Breakfast with The Eagle: Breakfast and books with Deborah Balmuth
"We should [have] more of our books here. There are a few of our books here, but I've been working on them," said Balmuth, who had ordered a sausage, egg and jack breakfast sandwich (without bread) at the co-op where she holds a membership. (She also picked up some orange-mango juice to wash down her meal from the grocery portion of the establishment.)
North Adams-based Storey is celebrating 35 years of existence in 2018, and much of its staying power can be attributed to its knack for placing books in unexpected, but highly relevant, places. Its nature and outdoor living, health and well-being, house and home crafts and "for kids" titles are displayed in country stores, gardening centers and farm-and-feed shops, among other businesses.
"We don't settle for just selling books in bookstores. We really reach out to what we call special markets, and a lot of publishers don't do that. Tractor Supply, that chain of stores, is one of our biggest accounts," Balmuth said.
But the publisher's connection to readers in niche areas is due to more than just adept product placement. Its employees often belong to the target audiences.
"Our staff are really committed to a lot of these things, want to do these things," Balmuth said. "We have people that have chickens, and they're bringing in eggs for people."
That shared interest is one of the reasons why Balmuth can't imagine Storey in a publishing hub like New York City; the pastoral surrounds inform and enhance what fills Storey's pages.
Balmuth arrived in the Berkshires in 1990. She had grown up west of the county in Hamilton, N.Y., where her father was a philosophy professor at Colgate University. (She did have some Western Massachusetts ties; her parents had met in Amherst.)
After graduating from Carleton College in Minnesota, she moved to Boston with a friend, settling into an editorial assistant position at Autumn Press in 1978. A couple ran the company, which published natural food cookbooks and Eastern philosophy titles, among others, out of their home in Brookline. Balmuth had met them during a year her family spent in Japan, a time that had a "big influence" on her life.
"I love the Japanese culture and feel a real connection to that," Balmuth said, noting that she enjoys eating at Great Barrington's Bizen Gourmet Japanese Cuisine & Sushi Bar.
Her experience at the small publisher was invaluable even though some of its practices are now outdated.
"It was before the whole digital transition, so we still sent out for type. I was proofreading galleys, but I learned a lot," she said.
From there, stints as a Brandeis University Ph.D. candidate in American Studies ("I felt just a little academic pull"), an editorial assistant at Daedalus (a journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences), a communications director at Boston University's Sargent College and a director of development and public relations at Crittenton Hastings House followed.
She subsequently met Pittsfield native Colin Harrington and moved to Lenox in 1990, where Harrington (who writes book reviews for The Eagle) was living at the time."I didn't have any job when I moved out here," Balmuth said.
The couple eventually made their home in Windsor, where they reside today. Both husband and wife take advantage of the area's ample outdoors offerings.
"We live right near Notchview," Balmuth said. "I love hiking in Notchview, and cross-country skiing there in the winter is one of my favorite things of all-time."
After arriving in the Berkshires, Balmuth wanted to get back into book publishing. Her sister was working at Williams College, John Storey's alma mater, and encouraged her to meet the publisher. Storey and his wife, Martha, started the company in 1983 after buying Garden Way's publishing division. It began as Storey Communications before assuming its current name, occupying an old motorcycle factory in Pownal, Vt.
Balmuth accepted an editing job at Storey in 1993.
"We actually have a mission statement of providing practical information that promotes personal independence, so it just felt like such a match for me. I wanted to be in publishing, but it also had ... books that are really focused on very hands-on aspects of living," said Balmuth, who enjoyed crafting during her youth.
In 2000, Storey moved to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art's campus, where its editorial, design and business departments still operate. Its sales force is elsewhere: Workman Publishing, a major independent publisher, had acquired Storey in 2001 after becoming its distribution partner in 2000.
"Peter [Workman] really loved Storey. He had gone to Deerfield [Academy], [so] he liked this area, and he felt a real affinity with Storey's publishing program. ... We were really lucky because he was very committed to Storey staying here in the Berkshires," Balmuth said.
After serving as a project and acquisitions editor, Balmuth became editorial director in 2002 and assumed her role as publisher in 2013. Keeping Storey's past works in circulation is one of her focuses.
"We really pride ourselves on our backlist. We have some really old books," Balmuth said.
One of them is "Carrots Love Tomatoes," a book first published in 1975 by Garden Way Publishing. There are more than 779,000 copies in print today, according to the publisher's catalog.
"People want to believe it works," Balmuth said of the companion planting title.
Many of Storey's books have local ties.
"I like combing this area for ideas for authors," Balmuth said. "We're a little different from a lot of publishers in that we do a lot of idea generation ourselves because we have these kind of niches that we publish into. We know we want to keep doing organic farming and gardening and cooking with garden ingredients. We do a lot of brainstorming among the editors and thinking about, 'Well, what would be a good angle on this, and who might be a good author for that?'"
For example, Balmuth placed Will Beemer's "Learn to Timber Frame" on the table. Beemer is a director of Washington's Heartwood School.
"Western Mass. is kind of a hotbed for timber frame," Balmuth said.
In addition to Storey's authors, Balmuth encounters readers sometimes.
"I go to yoga down in Goshen, and a woman who lives in Plainfield who comes to that class was telling me how they have sheep and that she and her daughter were delivering lambs by themselves," Balmuth said. "Her husband was away, and her other daughter, who's trained to be a veterinarian, was away. She said, 'Oh, yeah! My daughter was there with Storey's 'Guide to Raising Sheep,' leafing through it [and] telling me what to do!'"
Balmuth was beaming for much of breakfast, stacking books like medals. She's looking forward to celebrating Storey's 35 years with a book sale outside Storey's offices on June 15 (11 a.m. to 4 p.m.).
"I feel like all of our books have this theme of bringing more joy and creativity of the whole hands-on life [to] people and connecting them with it," she said.
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
On the menu ...
Where we ate: The Old Creamery, 445 Berkshire Trail, Cummington
What Deborah Balmuth ordered: Sausage, egg and jack breakfast sandwich (without bread)
Price: $5.99 plus tax
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