Listen: Rural & Independent: Publishing in the West
Think print is dead? Or publishing only happens in mega cities? We hear from three entrepreneurs and business owners who prove that small, independent, and niche publishing is alive and well in rural areas.
- Luke Mehall, Founder & Publisher of The Climbing Zine & the podcast series Dirtbag State of Mind in Durango
- Evan Schertz, owner of Maria's Bookshop in Durango
- Kirsten Johanna Allen, Founder of Torrey House Press in Utah
About the Businesses
When Luke Mehall started The Climbing Zine in 2010, it was a black and white publication on copy paper. He distributed it at the local crag and at small businesses in Gunnison. Today it's a full color publication, distributed in more than 15 states and 10 countries. We met up with Luke in Durango to hear how he built a print publication in a day and age when magazines are floundering. Check out the Climbing Zine here and don't miss his podcast Dirtbag State of Mind.
Growing up in Maria's Bookshop in downtown Durango, Evan Schertz had never considered taking over the family business. He studied engineering in college, but when his parents put the iconic bookstore on the market, he changed his mind. We spoke with Evan about the role of independent bookstores in their communities and how they can compete in the Age of Amazon.
Kirsten Johanna Allen is the founder and publisher of Torrey House Press, a nonprofit literary book publisher in Utah. With a focus on the American West, Torrey House Press publishes books at the intersection of the literary arts and environmental advocacy. We spoke with Kirsten about starting-up an independent publishing company and the challenges - and big opportunities - other indies like her face.
Margaret: Hey, this is Margaret.
Delaney: And I’m Delaney Keating.
Margaret: I’m really excited about today’s episode. This was one of the very first stories I started working on for this season of the podcast. And what I love about it is that, I think it challenges expectations about what entrepreneurship is.
Delaney: Right, not many people think of independent publishing and bookstores as startups.
Margaret: Yeah, and this episode also challenges the narrative that “print is dead.”
So, today we’re talking to a publisher of an independent print publication, the owner of an indie bookstore, and a non-profit literary book publisher.
Delaney: So who’s up first?
Margaret: Luke Mehall, the founder and publisher of The Climbing Zine.
Delaney: I know Luke and it was a surprise to see him emerge for you in this episode. My first company, RoShamBo, has been designing The Climbing Zine since its inception. I guess you could say, at one point, we were startups together.
Margaret: The Climbing Zine has definitely come a long way since then. And, I don’t want to give too much away, but he’s really branched out from the zine itself - doing a podcast, short films, and self-publishing a few books.
Delaney: Creative endeavors, like Zines, often have to think like Startups every day as they iterate and add depth to their products. Funny thing, too, is that his early advertisers from the tiny rural town of Gunnison, CO were - essentially - his earliest investors who helped him incubate the Zine to where it is today…
Margaret: Ok, let’s press play before you give it all away!
The Climbing Zine
Luke: We're at Turtle Lake bouldering area. A nice little gem really close to Durango.
Margaret: Luke Mehall and I are standing on the side of the road, next to a jumble of boulders. We walk up a small social trail that winds through the rocks just to get away from the passing cars.
Luke: This is the roadside place. So, if you're, if you're like, maybe someone who has like an hour to get a good pump on and wants to be outdoors, this is probably your place.
Margaret: Luke is the founder and publisher of The Climbing Zine, an independent print publication based in Durango. The tagline is “the world’s creative climbing publication.” It’s small - it actually looks more like a book - and is filled with essays, poetry, art, and photography.
Luke is eleven years into publishing the Climbing Zine. What started out as a passion-project, side-gig, is now a full-time job.
Luke: I just had been working at Western in the marketing and PR department. . .
Margaret: That’s Western Colorado University in Gunnison.
Luke (continued): And was kind of learning a little bit of publishing of putting things together.
Luke: And I just had a few stories that I couldn't get published in any magazines. And this was, before I was really publishing much on social media, I've kind of always been a little bit behind the times with regards to that. And I just had some stories that I wanted to put together and it was literally stapled together black and white, kind of like photocopied style.
