Since the middle of the 19th century, Indianapolis has had important associations with the book world—for its publishers, book designers, and book collectors, as well as for its authors of popular literature.

Book Publishing

The book trade in Indianapolis began in earnest when the first bookstores appeared. W E. Dunbar opened his shop in 1833, and Samuel Merrill, founder of Bobbs-Merrill, started the city’s third bookstore in 1850. By 1873, when the Indianapolis Public Library first opened, Merrill’s store was important enough to handle all of its initial orders.

Merrill was launched as a publisher ten years later through one of Indianapolis’ most famous partnerships. Merrill’s company decided to move away from its lawbook specialty by taking over James Whitcomb Riley’s “The Old Swimmin’ Hole” and “Leven More Poems” for a second printing in 1883. The association of Merrill and Riley was an enormous success. The bookstore, now Bowen-Merrill, helped establish the market for Riley’s books, and Riley’s immense popularity turned the local bookseller into a major American publisher. The company would sell half a million Riley titles in the next ten years, and more than three and a half million by 1949.

Bowen-Merrill did not find another bestselling author until 1898 when it brought out Charles Major’s When Knighthood Was In Flower. The company had learned from its experience with Riley that publishers as well as authors make bestselling books, and it was John Jay Curtis, a company officer, who first suggested the title and then developed a sales plan to advertise the book in major newspapers throughout the country. The plan and the book were a great success, and Knighthood ended up as the second-best-selling American book of 1899.

Curtis was something of a genius as a publicist. He began the mass marketing of books to the general public by way of large newspaper advertisements. His dust jackets became the colorful sales-prompters of today. He was the first to commission likely authors—turning Maurice Thompson from a scholar into a bestselling fiction writer, for example. As a result, the firm had fiction bestsellers in all but two of the years between 1898 and 1914—sometimes two, three, or even four on the list at once. Included among these bestsellers was the company’s first children’s book, L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz (1900). Later triumphs included Maurice Thompson’s Alice Of Old Vincennes (1900), Emerson Hough’s The Mississippi Bubble (1902), Meredith Nicholson’s The House Of A Thousand Candles (1905), Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Man In Lower Ten (1909), Vaughn Kester’s The Prodigal Judge (1911), and Owen Johnson’s The Salamander (1914). New and regrouped Riley collections continued their phenomenal sales.

Though the company, renamed Bobbs-Merrill in 1903, would not monopolize the bestseller lists after 1914, it maintained its position as a major trade publisher. Such authors as Richard Halliburton (whose 1925 travel book Royal Road To Romance led to eight other books), Irving Bacheller, Earl Derr Biggers (author of the Charlie Chan stories), Talbot Mundy, and Julia Peterkin were all market successes. In 1926, the company again placed two outstanding titles on the year’s bestseller list—John Erskine’s novel, The Private Life Of Helen Of Troy, and the first-place nonfiction book, Bruce Barton’s The Man Nobody Knows.

During the 1930s Bobbs-Merrill’s greatest commercial success was Irma Rombauer’s The Joy Of Cooking. First published in 1931, Joy sold some three million copies by 1958. The company also continued to publish lawbooks, the bestselling juvenile series “Childhood of Famous Americans,” and a greatly expanded line of textbooks—especially the popular “Bobbs-Merrill Readers.” By 1940, the School Book Department had sold millions of volumes.

During the next two decades, Bobbs-Merrill’s trade press division would decline in importance, even though it published many notable titles. (Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead was one of these.) The company’s fortunes had come to depend on its legal and educational publishing. It was the education division that was of primary interest when Howard W. Sams bought Bobbs-Merrill in 1958. The purchase ended an era. As part of the Sams group, the firm would increasingly specialize in training materials and school and college texts.

The Sams company was typical of another kind of book publisher occupying an important place in Indianapolis—the provider of training materials to business and industry. Howard Sams was an entrepreneur whose company had grown from 12 people in 1946 to over 500 when he acquired Bobbs-Merrill. It had begun by publishing radio and television technical service bulletins, but Sams saw education and technical training as the general purpose of all his enterprises. In this spirit, the Sams organization acquired Bobbs-Merrill, opened technical schools, and later became a substantial publisher of manuals for the microcomputer industry.

Sams did attempt to strengthen general-interest publishing at Bobbs-Merrill, hiring an experienced New York publishing executive as president, but those efforts were unsuccessful. The company finally passed out of local ownership in 1966 when Sams sold his companies to International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT). From that point, general book publishing was a relatively minor aspect of Bobbs-Merrill. ITT sold the Sams companies to Macmillan in 1985, and Bobbs-Merrill was merged out of existence as a separate and distinct organization.

Bobbs-Merrill, one of the country’s oldest and most distinguished publishing houses ceased operations as it was intermingled with the new wave of technological publishing that became such a large part of the modern book industry. Indianapolis remains a publishing center, and the company that absorbed Bobbs-Merrill continues to commission and sell millions of books; however, the books are for users of microcomputers rather than the general reader. A brief account of that “new” history illustrates the complexity, multinational character, and endless organizational changes that are now typical of the city’s book trade.

