THE PERILOUS JOURNEY OF A RELUCTANT CORPORATE POET

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June 1, 2012 · Posted in Commentary 

The old headquarters of Houghton MIfflin at 2 Park Street

By Bob Vickrey

As I reported for my first day of work in the fall of 1972, I stepped into the creaky old Boston office headquarters of America’s oldest publishing house and thought perhaps that I had stepped back into the 19th Century.

Houghton Mifflin had indeed been linked to that century by publishing authors such as Emerson, Thoreau, Longfellow, and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

One might have guessed the history preserved there by simply walking the hallways of this hundred plus year-old dilapidated brick structure located just down Park Street from the ornate State House. The front side faced Boston Common and the backside office windows looked out on the Boston Granary which was home to considerable Colonial history including the grave sites of Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, and John Hancock.

I was taken to the third floor by an antiquated elevator that was referred to as the ‘birdcage’ by its gracious operator, Mrs. Williams, whose tenure I imagined as dating back long enough to have transported the distinguished Mr. Emerson to his appointments with his editor.

I had been hired in the sales department as a representative, whose job it would be to present the company’s forthcoming books to independent bookstores throughout the Southwest. At that moment, it was impossible to envision the enormous changes in the bookselling landscape awaiting in decades that lay ahead which would eventually steer my career toward a singular metaphorical headstone in that same Granary outside the back window.

Houghton Mifflin was no longer a driving force in publishing as it had been in the first part of the 20th century, but by the time I had arrived, it was still actively publishing legendary authors like John Kenneth Galbraith, Rachel Carson, and J.R.R. Tolkien. The whole place was alive with its grand history and for a young buck like me, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven having been surrounded by the many literary icons of merging centuries. The president of the company sat at Longfellow’s desk and the editorial director once occupied Nathaniel Hawthorne’s.

It now occurs to me that with all this history at play in this impressive vault called 2 Park Street, there would be little wonder why traditional publishing failed to keep up with modern business trends and models. Among the many categories Houghton published, poetry was always the one genre known for commanding a certain cultural distinction, but yielding little in consumer sales. Let’s face it; the motto, ‘For the greater good’ is not a term that generally endears itself to an accounting department.

The editorial leadership there fully understood the nature of its mission and thus forced the inevitable collision at the intersection of culture and commerce. The two forces simply did not mesh, and yet no apology was offered by anyone in the company who had knowingly taken the vow of poverty when they signed on from the beginning. Publishing was born of a romantic notion seemingly armed with a noble calling that flew completely in the face of any basic business principles that required growth in yearly sales. Therein lies the rub for that persnickety group called the Board of Directors.

Out in the marketplace there were also major shifts in the way books were being bought and sold. The discount book chains changed the landscape forever for the independent owners around the country and the decline in the number of those stores was swift and dramatic.

Long before internet book buying and downloading to hand-held digital devices became the rage among consumers, I was already being greeted in my neighborhood by my longtime friend and veteran writer Josh Greenfeld as ‘the village blacksmith’, which simply reminded me that my obsolescence was just beyond the horizon.

That April day in 1993 when the general book department moved from its charming old headquarters into the upscale office towers a few blocks away basically signaled an end to publishing’s past and introduced the beginnings of corporate life. When Park Street was abandoned that year, it housed nothing more than the memories and voices of the company’s distinguished history.

When Houghton Mifflin recently merged with Harcourt Publishing, the two venerable old firms– now one, finds itself fighting for survival in a fierce battle being waged in a digital world in which the whole publishing industry got caught totally unprepared.

I’m probably guilty of hanging on to the past like so many people of retirement age, but I do fondly remember those early days with a wide-eyed curiosity and feel fortunate to have been given a glimpse into a once proud publishing history.

Upon reflection, I now realize that my role had become as obsolete as that misunderstood poet who had lost his voice long ago within the corporate system. Neither of our missions translated within that culture and we both had unwittingly encountered the same inevitable fate as the unfortunate village blacksmith.

Bob Vickrey is a freelance writer whose columns appear in several Southwestern daily newspapers including the Houston Chronicle and Ft. Worth Star-Telegram. He is a member of the Board of Contributors for the Waco Tribune-Herald. He lives in Pacific Palisades.

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