Interview: Norton Stillman, Fifty-four Years In Publishing And Counting

Norton Stillman has been a keystone of the book business in Minnesota for fifty-four years. In 1962 he started The Bookmen with his cousin Ned Waldman. The Bookmen became the major book wholesaler in the Upper Midwest, as well as supplying customers nationally. Later Norton became publisher of Nodin Press, and started a bookstore, Micawber’s. Several years past his 80th birthday he continues to publish books, maintaining an office within the Bookmobile space and using our Itasca Books distribution service. In 1995 he won the Kay Sexton Award from the Friends of the St. Paul Public Library. This week Norton is being honored with the Pat Bell Award from the Midwest Independent Publishing Association. Here’s the story in Norton’s own words.

Don: Norton, how did you get into the book business?

Norton: Oh, that’s kind of an interesting story. Our family was in the food business, and it started with my grandfather. I went in after college—I always worked through high school in the grocery store, stocking, and doing other things. But when I went to work there after college, I was an office manager and I was a non-food buyer. I bought health and beauty aids, and books, and when they sold out, five years afterwards, I knew a lot of people in the grocery business. I had been buying from Wonder Books—which was the same as Gross and Dunlap, and Bantam Books; Affiliated Publishers was Simon and Schuster and Pocket Books. And so if you had those two lines, they were the main ones at that time. And so because of that contact we were able to buy from them, even though Gopher News was very strong. Our uncle gave us space in the food warehouse, which was the Rock Island Building, right where the Metrodome was. We had a little room there, and we started small.

D: Who’s “we”?

N: My brother–cousin actually—Ned Waldman. In the beginning he was doing more of the sales, and I was kind of doing the bookkeeping and taking care of the stock. Somehow it switched where he was the one inside and I was the one outside. At the beginning I was very nervous about selling, but I got used to it.

D: So who were you calling on?

N: At the beginning we put books in grocery stores, and little five and dimes. We would come in—I had an old 60s Chevrolet, it had a big trunk and I put all the books in there—I’d go and fill the rack from the car.

D: Now what territory were you in?

N: Right around the Twin Cities. When we started out I was about 27. Then it kept on going where we got into Target… who started the same year we did, but we didn’t have them. They were being serviced by a company in Chicago, Levy, who really didn’t stock it for them at all, so they were just kind of sitting there, the books. In Roseville, which was their number one store, they experimented with us, and we were able to see if we did better than Levy, and we did. So they took us on. I remember there was a man, he was kind of rough but he was okay–Hal Gitkind–he was the only buyer for Target for everything.

D: For everything?

N: Yeah, at that time, they had just started. And we wanted to impress him, that we had more books than we did, so we stayed up all night and built another stock room. Most of the boxes were empty above [laughs], and we made it look like we had more books than we did.

D: This was at the Rock Island Building?

N: Yeah, right. But he took us. And the next one was Shopper City. We went there and they were serviced by a company, maybe Levy too, they weren’t doing a good job. So we were there on Friday, and he says, “you can have the account on Monday” [laughs] so we were excited about that…You know, at that time the book business was growing. There weren’t any distributors before, and there were getting to be more bookstores all the time. I remember at that time the book business was so small…we were always having parties every week. It was a close-knit group at that time. It was fun, yeah.

D: Target’s grown a little bit since then.

N: Yeah, right. At that time, we serviced the whole United States. I remember one March they had bought Ireland Stores and I was gone the whole month of March, setting up new Target stores around the country. And it was the year I saw spring so many times—you know, I went to Dallas and it was just starting there, and then I went to Oklahoma, and then to Colorado, and I kept following spring until I got home, because spring was just coming on here about the beginning of April, like it is now.

And then we got into the library business. At the end it was about a third library, a third Target, and a third bookstores. So it was proportioned. The business became where everyone wanted big discounts. We couldn’t afford to do that anymore, so that’s why we sold to Ingram in 2003.

In 1967, I started publishing. We started Bookmen in ’62, ’67 I started publishing, ’72 I started Micawber’s.

D: So how did you start publishing? How did you kick that off?