Sams made a natural extension from electronics books to books for computer users in the late 1970s. In 1981, the Que Corporation in Carmel also started publishing computer books. A year after Macmillan acquired Sams (and Bobbs-Merrill) from ITT, it also purchased Que. Que went on to publish a national bestseller, though it never appeared on the New York Times bestsellers list—a software guide, Using 1-2-3, that sold a million copies by 1987.

Macmillan was acquired in 1988 by the London-based Maxwell Communications Corporation, and Sams and Que were merged. Shortly before Robert Maxwell drowned in a boating accident, the Indianapolis entity was sold to Paramount Communications (owners of the movie studio). By then, Paramount also owned both the Simon and Schuster and the Prentice Hall publishing houses. The Indianapolis company then became Prentice Hall Computer Publishing, a part of Simon and Schuster, itself a subsidiary of Paramount. Indianapolis still had a major publisher, a descendant of Bobbs-Merrill, that sold more than seven million copies in 1991.

Book Retailing

The original Merrill bookstore would show the same continuity and staying power as the publisher. Known as Ober’s for most of its history, it survived as Indianapolis’ premier independent bookseller until 1983.

Ober’s could trace its lineage continuously from 1833 when its first predecessor was opened. After a succession of owners, it became Bowen-Merrill in 1885, and then Bobbs-Merill in 1903. It ceased to be part of the Bobbs-Merrill Company in 1909 when it was brought by William K. Stewart.

C. S. Ober acquired control of the bookstore in 1945, changed the name to Ober Bookstore, and moved it to its final location in the Ober Building. An Indianapolis cultural landmark until its closing, it could not compete with chain stores such as Waldenbooks and B. Dalton’s, which offered many fewer titles but could provide shopping mall locations and discounted prices on trade books. It was believed at the time that independent bookstores were in permanent eclipse, but this did not prove very optimistic. A few years later there were several general-reader bookstores in Indianapolis, including Borders (opened 1987), a small chain that combined mall location and computerized operations with an immense inventory of more than a hundred thousand titles.

As for used and rare books, Indianapolis has improved since 1973, when a local magazine declared that “the last used bookstore has closed” after the Indiana Bookstore shut its doors. Aside from stores limited to paperbacks, there were in the early 1990s at least five dealers in used books with some antiquarian interests.

Book Design

Two of the most important names in book design and fine printing, Bruce Rogers and the Grabhorns, produced some of their early work in Indianapolis.

Bruce Rogers, claimed by some of the best book designers of the early 20th century, was a native of Lafayette, Indiana, who studied art at Purdue University. In 1893, he worked for the Indiana Illustrating Company where he designed a pamphlet, Botany In Pharmacy, for Eli Lilly and Company. This was the first published book designed entirely by him. His most substantial Indianapolis work was the catalogue of the Walters art collection done for R. B. Gruelle, produced in 1894, the first book with Rogers’ name in the colophon. Rogers left the city for Boston in 1895, where he was to make his reputation.

Edwin and Robert Grabhorn, whose Grabhorn Press became one of the most honored private presses in the world, started as printers in Indianapolis. Edwin opened the Studio Press in Indianapolis in 1915 at the age of 25. His main business was advertising brochures, but he produced his first book the following year— The Master Of The Machine by Temple Scott. Other booklets were to follow, and in 1918 his brother Robert joined him at the Studio. Together they produced in 1919 their first hardcover book, George C. Calvert’s A Defense Of The Dilettante. They were to produce only one more book in Indianapolis, a study of the typography in A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Mark Liddell of the Purdue English Department. By the end of the year, the brothers decided to move to California, where their Grabhorn Press became world-famous.

Book Collecting

Indianapolis’ most famous book collector was Josiah K. Lilly Jr., who formed his collection over 30 years beginning in 1925. He started with first editions of Indiana authors, but his first major acquisition was a rare copy of Edgar Allen Poe’s Tamerlane (1827), which he bought in 1929 for $25,000. He went on to collect English and American literature generally, then Americana, and finally the history of science and medicine. In 1956, when he donated this collection to Indiana University it contained over 20,000 volumes and was valued at $5 million.

Josiah seems to have inspired his father, J. K. Lilly Sr., to start collecting as well. Starting in 1930, J. K. assembled the most comprehensive collection of first and early editions of Stephen Foster, which he donated to the University of Pittsburgh in 1936.

Bibliographical Research

Indianapolis is also associated with important bibliographical research, most notably the work of Charles Evans. Evans was the first librarian of the Indianapolis Public Library. After his retirement in 1892, he set out to record everything printed in the early years of the United States. In 1934, twelve volumes later, his American Bibliography had covered the years 1639 through 1799.

Dorothy and Anthony Russo were booksellers and bibliographers who began working with the Indiana Historical Society in 1929. Over the next 30 years, Dorothy Russo authored or co-authored four of the finest author bibliographies ever produced, all on Indiana authors— Kin Hubbard, James Whitcomb Riley, George Ade, and Booth Tarkington.

The most important of Josiah Lilly’s bibliographical projects was his support of the work of Jacob Blanck. Blanck was responsible for the comprehensive descriptive Bibliography Of American Literature of the 19th century, which began appearing in 1955, as well as for assisting the Russos with their Riley bibliography.

*Note: This entry is from the original print edition of the Encyclopedia of Indianapolis (1994). We are currently seeking an individual with knowledge of this topic to update this entry.

Revised January 1994

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