Literary Crossroads

When publishing giants balked, a small Texas bookstore took a chance on the sequel to 'Bridges of Madison County.' The big-time gamble could pay off.

April 23, 2002|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN ARTS WRITER

There are a thousand country roads, and one of them leads to Mike and Jean Hardy's place in Alpine, Texas.

Their store is called Front Street Books, though technically, it's not on Front Street, but on the very European-sounding Holland Avenue. Mike and Jean will tell you that in the 1880s when the bookstore was founded, the strip of pavement and businesses was called "Front Street" because it faced the railroad tracks.

The tracks are still there. And as soon as you get out of town, past the florist's shop, the art gallery, the jewelry store and movie theater, Holland Avenue reverts to its original identity, an identity that precedes even the invention of the diesel engine. This country road becomes the old Spanish trail, running from California to Florida.

Whatever its address, Front Street Books now is on the international literary map. Today, the first 355,000 copies of A Thousand Country Roads, Robert James Waller's epilogue to The Bridges of Madison County are scheduled to arrive in bookstores. The slender novel with a buttermilk-yellow cover was edited by Jean and published by Mike.

This is the story of how the proprietors of a mom-and-pop bookstore in rural Texas landed the North American rights to the sequel of the best-selling hardcover novel of all time. Despite widespread critical hooting, Waller's tale of the love affair between an Iowa housewife and a footloose photographer has sold 12 million copies worldwide since it was published in 1992. A movie version in 1995 starred Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep.

The Hardys don't mind acknowledging that they weren't Waller's original choice for the manuscript about what happens to the lovers after they separate. He initially presented a working draft to his Bridges publisher, Warner Books.

The publishing giant turned down the epilogue, because editors there didn't like it. Besides, there was some thought that Bridges was a not-to-be-repeated phenomenon. Waller has written three novels since Bridges, and each has sold fewer copies than the one previously.

"The first book was such a huge success, and there was a concern that we wouldn't get back to that kind of level again," said Laurence Kirshbaum said, chairman of AOL Time Warner Book Group.

Waller was disappointed by the publisher's decision, but philosophical. As he explained during a telephone interview:

"When Warner passed on it, my agent said, `What do you want to do with it?' And I said, `I don't know, why don't I put it away for a while?' But I've had so many letters from readers who wanted to know what happened to Francesca and Robert Kincaid. Acquaintances who have seen my manuscript have said, `You really ought to publish it.' "

So he mulled it over, and remembered that Bridges had started small, with Waller peddling copies himself, from the back of his pickup truck. Perhaps the same approach would work for the epilogue. That's when he thought of the Hardys.

Waller lives on a ranch in west Texas, and he was a regular customer of the Front Street Books in Alpine. (The Hardys own a second store, also named Front Street Books, in nearby Marathon.) Occasionally, Waller would sign copies of his novels for the store. At other times, he would set up a guitar and microphone and sing some of his songs in the bookstore's small performing space, beneath the original tin ceiling that Mike and Jean had lovingly restored.

This is how he remembers the chain of events:

"One day, I called Jean and told her that I had a new manuscript. I said, `What if I run off 10,000 copies that I will pay for myself? We can sell them through your bookstore and advertise them on your Web site. We'll just sell it for fun.' "

But just as Front Street Books belies expectations, so do Mike and Jean.

Waller didn't realize it, but Jean worked as an editor for 12 years, and Mike had started his own publishing company. The Hardys told Waller they would be happy to put out his new manuscript - but they wouldn't take any of Waller's money. They would pay for the business venture themselves, just as a large New York publishing house would.

"Mike and I are fiercely independent," Jean Hardy said. "We are independent publishers, not a vanity press."

An eclectic pair

Mike and Jean met when they were juniors in high school in Beaumont, Texas. where they were the top students in Seniorita Dean's Spanish class. They married at age 20. Now 58, they have three children and three grandchildren.

They also are "entrepreneurial-type people" with wide and eclectic tastes. He has a bachelor's degree in history and is licensed to practice law in Texas. She has bachelor's degrees in English and journalism, and a master's degree in biology.

Both are bibliophiles of the first rank, and when Front Street Books went up for sale in 1994, they were worried about what would become of one of their favorite haunts.

"This is a university town, and it needs a full-time bookstore," Jean Hardy said. "Mike and I both have very broad interests, and a bookstore is a playroom for us."

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