Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Walter Swan’s Simple Plan

The one time I actually interviewed for a job in the journalism field, was as a sports reporter for the Douglas Dispatch in Douglas Arizona. Douglas sits on the Arizona border across from their sister city, the Mexican town of Agua Prieta. Sounds beautiful, but roughly translates as “dirty water”. The town of Douglas was established as a smelter site for the copper mines of Bisbee and was named after mining pioneeer James Douglas.

It’s in Cochise County, Arizona, and that might sound familiar as the County is named after an infamous Chiracahua Apache, named Cochise. No photographs exist or were ever taken of Cochise, and he was buried in a secret location in the Dragoon Mountains. I’m telling you this, if for no other reason, because I find it interesting, and very similar to another infamous Oglala Sioux, named Crazy Horse. It seems they didn’t want their pictures taken because they thought some gadget like the camera could capture their soul and would be harmful to them, so it was taboo. I think it is interesting that two separate tribes had the same feeling about it. Well, anyway, I digress as usual.

I saw the job listing in the Tucson Citizen classifieds, and since I was currently self-“un”employed, I sent them a resume and some writing samples from my days as a reporter for the University of New Mexico newspaper, the “LoBo”, my only actual newspaper “experience.” I actually got a response, which surprised me, until I thought about it. That’s when I realized there probably weren’t too many people applying for a job in a dusty desert town on the border of Mexico with a population of 18,000 on a newspaper with a circulation of considerably less than that. I even got an interview. I was to be in Douglas in the newspaper office at 1:30 on the following Wednesday, and I was told to be prepared to do a short writing exercise. Piece of cake, I thought so I didn’t see any need to prepare.

I had never been to Douglas, had never ventured that far south in Arizona, and was actually looking forward to the trip. We figured it would take us a little over two hours to travel the 120 miles, so as not to be late for my interview, we left at around 8:00 in the morning. It was a beautiful sunny day, and the drive was uneventful until we came to the Mule Mountains and went through a tunnel. I love tunnels for some reason. This one is called the MulePass Tunnel. When we emerged on the other side, there in front of us, in the canyon, was a quaint little town that resembled, at first view, a turn of the century San Francisco. So much so, that they used it as a movie set for San Francisco in “Young Guns II”, we later learned. We had seen the resemblance immediately, except there was no ocean or San Francisco Bay. It is also known as Arizona’s mile high city at an elevation of 5,300 ft.

We pulled off the road at the first exit and just marveled at the place. It was like the tunnel had been a time machine and we had driven back to the 1900s. There was a tall brick building that caught my eye right away, it had a cupola over a Mickey Mouse clock tower, and it was for sale. A two-story building, renovated with four apartments and two retail spaces on the lower level for a mere $120,000. Might as well have been $1.2 million as far as me being able to afford it, but it seemed cheap at the time.

One of the more interesting buildings was “The Stock Exchange, which was originally a Brewery that was closed during Prohibition, then became the only NYSE between Missouri and San Francisco, and operated as such until 1964. The Stock Exchange, now a Bar and Restaurant is currently for sale for the paltry sum of $600,000. See how prices have gone up?

There were many other fine old brick buildings on Brewery Gulch and Main Street: Central School, the YMCA, the YWCA, two bank buildings, the post office, all looked as if we had gone through that time machine. They were little changed from when Bisbee was a mining town, a company town owned by the Phelps Dodge Company. For a time, during the early 1900s, the population exceeded that of Tucson.

We walked over to the Copper Queen Hotel and had an early lunch in the period restaurant. It was there, from talking with the waitress, that we learned about John Wayne being a frequent guest. They even had a suite named for him in the hotel, she told us, the room where he actually stayed. He believed that the copper in the area would be beneficial to his cancer treatment. The hotel has documented ghosts also. You really should check this place out at

We hated to leave, there was so much we wanted to see, but I did have that interview at the Douglas Dispatch. We arrived about an hour early and drove around Douglas for a while just to check things out. We weren’t impressed. We found the offices of the Dispatch on 11th street, where I’m sure they had been for some time and are still located there today. My wife sat out in the car while I adjusted my suit jacket and entered the building.

The newspaper office is in a two-story building, in 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.

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.”