Margaret: Zines, it’s worth mentioning, aren’t magazines. There’s not really a strict definition for what a zine is or isn’t, because it kind of comes out of these different counterculture movements and is what you make it. And so, even though there aren’t rules, the general rule is that it’s an independent publication with a niche audience. So, in a lot of ways, it fits the climbing community perfectly.
Luke: This climber was like, you know, you can put all this stuff online into a blog. And I was like, Oh, and I had a blog at the time, but I didn't, I didn't put it together, that the climbing zine would even be something that would even make it to like having a blog. So we had like two print issues before we had a website or, or Facebook page or anything. So it was really like, very print oriented at first.
Margaret: The first issue featured Luke’s writing, as well as other local climbers including George Sibley.
Luke: One of the most prolific writers out of the Gunnison Valley. Highly respected gentlemen, kind of like the Ed Abbey of the Gunnison Valley…
Margaret: The Climbing Zine’s following slowly grew, and eventually Luke left his job at Western and migrated from Gunnison to Durango.
Luke: I spent a year unemployed really searching for work here in Durango. And I had a small retirement account from Western and I was unemployed, I just had no money. And I kind of made this decision that my instincts were, it was a bad decision. I was like, I'm gonna liquidate my retirement and put it into the Climbing Zine and see if I can do this. But that whole period was full of doubt. I had a little bit of confidence that it would work, but it was more like this is the only really option I have at earning a living right now. So I put about 20 grand into the Climbing Zine, switched it from being black and white into color...
Margaret: Luke’s first big win was bringing Patagonia on as a sponsor.
Luke: I would say, once we got Patagonia as a sponsor, I was kind of like, okay, I feel like this, this might this might work if, if we can attract the attention of a company like Patagonia, which I highly respect and always have highly respected. So I would say it was that moment, but that was probably four or five years into it, that I was actually like, this could actually make money.
Margaret: One sponsor - even a big one like Patagonia - wasn’t enough to support an entire publication. But it was a good selling point, and a nice confidence booster, when approaching other companies.
Luke: So I look at every company that's been on board with us, I don't see them as just selling product through our publication. And we're so small that I don't think you could just sell product with ads in the climbing scene. But when someone sees an ad from a company over and over again, that's like branding for that company. And people understand that, oh, you know, Patagonia or Osprey or Black Diamond, they really believe in Luke, and they really believe in the Climbing Zine. And so it's, it's like a long term relationship, versus just a transactional kind of thing of selling product.
Margaret: So, this brings up the elephant in the room, which is that, broadly speaking, print media has been in decline for years… due to shrinking ad revenues and the growth of digital. Naturally, I wanted to know how you launch and grow a print publication in this day and age.
Luke: You know, magazines, I think are, are dying, paid magazines. I think they're on their way out. … But I look at the Zine as a hybrid between a book and a magazine. And my ultimate goal is to end up on someone's toilet seat, someone's bookshelf, someone's van shelf.
Margaret: Despite the negative trends affecting larger, general interest magazines, independent niche publications - like The Climbing Zine - have been steadily growing over the years.
There’s a lot of factors at play. As Luke mentioned, he’s created a product that people want to own and hang onto. Keep next to the toilet!
There’s also the argument that a smaller, loyal readership can generate a more reliable source of revenue. And The Climbing Zine has definitely developed a cult following within the climbing community.
Luke: For some, whatever reason, they've really embraced what I'm doing and I'm just trying to also keep, keep doing what I'm doing. But then also trying to propel it into the future with things like you know, starting a podcast and having a social media presence and making short films and really trying to be in, in the new space because I think if I just did the print thing, I think that... I plan on doing the print thing as long as I produce the Climbing Zine, but I also... it would be kind of silly to strictly focus on just print right now.
Margaret: If you’re familiar with other climbing and outdoor publications, the thing that sets the Climbing Zine apart is its focus on more creative, thought pieces. During our conversation, Luke frequently referred to the ethos of the Climbing Zine.
Luke: The true essence of climbing is is not just that photo of you looking cool. It's vulnerability. It's being scared. It's personal growth, really. And that's what climbing means to me.
