To a certain generation, it sometimes seems like everything started in the Summer of Love, when droves of long-haired, freedom-seeking flower children flocked to the Haight-Ashbury with dreams of evoking a new and exciting counterculture.
Meanwhile, as the hippies created their dizzying utopia of sex, drugs and psychedelic rock, in that very same summer in 1967 and just a few miles away in Downtown San Francisco’s historic Flood Building, a smaller group was initiating something innovative and long-lasting. Chronicle Books might, like the activity in the Haight at the time, have been little more than a good idea. But it eventually grew into San Francisco’s largest and most cherished independent trade publishing company, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
The roots of Chronicle Books reach back even further into San Francisco’s history, though. The book publisher was originally an offshoot of the San Francisco Chronicle, which printed its first newspaper in 1865. A century later -- in the haze of San Francisco’s hippie boom -- Chronicle Books launched with the intent of publishing collections of the City’s most beloved Chronicle newspaper columnists: Joe Carcione (The Green Grocer), Merle Ellis, Stan Delaplane, and of course the beloved Herb Caen.
“It actually started because [the Chronicle] had initially created a book called The Hills of San Francisco as a subscription incentive, and it was fabulously successful,” says Chronicle Books president Jack Jensen. “There were calls from the retail book [sellers] to be able to sell the book, so they published it, and they distributed it to the bookstores. And a year and a half later, that led to a more full-blown list of books.”
Jensen says that roughly 75 to 80 percent of the content in the small handful of books Chronicle published in each of those first several years came directly from the newspaper, and each publication shared a unique perspective on San Francisco’s culture and history. One of the earliest -- on a lovely but rather "square" topic, considering the era of tie-dye, Vietnam War protests and marijuana -- was Here Today, a celebration of San Francisco's Victorian architecture published in 1968 in conjunction with the Junior League of San Francisco. (A few years later, in 1972, Chronicle published Chuck Crandall’s They Chose to be Different: Unusual California Homes, among many others focusing on homes and architecture of the time.)
Jensen joined Chronicle Books a decade after the chaos of the Summer of Love drifted away, in 1977. Initially the Western States sales rep, he proceeded to wear a variety of hats (sales and marketing director, general manager, publisher) before becoming the current president of the McEvoy Group, the holding company that owns Chronicle Books. He says that in his early years with the company, when the staff consisted of a mere six people, the editorial department began expanding its topical reach out and beyond the city. No longer strictly spotlighting San Francisco and Northern California-themed books, they began publishing books that drew a broader, international following. Chronicle managed to remain faithful to and influenced by San Francisco’s culture, however, with their signature art books celebrating the grooviness of 1970’s Bay Area happenings.
“One of the first books we did was called The Wizard's Eye [By Charles Milligan and Jim Higgs] and it was inspired by the move towards all kinds of interesting recycling; it was a visual book and it was inspired by that movement in the Bay Area,” says Jensen. “Another early book was called Woven Works [John and Susan Hamamur], where weaving had become literally a fine art rather than a craft.”
Another classic (and personal favorite of this writer) is Cannibal Soup: Tubbing with the Thompsons. The book elaborates on the history and joys of communal hot-tubbing, and true to Chronicle Books style, it includes fantastic photographs of bearded and shaggy-haired dudes and foxy bathing beauties enjoying the ultimate in 1970s Bay Area lifestyle relaxation.
"From early in the company’s history, we’ve been challenging and changing publishing expectations because of [our] ‘see things differently’ attitude,” says Publisher Christine Carswell, who joined Chronicle Books in 1994 after leaving The Hogarth Press in her native UK. “Seeing things differently means that when we encounter an author or artist’s work, we immediately ask ourselves how we can bring it to a wider audience in the most distinctive way.”
Of course, as San Francisco and the world continued to change, Chronicle evolved with it. The 1980s were met with the introduction of photo-heavy culinary books, launching the new genre with Sushi and following with an entire range of cookbooks by James McNair (Rice, Pie, Salmon, Vegetarian Pizza, and so forth) from the mid-'80s through the '90s. Chronicle also launched a children’s book line in 1987, followed by Nick Bantock’s notable Griffin and Sabine epistolary novel in 1991, which in turn led to their subsequent launch of the gift books and products that many cherish Chronicle for today. One of their most popular and lucrative books, which harkens back to its Summer of Love beginnings, was the 368-page, $60 Beatles Anthology in 2000.
Chronicle has widened its scope since those first days near the cable-car turnstile on Market Street, and now has over 300 employees in offices and partnership companies based in San Francisco, Tokyo and London. They’re opening a new office in New York this August. The number of books they publish has grown from 2-3 annually to nearly 300 new titles per year.
“One of my favorite things is spotting our publishing all around the world. I’ve seen it everywhere from Chang Mai to a wee gift shop in the Scottish Borders,” says Carswell. “But though we’ve certainly grown what we publish, how we publish it, and where we publish it, we stay true to our early mission.”
So how, exactly, does this homegrown publisher with such a broad and growing reach hold onto the spirit and love of San Francisco that sparked its early mission in the ever-changing City by the Bay?
One link is that former editor-in-chief Nion McEvoy purchased Chronicle Books in 1999 to ensure it remained an independent publishing house. And though Chronicle is no longer linked to the San Francisco Chronicle, its roots were re-established with the purchase, so to speak; McEvoy is the great-grandson M.H. de Young, one of the original founders of the newspaper in 1865.
Carswell points to an array of contemporary books and gift items Chronicle has published that continue to highlight the creative heart of San Francisco, including Wendy McNaughton’s Meanwhile in San Francisco, Kit Hinrichs and Delphine Hirasuna’s Build-Your-Own Cable Car and O Glorious City: A Love Letter to San Francisco by Jeremy Fish, among many others.
She also credits the staff’s Bay Area frame of mind for keeping the company connected to its mission of the early years.
“Just like the city itself, Chronicle Books has changed and grown since we were founded 50 years ago. But I don’t think our shared spirit has changed,” says Carswell. “Something that’s inherent to the Bay Area is its enterprise. It’s a place where ambitious, forward-looking people have flocked for centuries, to explore, to innovate, to build, to raise their own. And that spirit is inherent to Chronicle Books, too.”
"San Francisco people call San Francisco provincial, but in fact, I think it's always welcoming of new ideas and different ways of approaching things,” adds Jensen. “And so as a consequence, I think living in a culture that is as open as this is, and being immersed in this culture rather than the New York publishing culture -- which is really where the book business is centralized -- has given us the opportunity to see things differently. It's given us the opportunity to play by our own rules. The upstart nature of San Francisco has always been an inspiration to us.”
The San Francisco Center for the Book hosts an exhibit of 50 Chronicle books (one for each of its 50 years) with a reception at 7pm on Friday, June 23rd. The exhibit runs through Sept, 24. A company retrospective, Chronicle Books: The First 50 Years, will be available for a $20 donation to the San Francisco Center for the Book.