ALPINE--Out in the heart of the sand-blown Trans-Pecos region of Texas where, as an ancient cowboy poet once wrote, "the rainbows wait for rain," things literary generally take a backseat to the dreary essentials of survival. There's just not much time for leisure reading when a well needs digging, fences beg for mending and most fantasies focus on new ways to scrounge up yet another mortgage payment. It's an isolated and parched part of the world where jobs are scarce and Spanish is the only language spoken by a large number of its residents.
Not exactly a place to ignite a publishing firestorm.
But, then, you wouldn't expect to find one of the best-selling novelists of all time sequestered on a nearby ranch, self-exiled from an adoring public that bought 12 million copies of his first novel. Or learn that a Houston couple, lured to the Big Bend area by its spectacular vistas, the multicolor blooming of its cactuses and freedom from the urban nightmare, would settle here and open, of all things, a couple of bookstores and a small publishing company.
Like many vacation travelers before them, Mike and Jean Hardy, both 58, were immediately mesmerized by the spare beauty of the Chihuahuan Desert, the Rio Grande canyons and the slow and easy pace when they first visited in 1988. "It's not easy to explain," Jean says, "but from the moment we arrived, we knew this was where we wanted to live." Four years later, they made the move, sort of. Buying a house in tiny Marathon (population 600) they reached an agreement many married couples would find extraordinary. Mike would remain in Houston, overseeing his successful computer software company, while Jean would set up housekeeping in the Big Bend. On alternate weekends he would travel to Marathon and she would return to Houston.
A former managing editor of Houston Home & Gardens and one-time editor for Fredericksburg-based Shearer Publishing, Jean Hardy did not leave her fascination for the printed word behind. The 8,000 residents of Alpine, she decided, needed a bookstore. Thus Front Street Books was born, providing local readers a combination of popular fiction and hard-to-find works on the history and flora and fauna of the region. In time, a second store was opened in Marathon, 31 miles away.
"I realize it is something of a paradox to have bookstores in places so small," Jean admits, "but with the nearest Barnes & Noble a three-and-half-hour drive away in Odessa, we're filling a need. What we've found is that there are book-lovers everywhere."
The modest success of Front Street Books, in fact, enabled the Hardys to start up their own small publishing company. In recent years, their Iron Mountain Press has reprinted regional titles like Grasses of the Trans-Pecos, The Last Campfire and How Come It's Called That. Hardly best-seller material, but each added to the printed record of local history and myth.
Then, last November, Jean received a phone call that would play havoc with the comfortable routine she and her husband had settled into.
Soon after the success of his 1992 The Bridges of Madison County, a short, sentimental novel about the brief but passionate affair of a traveling photographer and a middle-aged farm wife, Iowa college dean Robert James Waller abandoned academia and purchased a ranch near Alpine. While his book stayed on The New York Times best-seller list for a record 162 weeks, was translated into 25 languages and was made into a successful movie starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep, Waller quietly settled into the Big Bend landscape. He occasionally visited Front Street Books to browse or sign copies of subsequent books--Slow Dance in Cedar Bend, Border Music and Puerto Vallarta Squeeze.
None, however, matched the success of his first novel. In time, Waller became the Big Bend's most famous recluse, bitter toward the critics who routinely savaged his work and media that pried too deeply into his private life. When he suddenly left his wife in 1997 for a younger woman whom he'd hired as a gardener, even People magazine came running to chronicle the scandal. Once a familiar face in Alpine, a man who occasionally brought his guitar to serenade diners at Marathon's historic old Gage Hotel, the author of the landmark book that sold more copies than Gone With the Wind went off the radar.
He was, he insisted, wealthy enough to not worry about ever writing again. And so, it was assumed, the literary career of the writer who made the hearts of millions of middle-aged women readers race a little faster had come to an end.
Still, there were occasional rumors that he was writing a sequel to Bridges, but word in the industry was that his New York publisher, Warner Books, wasn't interested. In a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately? world, the steadily declining sales of each book he'd written after his remarkable debut had made Waller a high-priced risk it wasn't willing to take.
"He called the store one day," Jean Hardy remembers, "and said he'd completed the Bridges sequel and wondered if we would like to see it." If she and her husband liked A Thousand Country Roads: An Epilogue to The Bridges of Madison County, Waller said, he would be pleased to have them publish it.
Jean read the manuscript, assured her husband that it was "the best thing Waller's written" and they began preparing a contract that would launch a publishing adventure that has become as much fairy tale as a Waller plot. "It just fell in our laps," she says. "This," her husband admits, "is kinda scary."
Soon, The Associated Press, Publishers Weekly and Entertainment Weekly were spreading the news of the unlikely deal struck between the high-profile author and a publishing house nobody had ever heard of in a place few could even locate on the map. While Waller refuses interview requests, his agent, Aaron Priest, explained the decision to Entertainment Weekly thusly: "Money is not a major consideration to Robert, and we just figured we'd have more control over everything working locally with a small company." Terms of the contract have not been made public.
In a prepared statement released shortly after his agreement with the Hardys, Waller said only that he "...got my start selling my books out of the back of my pickup truck in small towns in Iowa. I like to do things on a small scale."
Thus, while Jean Hardy edited the manuscript, her husband began busying himself with the details of cover design and arranging for printing and distribution of the book, which is due out at the end of April. His first hurdle came when, following a copyright check, he learned that there were already two Iron Mountain Presses in existence. Waller's book will now be published under the newly incorporated John M. Hardy Publishing imprint. "Everything got out of hand pretty quickly," Hardy says. "Initially, we talked of a first printing of 25,000, which, for us, is huge." Soon, however, the flood of interest and media attention convinced them that figure was woefully low.
When it was decided that as many as 100,000 books would better satisfy the anticipated demand, he had to contact an eastern company that could handle such a print run. He's also contracted with a book distributing firm that will ship and warehouse the book and has set up an accounting system he never dreamed he'd need.
Despite the attention and growing anticipation, however, there will be no expensive promotional tour for the author. Waller has made it clear to the Hardys that he has no interest in hitting the book-signing and the "Wake Up With Ken and Barbie" talk shows as he once did. "He did that for Bridges and says it was enough to last him a lifetime. He signed so many books that he developed carpal tunnel syndrome," Mike says. This time around, the author will sign only 1,500 special first editions. Waller, Hardy says, may give a few television and radio interviews after the book has been published. For now, however, he's not talking--to the Dallas Observer or anyone else.
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And while it is unlikely that the Hardy-published sequel--whose story line is a closely guarded secret--will rival the celestial numbers that resulted from the publication of Bridges a decade ago, there is legitimate reason to anticipate the new book's success. There are, no doubt, enough curious Waller fans eager to learn whatever happened to the fictional Robert Kincaid and Francesca Johnson to make a couple of neophyte publishers semi-wealthy.
Dallas literary agent Jim Donovan, who has dealt with numerous regional and national publishers over the course of his career, is among those in the industry who believes the Hardys have a potential hit on their hands. "Because of the precipitous decline in sales of Waller's subsequent books, his reputation was tarnished," he says. "But the fact remains that The Bridges of Madison County had an enormous number of fans. Even if this sequel sells a tenth of what The Bridges of Madison County did--and I think it just might if properly marketed--you're talking about a million books. Half that is considered a remarkable number for any publisher."
The Hardys hope he's right. Jean, who ultimately wishes to spend her time photographing and writing about the botany of the Big Bend, and Mike, who dreams of full-time life in little Marathon, both laugh nervously at the suggestion of success.
"I just hope," Jean admits, "that we can make enough to retire."