The time is 1987. The place: Indianapolis. At several places in the city, there are vibrant, well attended stores which have attractive books on display. A sign outside says Waldenbooks. They are the cornerstones for a business selling best-sellers, classics and children’s books. No coffee bars, no puzzles and quirky games, just books. And customers come in in a steady stream, especially on weekends.
Waldenbooks was a destination for both families and individuals, in this age before Kindles, electronic games, and non-stop kids’ athletic competitions.
And for us at (then) Guild Press, our earlier company name, it was the foundation of a business in regional publishing. Here’s the story. Waldenbooks went back, surprisingly, to 1933 when a man named Lawrence Hoyt began setting up lending libraries in department stores. In a few years Hoyt converted the libraries to bookstores. Stand-alones began for this company in 1961 and spread across the country. The company was named after Henry David Thoreau’s masterpiece of his life by Walden Pond.
Living in the east, I was working on my second book in, I was told, a genre that didn’t exist: the regional historical novel. I was telling the story of my own McClure ancestors, who were among the first to come into Indiana via the Buffalo Trace before the area became a state, 1803. They were Scotch Irish; the story of their migration from northern Ireland into Pennsylvania, Kentucky and into the Hoosier state seemed very interesting to me. I thought others would enjoy reading about it if it could be written into a successful historical novel.
By the time The Movers was finished, we were living in Indiana again and I took the manuscript, almost on impulse to the local Waldenbooks, where the regional manager Roy Thompson, had his office. I had become acquainted with him. Surprisingly, he agreed to read it and here is what he said, “If I had a thousand of these books I could sell them in all the Indiana stores and beyond possibly.”
But how? We simply got the book professionally edited and put it into print. Then we chose a name for the operation: Guild Press. We wished to suggest the old-time quality and care put into publishing by bookmakers of the past.
With impulsive optimism (as I look at it today) we ordered 10,000 books and a bunch of display cases, popular at that time for bookstores. And, indeed Roy and other regional buyers for Waldens did buy the book and promote it. It went on to win a Waldenbooks award: Best historical novel for the mid-Atlantic states in 1989. And so we were off to the races.
For years both Roy and his district manager, Sue Hicks, bought directly our books, taking on almost every Indiana title we put out and displaying them prominently. In those days when people went to bookstores exclusively to buy what they wished to read, the books were popular and well reviewed (we took time to see to that.) I often appeared at Waldenbooks on author visits as well as running an expanding company. Eventually we hired others and my husband Arthur joined the force. Guild Press of Indiana put out over 200 books, some of them prize-winning, and was sold to Emmis Publishing in 2002. Our small residual company, headed by Art Baxter, was left with us and Hawthorne Publishing came into being to take up the torch of legacy publishing for our state.
Roy Thomson worked much too hard, day and night, to make Waldenbooks a continuing success in a market that began to decline. He died suddenly before the chain was absorbed by Border’s, which as we all know, itself closed as a deluge of internet book-buying took over Americans’ reading habits. That vanished civilization still has remnants in a few vibrant bookstores that still play a part in a business dominated by a huge giant named Amazon, online. The recent news that Amazon will try some bricks-and-mortar stores shows the old idea is still alive!
by Senior Editor Nancy Baxter
You can order a signed commemorative copy of Nancy Baxter’s novel The Movers by calling Hawthorne Publishing 317-867-5183.