Reflections on the 20th Anniversary
Volume 21/Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2001)
We Were Young and Restless. We Liked to Read Books.
And We Thought We Had a Good Idea.
by Tom Auer
In the late 1970s, I was a student at the University of Denver, studying mass communications, editing the undergraduate newspaper, and working part-time at a new bookstore that had just opened across the street from campus in southeast Denver, Bloomsbury Books & Pool.
This was no ordinary bookstore. A young married couple had bought a neighborhood pool hall, a place I had frequented over many years of growing up near there; they moved out a couple of pool tables and put in a few sets of bookshelves. Their idea was to eventually convert the store entirely to books, using the revenues from pool, pinball machines, a jukebox, and a candy machine to help grow their book business, a clever idea much to my liking. The day that “& Pool” was dropped from the name of the store would come years later, but for the present it offered me a unique opportunity. Because it was a pool hall in a university neighborhood, it was open until midnight—a great evening job, as it turns out, for a full-time student looking for part-time work. Not only could I work with books and brush up on my pool game, but I would be paid for it. Unfortunately, my skills on the green felt, along with Bloomsbury Books, are now history. But I’m getting ahead of the story.
Over the course of the next two years, we published a quarterly promotional newsletter for the bookstore called The Bloomsbury Review. It was named after the bookstore that was named after a coterie of writers and artists who lived in London at the turn of the 20th century who encouraged critical thinking about art and culture. They included Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Duncan Grant, and others, who became known as the Bloomsbury Group, named after the section of London near the University of London where they lived. Over time, our newsletter took on a life of its own, becoming less promotional for the store and more of a small magazine devoted to reviewing good books and writers we thought deserved some attention.At that time, now the early 1980s, there were few decent publications about books. Most newspapers had either little or lousy book coverage, and the few general-interest magazines that made room for book reviews tended to cover the same bestselling titles and big-name authors. Then, as now I suppose, the most coveted book review attention was focused on the two primary national book review publications based in New York City—The New York Times Book Review, a weekly books supplement, and The New York Review of Books (which was founded when The New York Times went on strike), important publications to be sure, serving an established market of avid book readers on the East Coast. But they tended to neglect books by western writers, small presses, university presses, regional publishers, first novels, poetry, and other titles that wouldn’t be promoted much with advertising in their pages. Most of the U.S. was on the wrong side of the Hudson River, it seemed. There was our niche, we thought. Cover “the best of the rest,” highlight those books left out of the major review media. It didn’t make any business sense, but we liked the idea anyway and decided to have a crack at it.
Without going into the gory details (you’ll have to await my grisly memoirs for that), over the next several years a few idealistic and hardworking publishing novices (including me and my sister Marilyn) undertook the publication of a serious book magazine for the Rocky Mountain West. Some called us too ambitious, some called us naïve, and the consultants we spoke to said we could spend hundreds of thousands of dollars before we ever made a nickel. So Plan A became: Try to raise that kind of money. When Plan A didn’t work, we resorted to Plan B: Do it anyway.
For most of the first decade we worked out of the two-story rowhouse in what was then a bad neighborhood, where Steve Lester (our founding art director and V.P.) and I lived. All of us, including Marilyn, worked at other publications to pay our bills and learn more about publishing. Eventually the business took over our humble abode. For too many years, Steve Lester had a small mattress in what became our art department (the front upstairs bedroom), and I slept on the couch in my office (the back bedroom). We kept our expenses low, we recruited volunteers, and we found little bits of capital along the way, mostly from friends and family, many of whom pinched in one way or another to keep the magazine going for 20 years, despite tremendous odds against publishing efforts like ours surviving more than an issue or two.
Over the years we have grown out of the Rocky Mountain region in a way, although we still provide extended coverage of books and writers from the West and maintain our western ideals, including a love for land and nature, a willingness to take on great challenges, and a certain openness to trying out new ideas, like reviewing poetry and first novels.
Along the way, several other good books publications came along—Hungry Mind Review (now Ruminator Review) and the Boston Books Review, to name two—and a few died quiet, unfortunate deaths, including the San Francisco Review of Books. The Small Press Review was available before we were, and continues to provide a much-needed look at small press titles.