But it's just trying to represent what the essence like, really what, why climbing moves me and why, you know, climbing is still my favorite thing in my life. You know, as far as activities go… And it's... You know I love other sports too, like mountain biking and running, but climbing is the one that, it means more to me and it defines my life. And just seeing how it changes peoples lives, you know, I think at this point, there's, there's some stereotypical past to climbing. But I think everyone who is really dedicated to climbing agrees that it's, it's life changing.
Margaret: I asked him what he meant by life changing.
Luke: When I found climbing, I was experiencing some mental health issues at 20 years old in, and this was in the late 90s. And I didn't even have the vocabulary of knowing that I was depressed or knowing that I had mental health issues at the time. So climbing was kind of like my therapy.
Luke: So I just kind of dealt with my issues, through climbing and it might not have been the healthiest way. But I do feel like being out in nature and going through, you know, sometimes life and death, you know, having near death experiences or something. And I feel like nature is very healing too. So climbing just kind of gave me something to really live for and still does, I really only had bad mental health issues for a short time and then some after effects. But climbing is still a big part of me having my mental health and, and the outdoors are too. So I think I have a deeper connection to climbing because I do feel like climbing saved my life. That was the very first sentence in the very first zine was without climbing, I'd be dead or in jail.
Margaret: Luke is about to release the 21st issue of the Climbing Zine. I asked him, how he keeps it fresh, ten plus years into it.
Luke: It's completely relies on the community of climbers. You know, climbers still have to be willing to tell long form stories. So I'm completely at the mercy of climbers sending me good stories, and luckily, they keep doing that, you know. And that's, that's the magic of the zine is that I, I can't, I can't control that part, you know that that has to completely come from the community.
Delaney: Luke isn’t just about print, he’s an independent storytelling channel for a niche market. As we will see with so many of the entrepreneurs in this episode, the independent spirit is what defines these entrepreneurs - and - well - their approach to business scaffolding is built more around meaning, than broad market share.
So, who’s up next?
Margaret: Another Durango-based business, Maria’s Bookshop.
Delaney: We can’t say this often enough, but small business owners are entrepreneurs, too.
And the independent bookstore is, no doubt, an important part of any community - especially for their role in elevating writers and incubating businesses, like The Climbing Zine.
Margaret: It all comes full circle.
Delaney: Maria’s has a new owner, right?
Margaret: Yes, as you’ll see in the episode it’s truly a family business.
Margaret: I’ve just walked into Maria’s Bookshop, an independent bookstore in downtown Durango. It sits right on Main Avenue, nestled between restaurants and other shops. It has these beautiful old wood floors and exposed brick walls. There’s a canoe hanging from the ceiling, tall ladders that roll along the length of bookshelves, and of course lots and lots of books.
If you have an indie bookshop in your town, you can probably understand the role that a place like this plays in the community. It’s kind of like a cultural centerpiece. Maria’s was one of the first shops that I ever stepped into when I first moved to Durango and immediately felt like I was tapping into the community.
Evan: More than just discovering great books, I think, being at Maria's means connecting with your community.
Margaret: That’s Evan Schertz, the new owner of Maria’s Bookshop. And, maybe I shouldn’t say new. He took the reins two years ago, when his parents, Peter and Andrea, decided to pass the family business along to him. Evan, who’s in his early 20s, grew up in the bookstore, hanging out in the back office, unplugging the computer…
Evan: …just mess things up…
Margaret: And even celebrating his birthday during a Harry Potter release party.
Evan: I felt like the whole block was celebrating my birthday.
Margaret: Even so, owning a bookstore wasn’t originally what Evan had in mind when he was considering careers.
Evan: So I studied engineering. And at some point, pretty early on in my college career, I realized that I didn't want to be an engineer but I still really liked learning it so I stuck with it.
Margaret: While he was at the Colorado School of Mines, Evan’s parents decided to sell Maria’s.
Evan: My parents, we'd never really talked about what the future of the bookshop was, and I'd never really considered it as being part of my future.
Margaret: Then, during a visit home …
Evan: They brought up the idea, you know, just really casually something like, well, you don't want to take over the bookshop, do you? And I'd never thought about it. So I said no.
Margaret: So, he went back to college. Kept doing what he was doing. But all the while…
Evan: And then it sort of sat in the back of my mind for a while and...
Margaret: And it grew and grew.
