Walter Swan’s Simple Plan (Part 2)

The newspaper office is in a two-story building, on a groundfloor area of maybe 14’ by 30’ with glass block windows facing the street. In other words you got light through the windows but couldn’t see out. The limited light had been blocked further with newsprint from past issues taped to the glass. I was wondering if the sun got a little too much in the late afternoon and they just couldn’t afford blinds. There were three desks in a row on the left side of the space and a bunch of file cabinets on the opposite wall. Newspapers, legal pads, files, were strewn about everywhere. I could see a door in the back and a window, maybe an office. Three ancient CRT screens were on the corner of each desk with the blinking cursors, two yellow boxes and one green. I had one of those all-of-a-sudden wishes that I hadn’t sent the resume.

Reception, Circulation, Advertising, and Classifieds was the first desk I came to. A very nice Hispanic woman asked my business and I told her I was here to interview for the sports writer’s job. She told me to take a seat on the small vinyl and chrome, 60s, settee she pointed to on the wall by the door, which I did. She turned around and yelled, “Bruce, your one-thirty is here.” She turned back and smiled at me, then went on with what she was doing.

I was starting to get that nervous feeling you get just before you go “on.” I was flashing back to Prof. Lawrence’s class. “The “lead” is the most important element of the story.” “ You have to grab the reader in the first sentence.” “Write for an eighth-grade level reader.” I was trying to think of all the reasons I was not working in newspaper, and had not done so after college. And I waited. No Bruce.

I wasn’t sure if she had gotten confirmation from Bruce that he had heard her on the manual intercom, that he knew I was here and ready to get this over with, so I started to get up when Bruce appeared from behind a file cabinet. He reached out his plump hand, which I shook, as he identified himself as the editor and publisher of the Douglas Dispatch.

After a few cursory questions about my background and why I wanted to work in Douglas, he handed me a sheet of paper with some relevant facts about a wrestling match, real or imagined, that happened last night at the local high school. I was to write a short four or five paragraph piece for tomorrow’s edition. He sat me at a small desk with an IBM Selectric, I rolled in a piece of paper and got underway. Within a few minutes I felt I had captured the essence of the event, with a captivating lead and an accurate regurgitation of the facts. Bruce seemed impressed that I had completed the task so quickly. Not so sure he was impressed with the copy, but he said, “Okay, that’ll do fine.”

He dismissed me, thanked me for taking the drive down from Tucson and said he would be in touch with me next week. I figured I had about as much chance of getting this job, as I did winning the Pulitzer Prize for Journalism if I did happen to get it. I told my wife as much when I got back to the car and we headed back the way we had come. Since we still had plenty of time in the day, we stopped again in Bisbee and walked the downtown streets. They were lined with art galleries, gift shops, used book stores, and antique stores.

Main Street, Bisbee, Arizona (Photo by Phillip Capper, Flickr Creative Commons.)

Then I saw it. In this window was an old man in coveralls with a black Stetson on his head, rocking in a chair behind a stack of books arranged in sort of a round tower. Painted on the glass was a sign, “One Book Bookstore.” I just stood there on the sidewalk transfixed, watching the man sign books and talk to people as they came in, thinking what a great fricking idea. At some point business dropped off and the man, alone, looked up, saw me staring at him, and gave me the “come here” motion. The one book was called “me ‘n Henry” (lowercase on the “me”) and was proudly displayed all along the window. The author, sitting in the rocking chair, was Walter Swan and this was the only book available in this bookstore.

Now, it turns out Walter was a bit of a local, if not national, celebrity. There were framed clippings hanging in the store of him in “People” magazine, the “Tucson Citizen” and “Albuquerque Journal” and the “Arizona Republic.” He had even been on “Late Night with
David Letterman.” He was also featured in Robert G. Allen’s “Multiple Streams of Income” Second Edition. (The “No Money Down” Real Estate guru.)

So what made Walter Swan so unique? He was a plasterer by trade, an eighth-grade drop-out that couldn’t spell, had poor grammer, and wrote an autobiography that no New York publishing houses would touch. To be fair, his wife Deloris had edited his stories. She had been the one to urge him to write them all down for his grandchildren, in the first place.

He taught himself how to type with two fingers and he would punch out the short stories, two, sometimes three pages, give them to Deloris who would fix them up and save them in a file. When the file got full, they put the stories in cronological order and sent it off to the publishers. Walter said he would get excited every time a letter would come, but they were always letters saying they weren’t interested.

Rejection after rejection came from New York, so they borrowed some money, and paid $650 to a vanity publisher in Tucson to print 100 books. Mr. Swan, loaded them in the trunk of his car and went to all the giftshops and bookstores in Southern Arizona, but they wanted too much of the profits so he figured there had to be a better way.

In 1989 he moved back to his boyhood home of Bisbee and that’s when the simple sales plan came to him. He rented out space in the old J.C. Penney building for $100 a month and opened the “One Book Bookstore”, right next to a used bookstore on Main Street. He wasn’t worried about the competition because, as he said, they had lots of books to sell, he only had one. He was worried that he wouldn’t sell enough books to make the rent in that first month, but he did. By November 1990, when the “People” article appeared, he was in his fourth printing of the book and had sold 7,000 copies. Some say, that with his idea, he sold over 35,000 of the books at $19.95, and if he was in the store, he would autograph your copy for you and tell you more stories. The book includes 103 stories about Walter and Henry, his big brother of two years, “….growing up on the old family homestead in Cochise County when Arizona was an infant state.”

We went back to Bisbee many times over the years, and would always stop at the “One Book Bookstore” which grew into the “Other Book Bookstore” after he wrote “me ‘n Mamma” about Deloris and him raising eight children, and “An Old-Timers Cookbook.” There was also a book of children’s stories in there somewhere. Walter is no longer with us and the store has closed, but you can still find the book at online booksellers.

We didn’t lose a Mark Twain, but I will always remember how impressed I was that this man, sitting in his rocker, had came up with this simplest of sales ideas and made the book a success beyond anything he probably could have imagined. Between you and me, the book is really not very well written, but it’s heartwarming and I’m sure Walter Swan thought it was pretty darn good. And if you walked into 38 Main Street in Bisbee, Arizona, you couldn’t help yourself, you had to buy a copy.

I did hear back from Bruce at the Douglas Dispatch the following week. I was right, he wasn’t all that impressed with my writing job. He said they were going to hire someone from within “who already possessed the skills necessary to do the job.” I thought that was a little harsh, because, just like Walter, I thought the stuff I wrote was pretty good, and somebody ought to buy it. Got to find me a small tourist town where I can open up a “One Book Bookstore.”

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Walter Swan’s Simple Plan (Part 2)

  1. What a great story, and so beautifully written! You were never meant to write about local wrestling matches.
    The lesson in this story for me is clear: what more do most of us aspiring writer need than “one book?” That’s all I need. I don’t know if I’ll get it or where I’ll display it, but I’ll sure remember this story!

    • Thanks, Lorna. It was a real flashback to write that story, but it was all up there in my head. I checked a few facts to make sure I was remembering it right. And I did!

  2. Leonard, thank you for this beautiful story. I’m going directly to Amazon.com to find Walter Swan’s book. Not necessarily for the writing, but for the inspiration.

    • Thank you. I was really impressed by Mr. Swan’s idea, and always wanted to write about it. Of course, a lot of other people did too, but I had that personal experience. You couldn’t walk out of that store without buying a book. He was a very enjoyable man. You might enjoy the book too.

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