Novel Idea

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.