Evan: At some point I came around to just realize it's the most incredible opportunity in the world to be able to take over a business like this in a town like this.
Margaret: So, when Evan graduated in 2019, he became a bookseller. And, I remember hearing about this in the newspaper. It was like everyone was so relieved that Maria’s would be staying in the family.
Evan: My parents and I were surprised by just how much relief there was about the future of the business being secure.
Margaret: Of course, I wanted to know what it was like, coming fresh out of college, and stepping into the role of a business owner in such a highly-regarded place. Evan said there was a lot of pressure - mostly that he was putting on himself.
Evan: It was humbling for me to, you know, be learning the book selling job, as well as learning that, the business ownership side of it. So just learning how to be a bookseller, I think is maybe even harder. There's so many processes and procedures to follow.
Margaret: There’s a narrative about independent booksellers that’s been pretty mainstream since the 1990s when Amazon came onto the scene. 1995 marked a sharp decline in indie booksellers, nationwide, as well as some big chains. But the American Booksellers Association recently reported a 49% growth in independent booksellers from 2009-2018. That also coincides with an increase in printed books, every year since 2013, outselling e-books by a large margin.
That in itself is challenging expectations that small business can’t compete with Amazon. I asked Evan how indie booksellers - not just Maria’s - are thriving in the age of e-commerce.
Evan: I think it's people across the country rediscovering a, a desire to connect with each other in a way that maybe we've lost. I just think visiting an independent bookstore lets you connect with your community and, and people are realizing that we've lost some of that community connection over the last few decades. And what better way to, to re-discover that than to go visit your local independent bookstore.
Margaret: Community is such a large part of what independent bookstores create, but also what they need to stay in business. I read an interview with this Harvard business professor, Ryan Raffaelli, who’s been studying the resurgence of independent booksellers. He said that, instead of trying to compete with Amazon on things like inventory and pricing, independent booksellers are focusing on the tangible experience of shopping in real life. It comes down to three C’s - community, curation, and convenience.
So, for example, when you go into Maria’s, you’re going to find a collection of books that’s representative of the Durango community - it’s interests and passions and history. And that’ll be a totally different experience when you go into Townie Books in Crested Butte or Between the Covers in Telluride.
Evan: I want people to be able to discover local history, discover local authors. The books that we put at the front of the store, are placed there intentionally because we want them to represent Durango.
Margaret: This might sound obvious, but the kind of experience you’re going to have walking into an independent bookstore - whether it’s for an author event or just shopping - isn’t replicable online. Even still Maria’s does have an e-commerce site, which saw a lot of traffic during the shutdown last year.
Evan: Even in the middle of the worst part of the shutdown, when there wasn't a single car on Main Street, we had online order streaming in, the phone was busy. People were offering to help out in any way they could, and there was never a doubt in my mind that we were going to make it through this and, and come out on the other side stronger.
Margaret: Throughout our conversation, the importance of community kept coming up again and again. And initially I was thinking of this from an outside perspective, you know, the importance of an independent bookstore to a community. But then Evan said this:
Evan: You know, a whole community is making a conscious decision to support an independent bookstore like this. And I think that's just a huge testament to the community we live in, and every other community that supports an independent bookstore. It really says something about the values of the people in that community that they're willing to, and, and excited about supporting independent bookstores.
Delaney: Indie bookstores have been a meaningful part of the small town, as well as, the neighborhood experience for residents and travelers alike. A cultural hub, at the town center, that reconnects people to themselves and the human experience.
Margaret: As idyllic as that sounds, it hasn’t been an easy road for indie booksellers. The pandemic did put many stores, around the country, out of business last year. I remember reading, this time last year, that indie stores were closing at a rate of one per week.
Fortunately, that trend may be turning around. As of the beginning of this quarter, the American Booksellers Association reported that profits are up over 2020 and 2019 at many bookstores around the country.
Delaney: As we heard Evan say, the community plays such a strong role in the long term success of a local bookstore. And staying your course, as is the case with Maria’s, we get a peek into a legacy business - a family business - juxtaposed to the trend around serial entrepreneurship. Both are valid. And, equally important.
