Ruminating on a troubled future
David Unowsky, former owner of St. Paul’s Ruminator bookstore, is worried about increasing censorship of the media in the coming year.
He’s alarmed about the U.S. government trying to prevent publishers from dealing with some authors living in countries under sanctions, about national television networks’ refusal to air United Church of Christ ads welcoming gays and lesbians and about federal judges threatening to jail journalists who won’t reveal sources.
“This all comes from the same mindset,” Unowsky says. “I’m afraid we’re going back to a ‘Leave It to Beaver’ world. We are not going to talk about critical things, not going to challenge what’s going on in the world. We are in for (media) pabulum if we don’t speak out. I love William Safire for standing up for reporters (in his New York Times column). He’s a conservative, but he’s been constant on First Amendment issues.”
Unowsky made national news when he closed his Grand Avenue bookstore in July after a long effort to save the business that began 34 years ago as the Hungry Mind. He attributed the closing to a “perfect storm” of problems, including some costly business mistakes and a dispute with his landlord, Macalester College.
These days, Unowsky is “looking at job boards,” upgrading his computer skills and writing occasional business book reviews for USA Today. His fight to save his store led to personal bankruptcy, and he has separated from his wife, Pearl Kilbride, publisher of Ruminator literary journal. The magazine was founded and formerly published by Unowksy, who writes a column for the publication titled “The Godfather.”
In the November/December Ruminator, Unowsky takes on the Treasury Department’s new interpretation of the 1917 Trading With the Enemy Act. Although the act was amended in 1988 to exempt publishers, the government has issued regulations barring U.S. companies from publishing works by dissident writers in countries such as Iran, Sudan, Cuba and North Korea. Penalties are stiff fines and jail time.
“This is very alarming, and it’s hardly getting any attention,” says Unowsky, who was active in the American Booksellers Association’s Foundation for Free Expression.
“The government is going to tell us what we are going to read and can’t read. If these authors are really enemies, wouldn’t it be better to understand them instead of keeping their books out? Small and university presses are going to be affected, especially on the technical and scientific side.”
The ruling is being appealed by the Association of American Publishers, Association of American University Presses, the PEN American Center and Arcade Publishing. Meanwhile, a Treasury Department spokeswoman was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying that publishers can still bring dissident writers to American readers as long as they apply for a license.
“Well, that speaks for itself, doesn’t it?” asks Unowsky, who published books by Saudis and Algerians when he was part-owner of Ruminator Press. He points out, as do others appalled by this ruling, that Americans have never needed a government license to publish anything.
Unowsky admits he misses his bookstore every day.
“We’re already not getting the A-list authors that came to Ruminator,” he says. “Publishers knew we knew how to get the audience. They are not going to take that chance with others. A little piece of our culture is gone. I may end up in a bookstore where I can help bring it back.”
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