Our road has been a rocky one, to put it mildly, but along the way we have found tremendous support from regional and university presses who advertise in our pages, and bookstores and libraries that carry our magazine. Important writers—such as Edward Abbey, Harlan Ellison, John Nichols, Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés, and many others who believed in our cause—have written for us, and in some cases, helped us raise funds to continue our fledgling publishing efforts. Many talented writers, editors, photographers, and illustrators have made significant contributions to our pages for little or no pay. With lots of help from these people we have managed to grow into a nationally known publication that reaches more than 100,000 readers and is available in hundreds of bookstores and libraries throughout the United States and Canada and several foreign countries. I would like to think we have helped many young writers establish themselves in the book and magazine world. I know that many libraries and bookstores purchase books based on our reviews and interviews and we have helped get many titles adopted into university classes because of reviews we have published. I like to think we have added a unique voice to the world of book review media and have helped to establish the West as a viable place for writers and publishers to produce good and important work and have readers know about it.
This issue marks our 21st year of publication. In our first 20 years, we produced more than 130 issues, reviewed thousands of books, interviewed hundreds of little-known writers [Back Issues] (at least at the time), and although our format has evolved a bit over the course of our history, our editorial goals have not changed a whit: to publish a magazine about books that are important but not necessarily destined for the best-seller list, by good and sometimes young writers who deserve attention. We make exceptions, of course, and occasionally interview a well-known author if we think we can cover some new ground with her or him.
In some ways the publishing world has changed significantly over these past 20 years, and in some ways it has not. In our early years we bemoaned the fact that chain stores (who could buy large quantities of books at better discounts than many of their competitors) were pushing out the independent bookstores that could not always afford to buy in volume. That battle has remained constant and many fine independent bookstores have closed their doors for good as a result. We regretted that a handful of giant media companies owned a large percentage of the East Coast publishing houses. That handful has gotten progressively smaller in recent years. Five huge conglomerates (which also have other significant media holdings, like television, film, and magazines) now generate more than 80 percent of the book sales in this country. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
To their credit, some of the largest companies publish some of our finest books and authors. They also publish more books than they know what to do with. If there is even a whisper of a perceived market, there will be a rush to fill it—publishing is, after all, a business—including biographies of teenage television actresses and millionaire rock-and-rollers, copycat versions of last year’s best sellers, celebrity books (generally written by noncelebrities), and plenty of other books that are just plain bad ideas. As was the case when we started our magazine, small and university presses continue to produce some of the finest writing available for readers around the country.
Today the Internet, still in its infancy as a commercial medium, has already changed the way many people purchase books, which will continue to have an impact on brick-and-mortar bookstores. If you have a favorite local bookstore, you would be wise to patronize it for it might not be there tomorrow or next week.
So, what have we learned in these 20 years? We have learned that publishing is not all glamour; we know that you can pigeonhole book publishers—small presses and large are both capable of wonderful books and regrettable trash. We have confirmed our original ideals, that one of the best ways to learn about yourself and the world around you is to read books, whether they are cloth-bound, perfect-bound, on computer disc, or downloaded from the far reaches of cyberspace. We also know that unless we all continue to encourage reading as an important and valuable skill and a rewarding pastime, future generations will grow up not knowing enough about their community, their world, or themselves.
On a more personal note:
The past couple of years have presented me with some personal challenges. After a long and difficult illness, my life partner of many years, Caryl Riedel, passed away in February 1999, leaving a big hole in my life. A few months later, I discovered I had a malignant skin cancer. In the fall of 1999, after surgery to remove the melanoma and the discovery that the cancer had spread to some of my lymph nodes, I began a grueling, yearlong course of treatment with Interferon, a highly condensed protein that tries to boost your immune system in order to “interfere” with the spread of cancer. Its side effects—like chemotherapy, but milder—are nausea, fatigue, chills, head and muscle aches, and loss of appetite, to name a few. It was like having a severe flu for a year, with a few stretches along the way that were much worse than that. I have only recently completed this treatment—160-some injections later—and the overall prognosis is encouraging. I am almost back to my cranky old self.
But for the better part of the past two years or more, my energies and concentration have been greatly diminished. Without the help of many people, including my parents, brothers and sisters, and numerous friends, supporters, and interns—far too many to name here—it would have been much tougher to get through these recent difficult years. The magazine might not have survived either, without the extraordinary efforts of my sister and business partner Marilyn Auer, assistant editor Cindy Nelson, associate editor Lori Kranz, assistant Geno Ricciardi, and art director Chuck McCoy, who all made tremendous efforts and personal sacrifices over many months to get the magazine out while I was either unavailable or available but too ill to participate. I owe them all, and many others, a colossal debt. Thank you all so much.