By Mary Ann Grossmann
Kay Sexton, a former vice president of B. Dalton Bookseller whose reading recommendations were nationally influential, died Friday, October 17, at her home in Arden Hills. She was 91 and had been in declining health for several years, according to her niece, Leslie Walters.
Sexton, who never married but mentored many young booksellers and writers, was honored by The Friends of the St. Paul Public Library in 1988 when they established the Kay Sexton Award for outstanding contributions to the Minnesota literary community. The award, which has been given to publishers, authors and librarians, is presented at the annual Minnesota Book Awards gala each spring.
“Kay was sharp. She always knew when a title was going to be great before anyone else in the country,” said Norton Stillman, one of Sexton’s oldest friends. They met in the early 1960s when she was selling books at St. Paul department stores.
Stillman, publisher of Nodin Press and former co-owner of the Bookmen book distributorship in Minneapolis, recalled Sexton contacted him late one afternoon at the Bookmen when she was managing B. Dalton’s flagship store in Southdale.
“She asked me to drop off copies of ‘Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex’ because she knew it was going to be a big seller,” Stillman recalled. “When she was managing the Southdale store, everybody called it ‘Kay’s store’ because she knew what she wanted to do and didn’t pay attention to the buyers. I think that’s why they made her a vice president and put her at headquarters.”
Sexton’s uncanny ability to pick winning books showed in her weekly in-house newsletter, officially known as Hooked on Books but affectionately referred to in the bookselling world as “the green sheet.” This publication, featuring Sexton’s thoughts on what books would appeal to middle America, became the bible of the publishing industry.David Unowksy, a Sexton Award-winner and former owner of the Hungry Mind/Ruminator Books, called Sexton “the person who made B. Dalton the dominant bookseller in America for 15 years. They were the first to bring authors to the Twin Cities in the days when touring authors only went to the coasts and Chicago. She was the driving force behind that. Her office in West Bloomington was the place major people in the industry went to bow down.”
Besides sending out the green sheet, Sexton was a local celebrity because of her weekly television show, “Hooked on Books.”
Marly Rusoff, a Sexton Award-winner who owned the Dinkytown bookstore where the Loft literary center began, was a young sales rep when “going to see Kay was the highlight of the season for me.”
Rusoff, a former vice president of several New York publishing houses, is a New York literary agent and publisher.
“Kay made New York publishers sit up and take notice of ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ when nobody was paying any attention,” Rusoff recalled of St. Paulite Robert Pirsig’s book. “Kay was first of all a passionate reader, the best in town with a keen sense of what people would be interested in.”
Everyone who came in contact with Sexton applauds her role as a mentor. Her family recalls that her bookcase-lined office held “the couch” where everyone from secretaries to book buyers and CEOs would come by to pour out their hearts or ask for advice. Her straightforward advice: Know your values, be true to your beliefs, and follow your passion.
Sexton’s three nephews and six nieces also benefited from their aunt’s wisdom.
“Kay was the go-to person when any of us had angst or needed a sounding board,” said Mary Sexton, oldest of the cousins and Kay Sexton’s goddaughter. “We were all kind of terrified of her because she said what she thought, and it wasn’t always exactly what we wanted to hear. She had strong opinions and you did not cross that.”
Mary Sexton, who worked at Odegard Books in St. Paul and was a publisher’s sales rep and bookseller in New York, said she never saw her aunt angry, although she could get irritated.
When Mary Sexton was a young woman, she had no idea of her aunt’s importance until she was in college and walked into a B. Dalton bookstore in New Orleans.
“There was Kay’s picture hanging on the wall,” Mary Sexton recalled. “I knew she was a big deal because she’d send me the green sheet. But I didn’t make the connection until, oh my gosh, I saw her picture.”
After Kay Sexton retired, she helped create the Minnesota Center for Book Arts and served on the board of Minneapolis-based Graywolf Press. She was legally blind in her last years, but her spirit stayed strong as she welcomed visitors to her luncheon table.
Funeral plans are pending.
Mary Ann Grossmann can be reached at 651-228-5574.