Our Latest Partner Bookstore: Dallas’s Deep Vellum Books (Part One)
by Ann Kjellberg, editor
Deep Vellum in Deep Ellum
In 2011, Will Evans, heading as a newcomer at the age of twenty-seven to Dallas, Texas, with a degree in Russian literature, had no fixed plans. While studying in St. Petersburg he had become at once shocked at the number of writers he encountered who had never been translated into English, enamored of the process of translating when he dipped into it himself (he told the Dallas Morning News that he had found translation “exhilarating,” like “living inside the head and soul of another person”), and convinced that we need more of it. His professors discouraged him from pursuing such a non-renumerative and insecure pastime, and when he tried to publish the work he had labored over he discovered why, via publisher Chad Post’s influential blog Three Percent: in dramatic contrast to the rest of the world, where anywhere from 15 (France) to 45 (Holland) percent of published books come from other languages, in the US that number is only 3 percent, much lower when you remove cookbooks, textbooks, and other useful items and retranslated classics (read Will on this subject here, for instance). Accordingly, Will decided to create an international publishing house in Dallas, though he was new both to publishing and to Dallas.
The combination of cheaper digital technologies and financial support from other countries (notably lacking on our shores, as I wrote here a while back), has made for a little flowering in recent years of small publishers focused on translation, a stark contrast to just a few years previously when consolidation in the publishing industry had pounded to nearly nothing America’s already meager offerings in translation. The late publisher John O’Brien (to whom we will return) has quoted none other than Alfred Knopf’s prediction that bestsellers would kill publishing: in Knopf’s day, O’Brien has said, even commercial publishing “had certain standards of what a book should be in order to be a book,” and these standards included acknowledging the ideas of the non-English-speaking share of humanity. These days smaller, nimbler publishers, like Will and Chad Post’s own Open Letter, as well as Archipelago, Europa, Two Lines, New Vessel, Interlink, and the like, have been arising to claim the variegated terrain left behind by the conglomerates’ retreat from commercially challenging books. In Dallas, under the aegis of his new imprint, “Deep Vellum” (playfully named after the Dallas neighborhood of his enterprise, Deep Ellum), Will quickly established himself as a for-real publisher, bringing out eight books from seven countries in five languages in his first year of operation.
Signally, though, Will envisioned his project as something more than printing books: he embraced the outward-facing work of developing a readership and an audience where he was for new, unfamiliar work. He proclaimed from the beginning that his goal was to create not just a publishing house, but a “robust, mid-sized, arts organization” devoted to literature for his city. “I envisioned a publishing house of global proportions that connected various existing arts organizations and provided literature as the missing ingredient in an otherwise-vibrant arts scene,” he has written. “If you’re going to publish books outside the industry’s hubs, you’re going to have to work constantly to build the book culture you want to see in the world.” Naturally, three years in, his ambition to build a book outfit that would be “global in scale” but have “a strong local commitment,” that would “bring the world into dialogue with Dallas from Dallas,” took the form of opening a bookstore. Such a bookstore would include not only deep representation from independent publishers like himself, and a range of literary programming, but also music, visual arts, theatrical productions, work opportunities for writers and translators, and a place for people who like to read to gather, “a lighthouse in the storm, guiding the way to good times, good people, and good art. Literature as art. Art as literature.” We are happy to announce that the resulting bookstore, Deep Vellum Books in Dallas, is Book Post’s bookselling partner for Spring 2022. (Book Post partners with independent booksellers to link to them in our pieces and draw attention to book cultures across the land.)
Dallas now has several independent booksellers and a literary culture that the city celebrates as on the rise, but when Will started Deep Vellum he struggled to convince arts administrators and donors that literature deserves to stand beside the other arts in cultural planning and philanthropy. (Deep Vellum, like many small publishers, operates as a nonprofit, in order to focus on books’ “artistic and social value” rather than their commercial potential.) “We’ve been told by funders in town, ‘We can’t believe you're a nonprofit because you sell books,’” he has said. (See also our most recent partner bookseller, Chicago’s Seminary Coop, which became a nonprofit in order to defend the cultural value of bookselling from countervailing commercial pressures.) John O’Brien again: “foundations and individuals are not accustomed to supporting literature”; “publishing, by its very nature, is national and international in scope, serving communities and artists around the globe rather than serving a particular geographical locale the way that a nonprofit theater does.” But Will, with formidable powers of persuasion and with his deeds, made the case for the force of a local literary nonprofit’s contributions to local life.
In addition to bringing authors and translators and readers from around the world together in Dallas to learn from each other, with a special emphasis on the great nearby literatures in Spanish, he has partnered with local and other organizations to provide pandemic relief for writers; create a digital archive of personal stories by adults and kids; open a local chapter of PEN; curate book offerings for a local cafe; create a poet laureate program with the public library; and collaborate with a local theater, in the city’s Latino Cultural Center, on a stage adaptation of a Deep Vellum work. Will appointed a young local poet who, as an intern at another organization developed a neighborhood LitCrawl, to be Deep Vellum’s poetry editor. (“Growing up, I would read a lot about authors and I was always attracted to their stories because they had these literary friends and were starting salons and magazines together,” the editor, Sebastián Hasani Páramo, told the Dallas Morning News when he was appointed. “I think I’ve always romanticized the idea of writers within a community.”) In 2018 the city for the first time included literature alongside the other arts in its Cultural Plan and Policy, after getting “unbelievable turnout” at the neighborhood meeting they called on the question, held at an independent bookstore, of course. Deep Vellum’s own landlord, which offers their tenant supportive terms, says “Deep Vellum’s cultural contributions to the neighborhood provide significant benefits above and beyond the pure economics of the lease.” As the dangers of mutual cultural isolation became ever more threatening, Will continues to envision a still greater local presence, including a larger literary arts space offering workshops and Texas residencies for writers and translators in addition to more expansive literary and cultural programs and collaboration with other groups, both within the “literary scene,” and outward, across languages, to parts of the city and rural areas not often reached by literary life.
And there’s more! Stay tuned!
Ann Kjellberg is the founding editor of Book Post.
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Deep Vellum Books is Book Post’s Spring 2022 partner bookseller! We partner with independent bookstores to link to their books, support their work, and bring you news of local book life as it happens in their communities. We’ll send a free three-month subscription to any reader who spends more than $100 with our partner bookstore during our partnership. Send your receipt to email@example.com.
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