Life in verse: Danny Rosen creates hub for poetry, books, culture in Fruita
“Poetry books are a hard sell.” So says poet, teacher, scientist and business owner Danny Rosen, and he would know.
He has been selling, or at least supplying, poetry books at his Fruita-based bookstore and gallery Lithic Press for the past two years.
The store, it turns out, is a bit of a serendipitous accident.
Rosen didn’t intend to open a bookstore in 2015. He was looking for an office space for his growing bookpress business, which he started in 2007.
But when he toured the old building at 138 S. Park Square in Fruita — he admired its high ceilings, tall windows and open rafters — he had an inkling.
“I came in here and thought, ‘This kind of looks like a bookstore,’ ” Rosen said.
Unassuming from the outside — a few yellow Lithic Press signs direct customers inside and up the main staircase, and then to the bookstore’s door — the inside of Rosen’s shop is striking and wondrous.
Rocks hang from the ceiling by wires, beaver-cut sticks decorate a reading stage on the far wall and bright, unusual paintings and ceramics by local artists dot the wall space and the tops of dark Mennonite-built bookshelves.
The children’s corner has a huge spider hanging from the wall, and globes and planets hang from the ceiling.
Although he initially planned to sell exclusively poetry and science books featuring authors printed by his own press, many of them local, and others he admired, his store quickly evolved to include a variety of books selected by his own passions and his customers’ desires. And so there are books on local history and regional natural history, literary fiction, science fiction and an off-the-beaten-path plethora of kids’ books about poetry and science.
It’s an eclecticism that mirrors the nature of the bookstore’s 59-year-old owner, a Philadelphia native who came west in 1979 because he wanted to go rock climbing.
FROM ROCKS TO STARS
Rosen, who is tall and lithe and whose movements still carry the smooth, careful agility of a climber, spent eight years after high school climbing recreationally and working with the National Park Service at Devil’s Tower in Wyoming before he was inspired to study geology at college.
“Climbing was one of the most important things in my life,” Rosen said. “I wanted to know about the rocks that I was climbing.”
He graduated from the University of Wyoming with a bachelor’s degree and worked for several years as a geologist for oil companies all over the West.
And then he felt the itch to evolve.
He thought he’d like to be a teacher, so he went back east for short stint to gather up a master’s degree in science education at Harvard University. It was a life-directing experience for Rosen. He chatted with biologist and naturalist E.O. Wilson and audited lectures by paleontologist and biologist Stephen Jay Gould, both world-renowned thinkers.
Most importantly, however, Rosen took an astronomy class taught by a professor who had invented a small inflatable, portable planetarium.
Rosen couldn’t know it at the time, but the portable planetarium would shape many years of his life.
Eventually, Rosen would spend about 18 years as an independent teacher, taking his own portable planetarium to various schools, colleges and camps across the Western Slope for on-site astronomy lessons.
But first, after Harvard he took a job as an eighth-grade math-and-science teacher at Grand Junction’s East Middle School, where he found the traditional classroom setting both constrictive and restrictive.
He left after a year and began his planetarium work, which provided a teaching environment he much favored to the classroom.
“The setting in a planetarium is pretty magical,” Rosen said. “Everyone loves to look at the stars.”
Beyond the simple joys of teaching in a planetarium, Rosen found the work meaningful.
“I could teach some people some things that I think could affect them for the rest of their lives,” he said. “How do we fit into the universe?”
He estimates that over the years he has taught about 60,000 students of all ages in his planetarium, which he still has stored away somewhere, he said.
While Rosen was satisfied with and successful at his planetarium work, as his life developed in the Grand Valley, he was called in a different direction.
FROM STARS TO POETRY
Rosen grew up with poetry. His dad, who Rosen calls the “family poet,” wrote poems for any and all special occasions, and Rosen began writing poems himself in his early 30s.
In the 1990s, Rosen met a Fruita poet named Jim Tipton and became more involved with poetry, attending poetry readings and festivals and coming to know more poets.
In 2003, Rosen met Jack Mueller, who had been a mainstay on the San Francisco beat poetry scene in the ‘70s and ‘80s before moving to a family home in Ridgway. Like the professor with the portable planetarium, Mueller’s entrance into Rosen’s life was deeply directive.
Rosen was taken by Mueller, who acted as a friend and supportive mentor.
“A lot of people call themselves poets, but I’ve known very few poets in my life. And he was a poet,” Rosen said. “He was a constant maker.”
Rosen started printing books in order to publish some of what Mueller was creating. Mueller’s home was filled with boxes of note cards and bar napkins covered in creative drawings and sayings, Rosen said.
“He had these things falling off his dining room table, and I said, ‘Hey, we should put some of these things together and make a book,’” Rosen said. “And that was the beginning of Lithic Press.”
Rosen was still doing his planetarium work then, but as the press got going, he put the stars away or funneled them into books.
“This is my classroom now,” Rosen said, looking at the poetry books, science books, natural history books and diverse pieces of art in his store. “This is the culmination of everything I’ve done.”
FROM POETRY TO STORE
Rosen’s store has become well-known for the events held on its beaver-stick stage. There are film screenings, readings and book launches for authors across the West, providing a literary hub in an unexpected place.
“Danny’s really created a space for poetry,” said Jennifer Hancock, a poet and professor at Colorado Mesa University and a friend of Rosen’s who has been published by Lithic Press.
Hancock moved to Grand Junction about 10 years ago after living in larger, more poetry-rich cities, and she feels Lithic has “tremendous value” in the local community.
“You can’t underestimate what it means to have access here — to not think, ‘Gosh, I have to go all the way to Denver or Salt Lake for a good reading,’ ” she said.
Hancock said fellow poets from the Front Range or elsewhere in Colorado will travel to Lithic for a reading and be agog at the store. “They all say, ‘This is the coolest place ever! Do you guys realize how lucky you are?’”
The luck will continue for local literati and poets next week, when Rosen and Lithic Press put on the Jack Mueller Poetry Festival, a three-day festival in Fruita celebrating the two-year anniversary of the bookstore and the life of Mueller, who died of cancer in April in Rosen’s home.
The festival will feature literary and artistic symposiums, discussions, plays and open readings as well as special readings by some of Mueller’s friends and colleagues.
“Jack was a promoter of poetry,” Rosen said.
Mueller set up readings and festivals and worked to advance poets of all stripes, Rosen said.
But Mueller was more than that to Rosen.
“He was my best friend for 10 years,” Rosen said. “I looked to him for advice on everything.”
He would ask Mueller “silly” questions about what sort of readings to hold at the store and what kinds of books to carry.
Mueller would reply, “Everyone is welcome.”
It was this maxim that has driven the upcoming festival’s diverse poetics. “I wish I could ask him more silly questions,” Rosen said.
AND DAYS TO COME
“Poetry has been in my life all along,” said Rosen, who describes his evolution from geologist to teacher to poet to book printer to bookseller as an organic emergence.
At Lithic Press, Mueller’s works of poetry and art are featured prominently alongside shelves and shelves of new and used books by other poets. Hancock thinks Rosen probably has one of the best poetry collections in the country.
However, it is often quiet among the stacks at Lithic. Rosen isn’t worried about its future.
Despite the trouble with selling poetry, Rosen said business has been good, and it is “getting better each year.”
“If all goes well, I’ll stay here ‘til I die,” Rosen said.