In fact, you can admit to anything you want there, in an honest-to-God confessional Erdrich rescued from a bar and set up in one corner of her multilevel bookstore. You can find Birchbark Books in a tiny strip of stores in a leafy neighborhood, along with Bockley Gallery, which often exhibits Native artists.
The cozy store offers lots of spots where shoppers can enjoy a rich array of images and experiences. Kids can climb into a toy-filled, tree house–like loft, while adults curl up and read in sunny corners. If you want absolution for anything, take a seat in the confessional, which Erdrich has renamed “the forgiveness booth.”
“You can be absolved right away there without having to say thousands of Hail Marys,” she says. “It’s about taking away shame. Of course, it’s the Catholic Church that most needs to be forgiven for what it did to Native people in the name of assimilation.”
Natural-wood fixtures and Native crafts give the place a homey feel. “We used all recycled materials, including birch from trees that had fallen in a big storm in Wisconsin,” says Erdrich. “The trees even sprouted after we brought them back, which I found very moving.”
Atop one bookcase are red-willow baskets by Georgianna Houle and by Curtis and Debi LaRoque, all from Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, Erdrich’s home community. Alongside them are containers by Pat and Gage Kruse, a father and son from Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, who use birch bark for the vessels you’ll find at Birchbark Books, as well as for detailed bark paintings represented by Bockley Gallery. Star quilts hang from the bookshop’s rafters, and silver pieces by jewelers Mitchell Zephier, Lakota, and Josef Reiter, Anishinaabe, gleam in a glass-fronted case. Look for Reiter’s reproductions of Erdrich’s lucky feather earrings; when you wear them, she claims, wondrous things occur.
The store attracts clients from the Minneapolis Native community, reservations across the country and tourists from all over the globe. “They are attracted by Louise’s reputation,” says store manager Susan White. “She is truly beloved.” Customers know they will find books that are tasteful and accurate, White adds. They might even run into the novelist at the store, though Erdrich says her schedule is “unpredictable.”
The store specializes in Native writers and subjects in several categories: fiction and poetry; memoir and biography; Native studies; indigenous-language books and instructional materials primarily in Dakota, Lakota and Ojibwe; picture books for children; and young-adult volumes. It’s a small selection, tucked into every nook and cranny of the 850-square-foot store, but a fine one. “People come here to feel there’s a person behind what’s on our shelves,” says Erdrich. The store’s book buyer, Nathan Pederson, explains that deciding what to offer is a “happy science.” He sifts through data, figuring out what’s selling, but also trying to ensure that customers will come across items they never knew they needed.
For example, there’s Blackfoot Physics, in which theoretical physicist F. David Peat’s compares age-old indigenous teachings to the knowledge of modern scientists. Or American Indian Trickster Tales, by Richard Erdoes and Alfonzo Ortiz. A customer posted a comment on Birchbark Books’ website saying that when she was young, she listened to the late Pueblo scholar Ortiz telling such stories: “This was in [New Mexico’s] Frijoles Canyon. I can still hear his melodious voice as he spun his stories in the dusk…I drew from his wisdom to realign my life many times.”
The store has a robust website, where it offers a subscription to a monthly newsletter. Holiday-gift suggestions in this month’s issue include signed copies of Erdrich’s works, turquoise jewelry by Annie Star of Santo Domingo Pueblo and a T-shirt with an image of planet Earth and the message what would gitchi manidoo? (Anishinaabe for What Would the Creator Do?). Receipts from shirt sales go toward stopping the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline.
Notable among the indigenous-language materials are three books in Ojibwe (with more to come) from Wiigwaas Press, run by Erdrich and her sister Heid, a poet and curator of Native American fine art. Most recently, the press published the engaging word-and-phrase book Daga Anishinaabemodaa (or Let’s Speak Ojibwe), by Pebaamibines/Dennis Jones, Nigigoonsiminikaaning First Nation and a University of Minnesota Ojibwe-language instructor. The illustrator is another Erdrich, Louise’s daughter Aza, Turtle Mountain and Modoc.
The Wiigwaas Press just got some good news, reports Heid: The Chicago public school system has adopted another of its offerings, the illustrated story collection Awesiinyensag, for use in their Ojibwe-language classes. That follows an award from the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, which named Awesiinyensag Minnesota’s representative in a collection of books epitomizing each of the 50 states’ literary heritage. Editor Anton Treuer, a professor at Bemidji State University, in Bemidji, Minnesota, and a team of scholars, authors and elders produced the volume, which is already being used by educators throughout Minnesota, according to White. “We wanted a book that was monolingual and showed kids an Ojibwe text could be produced with pride and beauty,” says Louise.
Wiigwaas Press seeks to save indigenous languages badly damaged by various assimilationist policies but not to “preserve them.” Daga Anishinaabemodaa opens with a saying in Ojibwe: “If you take care?/?of the language?/?the spirit keeper of the language?/?will take care of you.” That ongoing process is challenging and fun, according to Heid. “Ojibwe is poetic and wittily inventive,” she says. “Good speakers can get all sorts of information into one word, working the grammar as hard as possible and molding the language as they speak.”
That spirited originality allows Ojibwe to resist the codification English speakers are accustomed to (or should that be “to which they are accustomed”?). As a result, Heid says, many expressions and variants aren’t found in the few existing Ojibwe dictionaries. “The hallmark of a living language is that it changes as it’s used,” she says. “We’re happy to be a part of that.”
Publication events for Awesiinyensag at Birchbark Books have included elders, and lots of food and conviviality, according to Louise. “In fact, a huge range of people showed up, including kids, among whom language learning has really taken off. In the past 10 years, we’ve seen a flourishing of language courses in Ojibwe magnet [public] schools, Ojibwe language–immersion camps and language nests, in which families speak Ojibwe at home, which produces an explosion of learning. I find it so touching that so many people are doing this.”
Each month, the shop hosts several book events, some with food from the Kenwood Café next door. In January, Louise will host the first dinner-club evening of 2012, a discussion of The Cat’s Table, by Michael Ondaatje, which she called “a keenly written suspense novel—my favorite by Ondaatje since The English Patient.” She also confesses that she enjoys talking about other authors’ works, which is a welcome respite from talking about her own books.
She says the store is all about creating affinities: “We’re a neighborhood bookstore and want to create that feeling of community. We’re a place where people come to read and talk about all kinds of books.”