Memories: Working at Scholastic, 1986.

That’s me with the antenna. Wait, no, I’m in the middle.

I started at Scholastic as a Junior Copywriter for $12,500 a year, hired partly because of a writing sample, an opinion piece I wrote about the subway shooter, Bernie Goetz (no lie), and also because I was the first young, heterosexual male to enter the building in the last six years — besides the mail room guys, of course. There were three other copywriters working on the book clubs: Bill Epes, Karen Belov, and Cynthia Larkins. I may have muffed those spellings. My primary responsibility was the K-1 SeeSaw Book Club. I sat in a cubicle and banged away on a typewriter. Computers came in less than a year after I arrived, a transition that caused great upheaval. We threw away our little bottles of liquid white-out, learned how to boot up with an MS-DOS 5 1/4 floppy disk, and so on.

An aside: I just breezed through the brilliant biography, STEVE JOBS, and it so captured the changes of technology through my life. If you are around my age (51 yesterday), or maybe any age, you’ve got read it. The author, Walter Isaacson, also wrote the biography, EINSTEIN, that I raved about previously.

At Scholastic, in the old 730 Broadway location, I worked in-house for almost five years, rising all the way to lower-middle obscurity. Another memory: I remember when they instituted a new policy no longer allowing people to smoke at their desks. Suddenly you had to go down to the 8th floor to the “smoker’s lounge.” Many of us feared that our old-school copyeditor, the chain-smoking Willie Ross, would lose her mind completely. Such a violation of personal liberty, an outrage perpetrated by the PC police, and I was  sure the laughter I heard came from the belly of Big Brother.

I continued on with Scholastic as a consultant and favored freelancer. Launched and ran the Carnival Book Club out of my home in Albany, as both editor and promotion manager. Wrote some books, started doing Jigsaw Jones in 1998, and on and on. I assumed my time at Scholastic would go on forever. But not quite. I used to really, really love that place, and I know I’m not alone in that regard.

The man on the left of the photo is my great pal Craig Walker. In life you don’t get to know too many people who become mentors, people you respect and admire and love, and for me Craig heads that very short list. He was one-of-a-kind. There was a long stretch of about 15 years or so when we were really, really good friends. We probably ate lunch together three times a week for four years, usually in the cheapest, no-nonsense dives we could find. Or was that the bars we frequented? The truly remarkable thing about Craig is that so many people felt that way about him. Our relationship was special. Our friendship was unique and powerful. Dozens upon dozens of people could make that same claim — and they’d all be correct. He was just one of those guys that made you think, “I wish I could be more like him.” Craig is gone now, but as I’ve written before, I try to remember everything.

1986, the day we watched Game 6 of the 1986

World Series at Brenda Bowen’s parents’ summer

place. Me and Craig.

Let’s see, yes, that’s art director Scott Hunt next to me. I thought of Scott a few days ago when, reading the book, I LOVE IT WHEN YOU TALK RETRO, the author Ralph Keyes explained the origin of one of Scott’s go-to words, “skosh.” As in, “Let’s move that type down a skosh.” Confusingly, it came from the Korean War, but was adapted from a Japanese word, sukoshi, meaning “a small amount.” Reading about those origins, I wondered if perhaps Scott’s father spent time in Korean conflict, hanging out with Hawkeye, Trapper John, Hot Lips, and the gang. Scott used to complain that his father was a gung-ho outdoors type, always taking the children on camping trips and forced hikes up impossible mountains. Scott would say, “I hated those hikes. I just wanted to stay home and watch movies!”

And to the right, that’s Cynthia Maloney, a Kansas gal. Cynthia used to wear a deerskin vest the like of which you have never seen, in Manhattan, no less. She had the messiest desk on all three floors. I’d ask her about something, an important memo or whatever, or a mechanical board she had to review and sign, and she’d turn to this tilting mountain of paper and, after a considered time, miraculously extract the key document from the perilous pile. Cynthia was older than I was, married with children, but I always had a secret crush on her, the way you do in office life, ten cubicles down, a world away. She might have been the nicest person in the place.

Anyway, we started a preschool book club, called it FIREFLY, and as far as I know it’s still going strong today, 25 years later. I wrote all the promotional copy, including every book description, for several years. At the time, it was a big, risky project. Craig’s editorial meetings were hilarious and legendary. Scholastic of that time was led by a supremely talented trio: Jean Feiwel in editorial, Barbara Marcus (my first real boss) in marketing, and wise old Dick Krinsley, steering the ship. Around then I had the honor of writing their first hardcover catalog — it included a total of four books by, um, Harry Mazer, Anne Mazer, Julian Thompson, and somebody else. Oh, what was it? Something about child safety, I think. A book cover that Craig likened to those Heimlich posters you’d see in restaurant bathrooms. He’d say something along the lines of, “I don’t know if it’s a good thing that every time I look at the book cover, I think of choking victims.”

Jean Feiwel, do you remember that book?

Ah, forgive me, memory lane.

This is an advertisement  I wrote at that time. A full-page ad was a huge extravagance, and you wouldn’t believe how many people fussed over this, and revised it, and changed it again and again. That was my line, “Because Growing Up and Good Books Belong Together.

POSTSCRIPT:

Jean wrote and gave me the name of that elusive title, CLOSE TO HOME by Oralee Wachter!

Craig had a flare for exaggeration, but the point stands:

16 comments

  1. jean feiwel says:

    Oh what a time it was!

