Made in Eastern Iowa: An Iowa City publisher with a stellar backstory

Twenty years after her induction into the Iowa Women's Hall of Fame, Joan Liffring-Zug Bourret...
Twenty years after her induction into the Iowa Women's Hall of Fame, Joan Liffring-Zug Bourret offers plenty of books through Penfield Books of Iowa City.(KCRG)
Published: Aug. 21, 2016 at 5:41 AM CDT
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Joan Liffring-Zug Bourret has seen so much change in Iowa through her 87 years, often through her eyes or through a camera lens.

She was a pioneer in photography and journalism in the early 1950’s, capturing the sentiment of the times but also the moments of life not often chronicled.

Yet Joan still holds a hand in publishing through

, which she founded nearly four decades ago.

“I wanted to control printing and I have rigidly controlled it, autocratically, ever since,” Liffring-Zug Bourret said amid her company’s latest offerings. Penfield has a strong foothold in ethnic books, often with Iowa or Midwestern heritage. The Penfield website talks about a focus on cookbooks with a slant towards “Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Icelandic, Italian, Irish, Norwegian, Polish, Scottish, Slovak, Swedish and Ukrainian descent”.

Penfield’s books, which are often made to be pocket-sized, are all over, especially in museums and gift shops. Liffring-Zug Bourret said the Amana Colonies are one easy spot to find them.

“We have, approximately, 450 museums, stores, gift shops and others, nationwide, that we sell directly to,” Liffring-Zug Bourret said.

Joan’s life, long before publishing books, was that of a groundbreaker in journalism. A year after graduating from Coe College in Cedar Rapids, she photographed the birth of her first child in 1951, with the images running in the Des Moines Register. In 1957, her pictures and reporting about Dr. Percy Harris, who came to Cedar Rapids but could not find suitable housing for his family due exposed the housing discrimination of the time. In that era, non-whites often could not purchase a home in Cedar Rapids north of Mount Vernon Road.

The awards followed Joan ever since, for her photography but also being a pioneer. Twenty years ago, the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame inducted Joan Liffring-Zug Bourret, a crowning achievement for a person who always kept her eyes open and a camera ready to click.

As she and Penfield Books have shifted through the trends of publishing, the business of finding a proper audience still remains.

“It’s always a challenge to find certain categories as we have ethnic books and we’re always looking for readers interested in your subject matter,” said Deb Schense, author and an associate with Penfield Books. Schense and Liffring-Zug Bourret work together to craft, write, edit and layout each book.

The ideas still come to Deb and Joan for targeting a new market and readership. The latest one for Penfield Books came in the middle of the night. British tea. An idea they are discovering is in demand.

“I should have thought of it earlier,” Liffring-Zug Bourret said with a smile.