Margaret: Ok, so to round out this episode we are going to speak with a book publisher. Torrey House Press is a nonprofit literary publishing house that is actually based out of Utah, but has roots in Durango, as you’ll hear.
Delaney: Kirsten from Torrey House says something very important in this episode that is at the core of innovation. Listen for it… there may be a quiz later!
Torrey House Press
Kirsten: Back in spring of 2010, my spouse, Mark Bailey and I were, we were on kind of a vacation in the four corners, we'd wanted to explore that part of the Colorado Plateau a little bit more … And at the same time, we were thinking about starting a publishing company.
Margaret: That’s Kirsten Johanna Allen.
Kirsten: As part of our four corners tour, we went to Durango and walked into Maria's bookshop.
Margaret: And so they’re walking around the store and they wander over to this bookcase that’s right up front near the door…
Kirsten: And some of our favorite writers were there, Terry Tempest Williams and Wallace Stegner and we just said, well, we want to publish books that belong in this store on that shelf. We knew that there were lots of stories that weren't making it to the page. And we wanted to help fill that gap. There are a lot more stories and a lot more writers than the ones that everybody thinks of in the western literature canon of... and so we wanted to augment that, we wanted to bring to the page voices that we're not hearing who are particularly grounded in the West.
Margaret: Kirsten and her husband founded Torrey House Press, a literary book publishing house in Utah.
Kirsten: In our mission statement, we point out that we publish books at the intersection of literary arts and environmental advocacy.
Margaret: Neither Kirsten nor her husband Mark had a background in publishing. Mark had worked for an investment management firm and Kirsten had worked as an editor. With the help of their retirement savings, Kirsten and Mark started Torrey House Press and learned how to publish books along the way.
Kirsten: We launched in the first-year publishing three, three books in 2011. And then got into national distribution, starting in January of 2012.
Margaret: This year they’ll be publishing 11. Which, obviously, isn’t a lot compared to the thousands of books that a corporation like Penguin Random House puts out every year. So, I think we need to back up, and explain the difference between an independent press and a corporate publishing house.
Kirsten: The difference is we’re small, the difference is we’re not a conglomerate, we're not an imprint of a larger house. The difference is we’re nimble.
Margaret: Small presses like Torrey House don’t have the economy of scale that a major publishing house would, which means they can’t do their own warehousing or distribution. Instead they pool their resources with a consortium of small presses to get their books to market.
Kirsten: But it leaves us independent. We've, we make our own choices, we get to see what is, what is the work that we can do that makes a difference in that cultural conversation. And who are the partners that we want to work with?
Margaret: In the United States, the majority of the book publishing industry is controlled by the “big five” - Penguin Random House, Hachette, Harper Collins, Simon & Schuster, and Macmillan. And I don’t want to get too much in the weeds with this, but if you’ve been following the news, you’ll know that the Department of Justice recently sued to block Penguin Random House from acquiring Simon & Schuster. And part of the rationale is that it would make the marketplace less competitive, decreasing author advances and eventually resulting in fewer books, and less variety for consumers.
Which leads me back to the role of independent publishers. It’s kind of counter-intuitive, but Kirsten said independent publishers can actually take bigger risks and publish the kind of books that corporate publishing houses can’t.
Kirsten: The big houses have the finances to take big risks, but it is the independents that do the work of taking the cultural risks and trying new things. innovation happens with the indie presses….
Margaret: Because Torrey House Press publishes books rooted in the American West, they’re able to find and work with authors that might not be heard on a broader, national level.
Kirsten: Torrey House Press is being- bringing to the page stories and writers who are illuminating issues, cultures, places and people in the West.
Margaret: She said that partnerships with independent bookstores - like Maria’s - can help inform their decisions.
Kirsten: There aren't other publishers that are going to go hang out in Durango or Moab, or Bozeman and talk to the booksellers and say, what- what stories do you think are important? What is... what is working in your store?
Margaret: That’s actually how Kirsten found Durango author Scott Graham, who writes a national park mystery series.
Kirsten: So again it’s, it's having relationships with place, with the deep knowledge of the culture and the issues. But also, some of these other partners who can help illuminate issues for us, help deepen our work, help us be- have a better reach and a greater understanding of the region.