N: I saw that we were a distributor, and I saw that if we published a book we could get it distributed because we were the distributor. One of the first books I had, I think, was Boundary Waters, by Jerry Stebbins. Probably the very first was 25 Minnesota Poets, and then 25 Minnesota Writers. I did those with the public schools. Cy Yesner was the director of the program, and somehow I’d met him with different people, and that’s how I got to know all the different poets that I know. Their pictures are in the books. It’s kind of interesting to look at them now.

D: Yeah, I remember that book well. So were you publishing as Nodin in 1967?

N: I bought it from Gerry Vizenor in ’67. He had written some haiku books and that was one of the first I published too.

D: So tell us a little about Gerry Vizenor.

N: He was, still is, a writer, a Native American, and French. He named it Nodin Press because Nodin means “wind” in the Anishinabe language…He didn’t really like the business part and distributing, he liked writing. So he said, “Why don’t you sell all my books for me as I write them, and you can buy the press?” I think it was maybe a thousand dollars. And so I’ve been doing that since. At the beginning I didn’t publish that many titles, you know, maybe one, two a year in the beginning.

D: Yeah. One thing I wanted to jump back to is the name of your wholesaling business.

N: First, it was Leisure Time Products when we started out…we had a symbol of 3 o’clock when kids were getting out of school. And then we changed it to the Bookmen, because Bookman is our family name. [My mother was] Mildred Bookman, [Ned’s] was Bailey Bookman. Ned and I were first cousins. So we thought that we better keep up the family name as there was nobody carrying it on. There were all daughters in the family.

D: Right, right. It was a perfect name for a book business! I understand you got some heat for that name.

N: Oh, right, well we did. When the women’s lib started they said, “why didn’t you call it Book People or Book something else?” But we said it was our family name and that’s why we’re doing it, and then they understood. I remember that.

D: You mentioned Micawber’s…

N: Right. In ’72 I started Micawber’s, because we were in this produce warehouse, and someone like Mrs. McQueen from Dayton’s would call, and she would say, “Why don’t you send me an apple with my order?” So we decided, it was the end of the holiday season, we would get these assorted apples and oranges, and I’d go around, sometimes Ned would go with me too, to some of the accounts and we would give them out, and visit every customer. It took about a week [laughs], visiting them, you know. But…I was going by Como Avenue, and I saw this “For Rent” sign in St. Anthony Park. And I thought, that’s kind of an English area, and named it Micawber’s, because Micawber was always doing things, hoping his ship would come in, which was somewhat like me [laughs].

D: Like a lot of us in the book business!

N: Yeah, right, that’s true. It’s that way today, too.

D: So Micawber’s, just to be clear, is a bookstore, which is still going.

N: Yeah, they just moved, I guess. It’s in the same area but I guess they moved down in the courtyard. I sold it to Tom Bielenberg. I sold it in 2003, soon after we sold Bookmen.

D: Okay, and you’re still running Nodin, still publishing books.

N: Right. I decided just to stay in publishing. I guess it’s always been so important to me that the friends I’ve made in the publishing business are worth their weight in gold. I mean I haven’t made much money in the book business, a lot of years I’ve lost, but I’ve gained a lot in friends. Like the other day, when you came in, Dave Nimmer was here. I published two of his books, and we met Jim Klobuchar for lunch, who I’ve been friends with, and published three of his books, and Jerry Stebbins, who wrote Boundary Waters, [with Greg Breining] and we had a wonderful lunch, about 2 1/2 hours, talking about old times. They were from a long time ago, in the 70s, and 80s. The friends that I’ve made, you keep.

D: You have one or two friends… How many friends were at your 80th birthday party?

N: About 450 [laughs]. That was important to me.

D: Yeah, it was an amazing party.

N: At this time, I do a lot of poetry books. This month is Poetry Month, so I’ve been having a lot of signings. Last night I had four authors: Carol Connelly, Margaret Hasse, and Linda Back McKay, and Emilie Buchwald, who has never published a poetry book before.

D: Oh, really! And Emilie is a publisher herself…

N: Yeah, Milkweed [Editions], she started Milkweed, and now she does The Gryphon Press, on animals. She loves that, too. And tonight there’s a reading at Birchbark Books—Michael Moore—I published his book this last year.

