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In Print: the book with the reinforced toe

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Bridget Brown doesn't have strong feelings about panty hose. But a few years ago the title "A History of Panty Hose in America" popped into her head and wouldn't leave. "I guess I thought it had potential," says the Madison-based graphic designer and fiction writer. "A lot of my stuff comes from the title or a first line that I wasn't able to let go of until I followed it to its absurd outcome."

In this case, the title led Brown to put an ad in Poets & Writers in 1997 soliciting short-short stories and essays on hosiery, which led to the publication of The History of Panty Hose in America in June of last year. She designed the book to look like a package of upscale panty hose, complete with a notch at the top and a sizing grid on the back; the stories are printed on thin pieces of cardboard inside. Most deal with the nylons issue by focusing on the women who wear them.

Though Brown decided not to include any of her own work in the collection, she's been publishing clever stories about women stuck in menial office jobs on postcards and note cards under her Espresso Press imprint since 1993. She suspects that her many years as a temp not only affected what she wrote about but also her works' length. "When I get time to write, I can write it all in one burst and revise it, rather than picking up a story line and getting back in again."

Brown first attracted notice seven years ago with her "God Wants to Know" postcard survey, which among other quality-management-type questions asked "How did you first find out about God?" and gave five answers to choose from: newspaper, television, word of mouth, Divine Inspiration, other. Two years later it was distributed via E-mail and posted all over the Internet without her knowledge or consent. A version of it was even read on the public radio show Car Talk--all without attribution.

"It's so easy to copy this stuff, and so easy to change it," she says. "It was amazing how differently people were reading it; it'd be on Jewish Web sites, the Catholic Information Network Web site, and on the atheist Web site.

"I was really flattered in one way, and really fumed in another, because my name was never on it....Authors struggle enough to get their work read, at least you can put their name on it."

These days Brown works as a desktop publisher and moonlights at a feminist bookstore, where she sees firsthand how customers react to Panty Hose's unique design. "Most women see it and say, 'Oh, I hate panty hose.' But I've been getting a pretty good response." Unfortunately her book has special marketing requirements. "It really doesn't have a spine, so I have to rely on a face-out position, which publishers really fight for and you're lucky to get."

There are no contributors from Chicago in the book, which is available at Quimby's and Women & Children First, so Brown and some local friends have lined up a group of area thespians to read the stories. "I think it would be fun to see them performed," says Brown, who'll be at the reading. "Also I didn't think I could convince many of the authors to come out to the midwest in January." Especially if they had to wear panty hose.

Mary McCain, Colleen McHugh, Miriam Plotkin, Ali Davis, and Shelly Gossman will perform dramatic readings from The History of Panty Hose in America Tuesday at 7:30 at Women & Children First, 5233 N. Clark (773-769-9299). It's free.

--Cara Jepsen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eric Tadsen.

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