    That book was called CLOSE TO HOME…(I think)

  2. jimmy says:

    CLOSE TO HOME . . . by Oralee Wachter! Thanks, Jean.

  3. Ellen Miles says:

    Oh, yes! I was watching that world series with you – still have pix of that weekend. Being the editor of TAB turned out to be the apex of my in-house publishing career; choosing just the right cute-kitten poster to punch up the January offer…. Great days. Working with Jean and Craig was a delight and a privilege. And an education.

  4. Shannon says:

    LOVE those photos!

  5. Brenda Bowen says:

    Hey Jimmy — I’ll take your hand as you meander down Memory Lane.

    Craig Walker stories are legion, as they should be, but here’s a good Dick Krinsley story: We were at an acquisition meeting — a scary prospect! — held in the old cedar water tank that had been incorporated in a post-modern way into the interior of the Scholastic building. I had a book I wanted to buy — NOT the Oralee Wachter, but something else, something really good, I was sure. I made my fervent pitch, after which we all stared at pieces of paper for the requisite ten minutes. Then Dick, whose metaphors were always sporting, asked me, a complete sports neophyte, “Is this book a home-run?” And I said, “No. It’s a stand-up triple.” I made him laugh! Hard to do in an acq meeting. And he signed the book. What he didn’t know was that I pilfered that phrase, the meaning of which I wasn’t quite sure of, from a Philip Roth book I had just read.

    Too bad I can’t say “…and that book went on to win Newbery Medal.” What I can say is that Jimmy Preller and his merry band of Mets fans subsequently taught me a lot about baseball. Turns out a stand-up triple is a very good thing.

  6. Liz S. says:

    I too was working in publishing when people could smoke at their desks. And then when they couldn’t, the uproar! This is all priceless, JP.

  7. Matt says:

    Hey Jimmy, wish I could have been there to watch that ’86 Mets game with you. I’m forwarding this on to Gina. She’ll love it.

  8. jimmy says:

    Matt, I’m going to see the Mets this May in Toronto — hopefully they’ll still be in the hunt. It’s the Ronny Cedeno signing; I can’t keep away.

    We should talk someday. Call me for no reason at all.

    And Brenda, I love that story . . . every single time you tell it. And that’s the way it should be with good stories, “Again!”

    On that note, my mother ran into Craig at the reception for my second marriage, back over 13 years ago (I think). She was surprised and happy to see him. “Craig, I didn’t know that you’d be here!”

    He smiled, took her hands, and said, “Oh, yes. I go to all of Jimmy’s weddings.”

  9. jimmy says:

    Yes, Liz, exactly. It seemed outrageous at the time — and of course, in retrospect, the uproar seems pretty ridiculous. We used to smoke on airplanes, in movies, in cars with the windows shut. And on and on. A different world.

    I used to specialize in satirical memos back in those days, spoofing whatever, and when the smoking dictum came out, I wrote one on Dick Robinson’s (purloined) official letterhead, banning various other things — loafers, I seem to recall — for the personal well-being of Scholastic employees.

  10. Oh, the ground-breaking books of Scholastic Inc. Close to Home…a runaway bestseller rivaled only by Maxx Traxx. Seriously, I do remember that Close to Home was a big, honking deal at the time, and rightly so. I hadn’t heard about Craig’s passing; so sorry to hear it, but happy that you stayed friends for all those years. You’ve tripped many memories for me, Jimmy. Ick, now I will get all middle aged and nostalgic about ol’ 730 Broadway for the rest of the day.

  11. jimmy says:

    Thanks, Carol. You were the one who hired me. I always remember what you taught me about describing a book for two different audiences, students and teachers. For students, let’s say we’re talking about Curious George, you explained that it should be, oh, “Watch out, that silly monkey just poured syrup on his head!” Then writing about the same book in the Teacher’s Notes section of the book club, we’d say, “In this time-honored honored classic, H.A. Rey . . .”

  12. Gina Shaw says:

    Love, love, love this walk down memory lane! Makes me miss the good ol’ days with Jean, Barbara, Craig… I remember that, for some reason, you were legendary when I returned to Scholastic and started working on Cartwheel with Grace and Bernette. Was a bit nervous when I was assigned to work with you on Wake Me in Spring, but I loved that book as well as Hiccups for Elephant so much and I learned a lot from you about easy readers! I remember our great lunchtime talks at Finelli’s. Got over being nervous around you ’cause you put me at ease! Never did get to say thank you so, thanks, Jimmy!

  13. jimmy says:

    Gina, that’s crazy talk. Glad you stopped by.

    I think it’s time for a reunion!

  14. Terry Moore says:

    I loved working at Scholastic too. I remember publicizing Close to Home! And then Vicky Lansky’s Cooking for Kids! I wrote that press release with a cigarette in my mouth! When they banned smoking in our cubicles I was so afraid I’d forget how to write a press release or a pitch letter! So sorry Craig passed–I loved him. I remember you and I would share a book of matches. I’d throw them over to you and you to me –when we’d have a smoke at our desk…those were the days!! It was a great group of extremely fun and creative people! When is the reunion????

  15. Brian says:

    Slightly before my time, but of course I know most of those people. And Craig was right, as always, that’s a TERRIBLE cover. I’d give it a BPO of .001 And yes, Cynthia is one of the nicest people, and yes, Jean and Barbara were, and still are, brilliant. And I think I possibly also got my job there due the fact that I was the only heterosexual male to apply for a job in six years. 🙂

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