D: Michael Moore the rabble rouser who’s on TV and stuff?

N: No, a different Michael Moore [laughs], the poet. And I published a new Nodin Poetry Anthology recently. Dara Syrkin’s going to read tonight from that, and Greg Watson—I published two books of his. So that should be nice.

D: So how is publishing different now than it was in the ’60s, when you started?

N: One thing that’s better is you don’t have to print so many copies. And that helped me a lot. It used to be [that] you had to print about 3000 books to be able to publish a book. Then you had too much inventory left, and that’s a problem. But nowadays you can publish a lot closer to what you’re going to sell.

D: That 3000 number, when I would a look at title PNL’s, that 3000 number always seemed to be kind of the magic number.

N: Yeah, but then you’d have 3000 and maybe you’d sell 500 right away, and have 2500 sitting there.

D: Right.

N: There was [a time] when I worked with you in St. Paul…

D: Yes. Norton and I started working on projects together. I would come over to the Bookmen, and I would work on Nodin Press titles. This is going back to the 80s, or early 90s.

N: Yeah, I remember, I would lay them out kind of differently, too. The author would come over, like Stew Thornley, and you’d give me the printed matter, the galleys, I’d cut them up and put them on sheets so they’d be the final size they’d be, and I’d put in the photographs where they were going, and then you would typeset it that way. I’d run to the copy machine and we would reduce it. If you wanted to reduce it down to 20% of the size of that photo you had…

D: Yeah, I still think that’s a pretty efficient way to work (laughter). Nobody does it that way anymore.

N: No, now you do it on the computer. I don’t do it, but John Toren, who’s worked with me for a long time, helps me with the layout and design of the books…He used to work at Bookmen, and he was head of the receiving department at Bookmen. He loves books, but he wasn’t into designing any at that time. So [now] he works from his house, which he loves.

D: Speaking of working at Bookmen, a lot of people who went on to other things worked at Bookmen. Who were a few of those?

N: There were a lot of them who went into libraries. Like Rick Johnston. And Kate DiCamillo started, I hired her at Bookmen. She said that when I hired her, I was fussing around with something to find to show her, and she didn’t know if she got the job or not. But she was always so good with the customers. You know, she worked in the children’s book department, which probably helped her to see what was selling.

D: I bet it did. Now she’s a BIG name.

N: She was [the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature] for a year. She has a new book out.

D: And there were people who went on to New York to work in the book business…

N: True, like Mary Rowles, she was a distributor in Chicago—IPG. And Dave Nelson, at Viking Press, he was director of sales. And I remember too, when the Garrison Keillor book came out, the first one, he was very good making us, always making us in stock. He kind of favored us to be in stock, and then people knew that we were from Minnesota, so we sold copies all around the country. That was the biggest book we ever had, 105,000 copies we sold.

D: Wow. This was the first Garrison Keillor book.

N: Yeah, Lake Wobegon. I remember the autographings that he had. They would be lined up the street when he came out.

You know Bill Roth, he was at Bookmen, he became director of sales for Ingram for the western part of the United States. Bill Mockler is still with Consortium.

D: What do you have coming up for this fall? What titles do you have for this fall?

N: I have a couple of new poetry books. Margaret Hasse, it’s the third book I’ve done with her. And Emilie Buchwald I mentioned.

D: Right.

N: And there’s another anthology, a mystery anthology, Cooked to Death, coming out with a lot of good mystery writers, like Ellen Hart, who just won a Minnesota Book Award, David Housewright, Carl Brookins. There are quite a few well-known writers in there.

D: Yeah. And you’ve done a lot of nature books and sports books.

N: Yeah, nature books, sure. Then I’m working with the Lake Country Montessori School—it’s their 40th anniversary, and they’re doing a book about their 40 years, about starting it and everything—Pat and Larry Schaefer. That’s coming out in May. So there’s always something. It seems a lot of times like you’re not going to have a book, and somehow they come about. Some of them I guess I initiate, but a lot of them come to me also. Sometimes I’ll think there’s a void in something, and then it comes about, I’ll talk to somebody. I did a couple of books with John Coy—children’s books. He first published them with Random House. I was discussing with John how I was planting potatoes at my cabin so my nephews could see how exciting it was to dig them up and see how something came out of the ground—and that gave him the idea to write Two Old Potatoes and Me.

