinary,” she said.

The Loft is not solely responsible for that literary climate, of course. Publishers such as Milkweed, Graywolf Press and Coffee House Press, Rain Taxi and 50-plus independent bookstores all contribute to the Twin Cities’ literary vitality.

But some of that zeitgeist started 40 years ago in Rusoff’s book loft. “Presses and journals and organizations and poets have continued to move to the Twin Cities, drawn largely because of the foundation laid by those in the 1970s,” Weaver said.

Rusoff now lives in New York, where she runs a literary agency and recently started a small publishing house, Maiden Lane Press.

“Those early years set the tone for the Loft of today,” she said. “The inclusiveness. Breaking down the walls. You didn’t have to be registered at the university; you didn’t have to have a lot of money.

“You just had to have the desire, and you were taken seriously.”

Laurie Hertzel • 612-673-7302