An lllinoisan Leaves
Independent publishing loses a champion
February 23, 1989
I wrote about bookseller Richard Bray for the Reader (“Books matter. People care. Change is possible,” a piece that can be read here). This column for Illinois Times is that piece recast as a rumination on literature in Illinois, specifically on independent publishers of the sort that Bray championed and the bookstores that sustain them.
Lousy title–mine this time.
Richard Bray is leaving Illinois. The governor [James Thompson] is unlikely to appoint a task force of DCCA whiz-kids to devise an incentives package that might entice him to stay, however, because Bray is not the governor's sort of entrepreneur. Bray sells books, or as he prefers to say, ideas; the governor has cooked a book or two in his years as chief budget-maker for the state, but he don't read many.
For the last ten years Bray has been the proprietor of Guild Books on Chicago's North Side. The store is a kind of hobby shop for leftist causemeisters, and makes available to shoppers works by and about people from all kinds of outcast subcultures, from blacks and women to Latin Americans and political radicals.
And Downstate Illinois. Guild is the kind of store where one can buy the works of both Uruguayan Eduardo Galeano and Auburnian John Knoepfle. Bray does not share native Chicagoans' contempt for the life that begins where the Stevenson Expressway ends, although he once shared their ignorance of it. Three years on an advisory committee of the Illinois Arts Council, however, alerted him to the astonishing fact that they grow poets as well as corn Downstate. He discovered that firms such as Peoria's Spoon River Poetry Press (which is publishing the complete works of Vachel Lindsay) were doing essential work in documenting, collecting, and promoting Illinois writing; others, such as Urbana's Stormline Press, were setting high standards in the publication of new verse.
Bray became a literary ecumenist. He had grown up in California and thus was not instructed in the peculiar literary geography that describes Illinois as a subdivision of Chicago. He preached the need for brotherhood among the believers. He promoted the works of Downstate writers and the products of Downstate presses; he invited writers to his store to do readings and to sign books; at committee meetings he urged that state arts money be spent, as well as collected, Downstate.
Much of Illinois' literature is published by smaller commercial and not-for-profit presses. The University of Illinois Press, for example, has added to its already useful line of regional histories and short fiction works two new series. One, "Visions of Illinois," includes photo collections such as Larry Kanfer's popular Prairiescapes and the upcoming Chicago and Downstate, an album of Farm Security Administration photos from 1936-43. The other series is Prairie Books, library-quality paperback reprints of ignored works of merit. As Bray told me recently, 'That's fantastic. They're looking for old labor novels, black history, stuff that never should have gone out of print in the first place."
Putting neglected works into print and getting them into bookstores are two very different processes. "The distribution system is antiquated and based on profit," Bray complains. Publishers who ship in small lots find it uneconomical to distribute their books to retailers through the big commercial wholesalers. (The U of I distributes its books through Cornell University Press in Ithaca, New York.) Neither can they afford to put their own salespeople in the field to promote their titles person-to-person with retailers; U.S. bookstore managers do not blush to sell books they haven't read, but even they will not stock a book they haven't even heard about.
As a result the books of the Champaign-based University of Illinois Press were impossible to find in bookstores in Springfield, a mere eighty-five miles away. A parallel distribution and marketing system that specialized in the books of noncommercial and not-quite-commercial presses would offer a variety of efficiencies, from warehousing and ordering to sales promotion. Bray had helped set up such a system to market literary reviews or 'little magazines" when he was vice-chairman of the New York-based Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines, and saw no reason why it wouldn't work for book publishers too.
Bray put the idea to the Illinois Arts Council, which responded with enough money to set up the not-for-profit Illinois Literary Publishing Association. By last summer the ILPA had sales reps on the road (part-timers, working for commissions) in all fifty states, and by last fall it had added its first full-time staffer at its Oak Park warehouse and office site.
This year Lee Webster, ILPA director, hopes to double 1988 sales of $60,000; ditto its present 280 store accounts. Because of the ILPA, books bearing such exotic imprints as "Peoria, Illinois" can now be dependably found in places as remote as Los Angeles, where the natives are likely to mixture of puzzlement and wonder that us'ns feel when we stumble upon a stone Indian ax head in a field.
Bray also was a ring leader of the Illinois Secretary of State's Read Illinois program. In addition to securing the librarian vote for Jim Edgar in 1990, Read Illinois has a larger purpose, which is to promote Illinois authors, living and dead. The program in its early years attracted mainly public librarians; as a board member, Bray was one of the people who urged a wider focus which encompassed writers, booksellers, and publishers as well as librarians, indeed the entire literate culture of the state. "It should be a massive event," he gushes with typical enthusiasm. (This year's conference is scheduled for Macomb, where the only previous massive events have been outbreaks of corn blight.)
Presumably Bray will not be in attendance at the next Read Illinois conference. He will be applying his energies to a more formidable agenda; as the first-ever director of the LA-based chapter of P.E.N. International (a writers' organization dedicated to defending freedom of thought and expression) he will be worrying not about how to get illiterates to read an author but how to keep them from " murdering him. A certain number of Chicagoans will miss him, of course, as will some of the Downstaters who got to know him. He will be missed most of all, however, by Illinoisans. ●