Quatrefoil Library — a unique community


Even if you know where to look, it may be a little hard to find the first time. Now at 1220 E. Lake St., the Quatrefoil Library is in its third location (fourth if you count the closet), cozily inhabiting the ground floor commercial suite at the fairly new Spirit on Lake affordable housing building.
I visited the library in March and toured the impressive collection. Only in the last two years has the catalog been digitalized and the holdings labeled with bar codes. An all-volunteer workforce staffs the library, as well as doing fundraising, events, website and social media maintenance, acquisitions, and all the other tasks involved in running a nonprofit library. I talked to Scott Breyfogle, president of the board of directors for the past six years, and instrumental in shepherding it through explosive growth, digital upgrading, and ultimately, moving to East Lake Street.
Quatrefoil’s history—yes, it started in the closet. Not that it was hiding, it was just the best storage place for what was originally a private library belonging to the late David Irwin and his partner, Dick Hewetson. (Hewetson moved to California some years ago but remains involved. A large portrait of the two men hangs in the library.) Even from the first, they had a dream of a gay-themed subscription lending library. The unofficial founding of Quatrefoil happened at a brunch, attended by Dave and Dick, two other men, and a lesbian couple, in 1983. Incorporation as a nonprofit followed shortly after. The collection was still housed in Dick and Dave’s home, although it was now in the bedroom. (There is more information available in an e-book on the history of the library, available free at the library’s website.)
The dream was truly realized when they were invited to open to the public in the new Minnesota Civil Liberties Union building on West Broadway Avenue, in February 1986, at the invitation of Mathew Stark, then executive director of MCLU. The first issue of Quatrefolio, the library’s newsletter, came out in May 1986. It was reported that the library had a small branch in Eden Prairie, and had over 2,000 books and 300 periodicals in its main site, which had recently expanded to 720 square feet. It had 61 members and 19 volunteers, and was about to host a grand opening with special guest Quentin Crisp.
Not much later, Quatrefoil outgrew its first commercial home as well. By then possessing over 4,000 books, the library moved in June 1987 to the recently remodeled Gordon School on Dayton Avenue in Saint Paul. There it flourished for 25 years, growing its collection to about 14,000 books and moving to ever larger spaces in the building until it was bursting and looking  for a larger home. And that’s where Spirit on Lake enters the picture.
Planning began for a senior residence for gay, lesbian and queer elders in the early 2000s. GLBT Generations, mostly members of Spirit of the Lakes Church (which merged in the mid-2000s with a larger UCC congregation to become Living Table UCC) began the discussions, and reached out to Powderhorn Resident’s Group (PRG) for partnership on the project. The project was originally conceived as a mixed-income housing cooperative, but the collapse of the housing market in 2008 meant that many prospective members suddenly didn’t have the needed equity. Going back to the drawing board, PRG brought in Everwood Development and changed the project to building an affordable rent complex.
This meant they could not restrict tenants to either gay or elderly, but they could market to them. The project has been an enormous success. Fully occupied, the complex consists of about three-quarters LBGTQ-identified and ranging in age from early 50s up. Most of the other tenants are elder immigrants such as Somalis, reflecting the demographics of the neighborhood. Relations between gay and non-gay are cordial and problems have been almost nonexistent.
Quatrefoil did not decide to move lightly, despite being chosen from the first as the most desired anchor tenant. The cost was too high but was negotiated down. Many other compromises were hammered out, and the size of the collection was pared down through donations to other libraries. Finally, the lease was signed and a grand opening announced with great fanfare in November 2013. The move was a huge undertaking, but the consensus is that it was worth it.
Quatrefoil Library today has a sunny and welcoming space. Its collection includes everything from pulp science fiction to splendid art books to children’s literature, from gay erotica in both video and book form to theology and philosophy and history. Touring the stacks, I had a timewarp rush seeing a full shelf of the radical feminist off our backs (oob) journal. I didn’t have time to linger over the shelves holding exactly what I need to read to fill in some gaps. The library is open 7 to 9 p.m. weekday evenings, and Saturdays and Sundays. It  hosts several reading groups, sharing the community room with Spirit on Lake, and there are author events, some in the library, or hosted elsewhere if a larger space is needed. Also, there are used book sales several times a year, including one at Gay Pride. For anyone interested in GLBTQ life, or literature, or both, this is an incredible community resource that you owe to yourself to explore and use.


  1. Two, actually. Quatrefoil and Tretter


  2. We have not one Gay library but two:


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