Margaret: She added …
Kirsten: It's the independent publishers that are looking for that niche, looking for that place that hasn't been explored yet. It's quite entrepreneurial.
Margaret: But that didn’t exactly translate into turning a profit…
Kirsten: Literature doesn't pay for itself, even at the big houses. They're publishing political memoirs right and left, those, those pay the bills, and unless a novel is going to get a Pulitzer or some otherwise, really remarkable wind beneath its wings... Most of the books that even the big publishers publish don't pay for themselves, other books pay the bills. So here we were, without a Sarah Palin memoir to pay the bills.
Margaret: In 2015, Kirsten began to consider turning Torrey House Press into a non-profit.
Kirsten: We couldn't keep being the, the only source of financial support for the press. So we went nonprofit, realizing that we needed larger community support to help bring these books to the page.
Margaret: She said book revenue covers just under 50% of their expenses. The rest is made up via fundraising.
Kirsten: I kind of felt like, just, I was just kind of getting the hang of how publishing worked. And then now I get to get the hang of how nonprofit fundraising works.
Margaret: When the pandemic hit in March 2020, Torrey House Press had to cancel numerous author events, and there were concerns that they might have to layoff staff, and questions of whether or not they’d be able to stay in business.
Kirsten: One of the first things we did was say, okay, who are we and what can we do in this moment. We launched an online series called that thing with feathers and invited Torrey House Press others to contribute pieces, about solace, about hope, about grief, about frustration, what were they experiencing in these months of... particularly the early months of the pandemic.
Margaret: That project helped them develop an online community and develop new methods of reaching readers. It’s also helping inform a capacity campaign to fundraise a million dollars over the next 3 years.
Kirsten: It kind of feels like this is a third startup wave for us. You know, the, at the beginning, I was let's launch a publishing company learn how to do publishing, and it was oh, let's be a nonprofit publisher, because that's what Torrey House Press wanted to be all along anyway. So now we get to learn how to do that. And now we get to say, wow, we've come out of this difficult year who are me, are we, and how can we be better and stronger? Now another thing that we that this last year has taught us is, is challenging Torrey House Press to, to deepen our commitment to publishing diverse voices…. We want to be the, the house where authors and readers want to learn more about issues from perspectives that a lot of other places aren't seeking actively to publish.
Delaney: Are you ready for your pop quiz?
Delaney: What’s at the core of innovation?
Margaret: Well, I’m going to cheat because I already know the answer. Risk!
Delaney: While Torrey House cannot take the same financial risks as a corporate publisher, they CAN take risks on what they choose to publish. Their risks incubate the publishing space with new, fringe voices and ultimately ensure greater access for talented writers to enter the market. These three businesses combined are all together very American, from pen to paper to publisher to Main Street bookstore.
Margaret: That’s something a lot of people forget: just how important the written word is to democracy and the development of this country.
Delaney: Well said. Conversations, thought-leadership, and challenging new ideas - continue to be a sign of community health - or democratic health - beyond innovation.
Margaret: Everyone thinks of New York and London as being these literary hubs, but while I was producing this episode, I found myself thinking that Durango has a lot of literary activity. You know, there are numerous writers that live here and in addition to the Zine, we have several other independent print publications like The Gulch, The Durango Telegraph, and Durango Magazine. And, of course, several other bookstores in town. And, I don’t have any data to back this up, but it seems like there’s a really strong literary undercurrent here.
Delaney: That’s funny, I remember a trip to a random district outside of Portland 12 years ago, when I stumbled upon a bookshop that only sold Zines. It is the people that make the place - and density does have a cause and effect - like creative magnetism. It seems to happen in small or unique places - across all industries. We just don’t often think of it when it comes to rural places.
Margaret: That’s such an interesting note about creative magnetism. I’d love to see more written word projects and businesses coming out of Durango. Who knows!
Ok, so that’s the end. That’s all. Before we head out, I want to let y’all know that we won’t have an episode in December. So, if you need something to listen to, now is a good time to catch up on our first two episodes - Beyond Craft Brew and the Entrepreneurs Tackling Water Scarcity.
Until then, Happy Holidays, we’ll see you in 2022.