D: I didn’t know that connection…

N: Yeah, yeah. So then it went out of print at Random House so I ended up doing it in paperback, so it’s been selling continually. And another one called Vroomaloom Zoom for children.

D: That was one my daughter really liked when she was little.

N: Oh, really?

D: She’s 15 now, so she’s not reading those kinds of books.

N: Kind of funny how another generation—like my nephew I planted the potatoes for, now he has a son, there’s two of them, one’s 14, one’s about 8, and I dig up potatoes with them now—we’re into another generation here. I remember, too, at Micawber’s there used to be a young girl about 10 who would come in the store and she’d stay the whole day reading until her mother called her to go home [laughs], and eventually she had a baby and her daughter did the same.

D: Oh, wow.

N: It’s kind of funny how you go through generations of things. One thing, too, I liked about publishing… I published a lot of environmental books, like nature and things. I thought maybe if people saw it, maybe they’d protect it more. Because that was always important to me.

One time when I was in the 11th grade I won the state essay contest, writing an essay about preserving the Quetico Superior forest area. And it was kind of an important thing to me because, there was this one fellow who was the strongest in the school, who always kind of bullied me a lot, and then in June he sat right next to me in class because his name started with “S” also. And the week I won the state essay contest, he won the state track championship, so they called us both up to the front of the auditorium [laughs], and I think people cheered me as much as him, and after that he treated me very nice, like an equal.

And so when Jerry Stebbins came in with the book Boundary Waters, he had wanted to publish with something like National Geographic, and then he looked in the Yellow Pages for where to go for printing, saw my name, and came in—and when he talked about the boundary waters, right away I was interested because that essay had been so important to me. [“Boundary waters” refers to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.]

D: What year was Boundary Waters?

N: It was 1983. First I did the hardcover, then did the paperback after. It’s a nice book.

D: Yeah, it’s beautiful.

N: Now Jerry Stebbins’s son is doing a book about the Boundary Waters. He’s about the age that Jerry was when we did it. He’s taking six months off. He was living in Montana and he came back, and he’s spending the summer in the Boundary Waters. They say “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”…

D: That’s right…So what question haven’t I asked you that I ought to be asking?

N: I don’t know [laughs]…One of the things, thinking about what started me in publishing, is when I was in junior high school I took a printing class, and that was one of my favorite classes. How you set type, and then you could print it and see it. It was so visible. That kind of stayed with me. The designing of a book is kind of a special thing.

I can’t remember how I started the blank journal…Oh yeah, I remember now: I did this book Minnesota State of Beauty, and the photographer, he had so many beautiful photographs that I had an idea—why wouldn’t they be good in a journal? The journals that sell the best are the ones with animals on the cover. Adventure used to distribute them, but now they sold out to Keen, and they only wanted the animal titles. And so I had 13 titles I had to dispose of [laughs], so I sold them to Dollar Tree.

D: Well, there’s an endless amount of beautiful nature in Minnesota to publish books about, huh?

N: Yeah, that’s true. Yeah that’s the thing that I’m glad I can do to keep people aware of that. Maybe they’ll protect it more.

D: Very important.

N: Right. It’s been a wonderful life of publishing, with all the people I’ve met. And especially I enjoy being here with you because it feels like the book area, with the warehouse in the back like it was at Bookmen, and the people, with Stu Abraham and different people I’ve known for a long time. So I feel very happy to be here.

D: Who could have predicted 25 years ago, Norton, that we’d wind up in the same building.

N: Yeah, right. We’ve worked together a long [time]…

D: Well, thanks Norton.

N: Thank you, for making it possible for me to be here still. Yeah, I like it.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.

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Don Leeper is founder and CEO of Bookmobile, which has provided design, printing, eBook, and distribution services for book publishers since 1982.