By Karen Jameyson
“Hello, is that the horny book?” the husky voice inquired.
“Umm . . . well . . . ” Not that I knew of, but then I’d only been working at the Horn Book, Inc., for a couple of days when I answered that phone call from someone looking for a porn magazine. Maybe those tidy rows of children’s books and handmade hornbook replicas were all a front.
In 1979, when I began my decade there, the company had offices in the stolid old Park Square Building — not the least bit shady. But the presence of a Social Security office in the building meant that an intriguing assortment of people were forever trooping mistakenly through the Horn Book’s door. The fact that the building also housed the Israeli consulate meant that, for a period of time, bomb scares and evacuations punctuated the weeks. Editorial meetings occasionally took place on the sidewalk, with taxis tooting by and Greyhound buses varooming into their terminal.
Still, I did eventually decide that the company couldn’t be a front for anything. The changing cast of players, while incredibly varied, were also united in their bibliophilistic mission. The crowd practically dripped with dedication — and knowledge and a few other handy commodities.
Even the nonphysical presences were dedicated. When I first arrived, copyediting was done collectively. Ethel Heins, then editor, presided, but Paul Heins, the gentle, wise former editor and husband of Ethel, was perpetually available, an omniscient grammar god, at the other end of the phone. “It’s a case of the little brown house,” he would proclaim with characteristically polite assurance about some comma snarl. Or “That’s a ‘my son, John.’”
Other scenes replay themselves. Once, while opening new books, I had just started to read aloud the title of one when the bookshelves began jiggling (the staff was dependable, but oh, some of those shelves . . .). Earthquake? Bomb scare? No, Ethel — editor-turned-racehorse — was galloping down the hall. She skidded to a halt and snatched, before I’d even gotten to the third word, “Outside Over — ” And, almost as instantly, it seemed, she was reading, talking, understanding, sharing: instinctively appreciating, instinctively teaching.
When Anita Silvey took over the editorship upon Ethel’s 1984 retirement, Ann Rider (editorial assistant at the time) and I were perpetually dumbfounded at the speed at which the new editor could work. Not to mention all the brilliant new ideas. Exhausting. Was it the hats that did it? We weren’t sure. But no sooner had we handed her copy and picked up our own pens than she would reappear with her editing all done. What did it take to keep that woman occupied?
Of course, the Horn Book experience extended beyond the immediate office. Once, when Anita was interviewing Robert McCloskey for a radio program, Ann and I were instructed to see that he got to the station safely. To our delight he insisted on stopping for a “Co’ cola” and regaling us with reminiscences of his younger years, including, as I recall, fishing with “Annie” Carroll Moore.
At that time, of course, all our work was done without the benefit of today’s technology. Every October, for instance, the editorial office was transformed into a Memorial to the Index Card in preparation for the annual index. Hundreds of the pesky little things formed piles about the room. The editorial staff typed grimly away, one cheek often bulging, squirrel-like, with some sustaining item of food. Whoever happened to be editor wisely kept a wide berth until the proofreading stage. Too many cooks fussing over the index and the whole place would have become a sanatorium.
There was also the ka-chung ka-chung of the Addressograph — the mechanical heart of the Circulation Department — valiantly printing out thousands of subscription labels from towers of small plastic stencils. That loud, rhythmic sound usually heralded the triumphant completion of another magazine. Any interruption usually heralded trouble. Still, the Circulation Department boasted its share of creative problem-solving. Once when the machinery mysteriously gobbled up the metal weight that sat on the stencils, Mary Mehegan (one of Circulation’s human hearts) brought in a beach rock to plunk onto the pile of address plates. Ka-chung, ka-chung, we were in business again.
And what a business it was there at the Horn Book: was, has been, and still is, of course! (Horny book, indeed.)
Karen Jameyson lives in Sydney, Australia, and writes the “News from Down Under” column for The Horn Book Magazine.
From the September/October 1999 issue of The Horn Book Magazine