Member Blogs > ten pound island book companyThe Man Who "Really" Invented POD

  • Sun, 24 Mar 2013 04:18:28    Permalink
    The Joshua Ward House
    Bob Murphy grew up behind a cash register in a family owned drugstore. He exhibited an enlarged collecting gland at an early age, and wheedled his parents into driving him around to the many antique shops that existed in those days in search of antique coins, guns and colonial artifacts, as I recall. Then books as historical references, then books as collectible things in themselves.
    He set up his first shop in the reference room at the Boston Public Library. In the morning hed go hunting in Bostons many old and used book stores, making copious notes. Then hed go back to his warren and, with the aid of American Book Prices Current, pick out the best buys. Which hed then purchase and try to sell through trade magazines such as AB Bookmans Weekly, or offer back to the bookstores of Boston avoiding, of course, the establishments from which hed purchased them in the first place.
    Bob was canny. He was also, until you got to know him, reticent, rather reserved. He claimed that his best negotiating ploy was to make an offer and then say nothing. He was completely comfortable with his own silence, but it made people nervous and gave him an edge. Of course, no matter how canny one is, one cant sell everything one buys. Soon his Back Bay squat was overflowing with books. He moved to Salem and opened a shop. I think I met him at the shop in Derby Square, which may have been his second location.
    Being a rather easy going sort, Bob let himself get talked into partnering with a grandiose fellow who soon went broke a frequent outcome in the used book business, even then. Just about this time Bob purchased the book business of a colleague from his Boston Public Library days. This gentleman eked out a marginal living by copying genealogy articles on the BPLs public Xerox machine and selling them to people who were researching their family histories. Hed saved a master copy of each article, and he had a customer list. This was the business Bob bought and installed, along with a copying machine, in the vacant space left by his former partner.
    While the used book shop limped along, his new genealogical reprint business grew by leaps and bounds. This was due in part to the family history boom that swept America in the wake of the Bicentennial, but just as surely it was due to Bobs business acumen and remarkable problem solving ability. I cant tell you how much fun it was to witness the birth and astonishing growth of the newly branded Higginson Book Company.   Sort of like Horatio Alger in real life, with an ironic twist. Bobs nom de book was Nesbitt Quimby, and he renamed his assistant Emily Wheeldon- librarianish pseudo Yankee names that brought delight to the Hiberno-Canuck Murphy. A financial idiot of the first order, I took enormous vicarious delight in watching Quimby and Wheeldon rake in the dough.
    Soon he was running multiple industrial sized copying units and shipping bales of finished pages to an industrial book binder. He initiated relationships with major historical libraries, borrowing their rare books and providing them in return with durable copies for general circulation while keeping a master copy of each rarity for Higginson. His catalog soon contained tens of thousands of titles. When someone ordered a book hed simply Xerox a copy and send it off to the binder.
    In his quiet, unassuming way, Bob Murphy perfected print-on-demand technology a decade before anyone else even thought of it.
    He was no slouch when it came to real estate either. In addition to his own lovely old house at the far end of Salem Commons, he worked a deal to purchase the historically important Joshua Ward House for pennies on the dollar, after its former owner had defaulted on his loan. Bobs offices went there. Production moved to an industrial park where there was a loading dock for the trucks he needed to get his pages to the binder.
    So when Barnes and Noble, then at the height of its dominance (and arrogance), decided it wanted to stock three copies of every out-of-print book, Bob was ready for them. Hed find a book, and if it wasnt in Books In Print, hed bang off four copies, retaining one as a master and sending the other three to Barnes and Noble with a bill. It took years for B&N to grasp the stupidity of its endeavor. In the interim, Murphy made his million and then some.
    All the while, though, he retained his love for old books. Several times a year Id pick him up in Salem and wed go off book scouting for a couple of days - telling stories, investigating Industrial Age archaeology, and drinking expensive whiskey in cheap motels. It was therapy for him got him away from the pressures of his reprint business and back to his bookselling roots. For me, it was always more fun to do my scouting - on which I depended for my daily bread - with a buddy. And Bob was an excellent buddy. Low maintenance, with a wonderful, dry sense of humor, and smart about a lot of things, including books. We covered New England, parts of New York State, and got as far west as Chicago and Minneapolis on those jaunts. Or we might just do a day trip and visit, in no particular order, Charlie Curry, Much Ado, Arthur DeSousa, Jean McKenna, Joel Raine, Mr. Roach, Saxifrage, and the Cressys all within half an hour of Salem, so that we could be back in time for dinner at Roosevelts, a restaurant/bar that was pretty good back when.
    His marriage fell apart in the late 80s, and  it was Bobs major sadness that he had no family. Then he met Sara, and all that changed. He became involved in family life and our road trips stopped. He was a happy man then, but when we got together every once in a while, wed talk about our old days on the road. I think he missed them. I know I did.
    I tried to get in touch with him last summer and found out he had cancer. I kept thinking thered be a moment to go see him, but then Sara called and told me hed died on March 10th.
    All the sudden there was no more time.

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