In a novel called “Requiem for a Nun,” William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” But William Faulkner is dead, and nobody reads “Requiem for a Nun.”
Which is just part of the problem.
In this age of rising mobility, giddy gentrification and shrinking attention spans, historical amnesia spreads like an epidemic: It may be asymptomatic for years, but eventually it’s fatal to our respect for bygone days. It would be nice, actually, if those who don’t remember the past were condemned to repeat it; in most cases, they’re just doomed to forget it.
Ironically, the Web, that infinite repository, may exacerbate our sense of alienation from the history all around us. Not only does the Internet lure us to distant places, but it also draws our eyes away from the storied sites and crumbling buildings we pass every day while tripping along the street staring at our phones.
For more than two decades, one small publisher far from New York has been quietly rescuing remnants of history from the flames of oblivion. You may have seen the trim, sepia-toned books from Arcadia Publishing or its imprint the History Press. From an office in Mount Pleasant, S.C., Arcadia releases almost 500 new titles a year. They’re available in bookstores, but you’re more likely to have noticed them in history museums, parks, diners, hardware stores and beauty parlors in small towns throughout America.
Written neither for a general audience nor an academic one, each title is conceived with a fanatically specific market in mind. They’re like a book version of some antique kitchen tool designed for a task nobody does anymore. The subjects are surprisingly, delightfully precise. “Barberton Fried Chicken,” for instance, celebrates the tastiest meal in Barberton, Ohio. (It’s breaded, chilled and fried in lard.) “Ukrainians of Metropolitan Detroit” describes the contributions Ukrainians have made to that Midwestern city since the late 1800s.
Most of the books are named for cities, towns or even neighborhoods, such as “Federal Hill,” which is a history of Italians who settled in the port of Providence, R.I. For years, my Great-Aunt Marge lived in a trailer in Kearney, Mo., and gave tours of the Jesse James Farm. Had Arcadia’s “Kearney” been available then, she would have sold copies alongside the toy guns and tinfoil stars in her gift store.
The enthusiastic response from local communities sometimes takes even the Arcadia editors off guard. A few years ago, Elizabeth Taylor (not the actress), published “Camp Forrest” about a decommissioned World War II facility in Tennessee that had once held prisoners of war. The mayor of Tullahoma, Tenn., responded to the book by officially proclaiming June 28, 2016, Elizabeth Taylor Day. She was given a key to the city. Not to be outdone, the mayor of Coffee County, Tenn., proclaimed Elizabeth Taylor Week.
Arcadia’s business turns the traditional publishing model on its head. Big New York publishers are looking for the next blockbuster to sell 2 million copies across the English-speaking world in a month. Arcadia wants to find a book that will sell 1,000 copies this year in, say, McMullen Valley, Ariz.
“It’s a unique publishing approach,” says Arcadia’s president and chief executive, David Steinberger. “The books are completely evergreen. Once you publish them, they sell forever. So even though the initial numbers are modest, you’re creating a kind of annuity.”
That’s not to say there aren’t any hits. The press’s best-selling title, “Biltmore Estate,” about George Washington Vanderbilt II’s mansion in Asheville, N.C., has sold 80,000 copies since it was published in 2005.
Enter your hometown Zip code on the Arcadia website, and you’ll be offered a selection of books on the minutiae of your early life. In my case, 63011 brings up “St. Louis’s Delmar Loop,” about a few colorful streets near where I went to graduate school. “Famous-Barr: St. Louis Shopping at Its Finest” is a history of a now-defunct department store where my wife worked when we first got married. And “Brentwood, Missouri” reveals the town (pop. 8,000) where we lived in an unbearably hot, third-floor walk-up.
There’s something weirdly validating about these little books, filled with old photos and text written by local enthusiasts. As they tell me things I didn’t know — didn’t even know I wanted to know — they fill in the foundation of my own spindly past.
Arcadia Publishing is reinforcing its foundation, too. Last year, two publishing heavyweights, Michael Lynton, the former CEO of Penguin, and Steinberger, the former CEO of Perseus Books, along with a group of investors they organized, bought the press along with its 14,000-title backlist. And this week, Walter Isaacson, the best-selling biographer, is joining them as an editor-at-large and senior adviser. He is the first big-name author to get involved with Arcadia, but that won’t change its small-town focus.
“It’s something I love, which is preserving local history, especially hyperlocal,” Isaacson says by phone as he travels home to New Orleans from Germany. “It’s important for people to know not only world history but the history of their communities, especially the inspiring things in their community. At a certain point, you’ve really got to focus on your roots and home, and especially during troubled times, there’s a stability that comes from being connected.”
Isaacson, who has published celebrated biographies of Leonardo da Vinci, Steve Jobs, Benjamin Franklin and others, sees these tightly focused history books responding to a national thirst for local products and experiences, from artisanal teas to farmers markets.
“Not everything in this world is Twitter feeds and Facebook groups,” he says. “Real physical books on real things in your own community have a warmth to them that makes you feel more connected to your civic life.”
Isaacson, who has made what he called a small investment in the company, won’t be writing books for Arcadia, but he plans to write introductions for some of the books and may collaborate on other Arcadia titles. He also wants to recruit new authors to the series.
“Getting a younger group of writers to understand the joy of producing a book is part of my mission,” he says.
I hope that won’t crowd out contributions from Arcadia’s current army of historians and sleuths around the country. That group includes people like Margo Azzarelli, in Scranton, Pa., who has been working with Arcadia for 10 years. She wrote a book sparked by a local labor riot in which four people died. “It was a big historic event back in 1877,” she says, but the details had evaporated from public memory.
Her interest in that riot — one link in the American labor movement — began when her husband, who works on heating and air conditioning, found a trunk in a customer’s house in 2001. The owner didn’t want it, so he took the trunk home where Azzarelli discovered a trove of 19th-century letters. “Reading these letters was like reading a book,” she says. “. . . That family that lived there was involved in the riots.”
Such serendipity and the passion of hundreds of local writers throughout the country have produced thousands of books that Arcadia keeps permanently in print, typically selling a few dozen or a few hundred copies per year.
Paul Secord is a retired environmental planner now living in Albuquerque, near where his grandfather once worked in the mines. He has written several books for Arcadia. “About the most fun you can have outside of sex is doing research,” he says, “and when you get to be my age, well . . . it’s pretty much research.”
In the late 1600s, a Swiss medical student began diagnosing homesick soldiers with a condition he called “nostalgia.” Today, cut off from our homes and pasts in a different way, nostalgia is sweeter, less pathological. But a little book filled with forgotten details and black-and-white photos of your first neighborhood is still a sweet tonic.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.