Claire Kirch, PW’s midwest correspondent, attended Lerner’s 50th anniversary celebration last Wednesday.

Adam Lerner, Harry Lerner and former
vice president Walter Mondale.
Photo: Todd Strand/Interface Graphics.

As I approached Minneapolis’s Central Library on a gloriously balmy spring evening, 15 minutes before Lerner Publishing Group’s 50th anniversary celebration was scheduled to begin, I could see through the building’s soaring, translucent glass walls throngs of celebrants already crowding the atrium, stairs, and second floor.

Approximately 600 guests from all over the world, including U.S. and U.K. publishers, authors, industry professionals, politicians, the extended Lerner family, and assorted family friends, joined the 150 LPG employees in celebrating the family-owned company’s half-century of publishing children’s books for both the trade and school/library markets. Music wafted through this sparkling shrine to Minneapolitans’s commitment to literacy, as the crowd mingled, many nibbling on hors d’oeuvres while sipping wine or locally brewed beer.

Author Chris Monroe, LPG creative director Zach Marell, author Nancy Carlson and Carolrhoda editorial director Andrew Karre. Photo: Todd Strand/Interface Graphics.

A half-hour program opened with a bang, as Minneapolis city council president Barbara A. Johnson read aloud a proclamation issued by the mayor, proclaiming May to be “Lerner Publishing Group Month” in the Mill City. From the presentations that followed, it became obvious almost immediately that the evening wasn’t just a celebration of the company’s longevity. It was also a tribute to the vision, dedication, and hard work of its founder, Harry Lerner, who launched his publishing career in 1956 by writing and self-publishing a guidebook on automobiles while he was a soldier stationed in Germany. After returning stateside, Lerner switched to publishing children’s books in 1959 with, that first year, four titles written by his sister-in-law that were aimed at helping children through childhood illnesses.

Harry Lerner (center), with Amy and Bob Raczka, author of The Vermeer Interviews.
Photo: Todd Strand/Interface Graphics.

Today, LPG not only publishes more than 300 titles each year in nine imprints for children and young adults, but it’s also a fully integrated publishing operation housed in a 250,000-square-foot complex of four buildings, which offers complete pre- and post-production services to other book publishers, librarians, and educators. Besides LPG, Lerner Universal Corp. is the parent company to Muscle Bound Bindery, which specializes in the manufacturing of perfect-bound books and related products; and Interface Graphics, providing design, typesetting and pre-press services.

LPG had evolved over the past five decades “from an idea, to a few books written by relatives, in a small building in the cheap rent district” of downtown Minneapolis, to a “national, then international presence, printing in different languages and distributed around the world,” declared the evening’s celebrity speaker, Walter Mondale, the 42nd vice president of the United States. But, he added, his old friend Harry Lerner had a great impact on Mondale’s own life and career, and perhaps, on American history as well. He related a story of how Lerner had encouraged his wife, Joan, to write a book about the arts, Politics in Art, which LPG subsequently published as part of its Fine Art Books for Young People series.

LPG editor-in-chief Mary Rodgers, Adam Lerner, and Klaus Flugge of London’s Andersen Press.
Photo: Claire Kirch.

“The book came out in, I think, 1972,” Mondale recalled, “It was widely distributed and may have helped me get elected with Jimmy Carter. The idea [among voters] was that any candidate smart enough to marry Joan Mondale should be elected vice president. Well, it worked for me.

“It’s a special personal thrill,” Mondale concluded, “to be with Harry, and with all of you, as we rejoice in [LPG’s] marvelous success, underpinned with the good purpose of enhancing literacy, knowledge, enlightenment, and the joy of learning.”

Following Mondale to the podium was Harry Lerner, the man of the hour, whose official title is now LPG founder/chairman. He recalled his “horse-and-buggy” early days as a publisher, spending his days working from a small, one-room office with an orange crate for a desk, promoting books, and his evenings editing, packing books, and typing carbon copies of customer invoices on a Smith-Corona typewriter. “I just hated it when a school would require an invoice in quadruplicate,” he said, only half-joking.

A packed house listened
to Harry Lerner’s remarks.
Photo: Todd Strand/Interface Graphics.

Fifty years later, “Everything has changed,” Lerner declared, somewhat mournfully, “My red editing pencil has been replaced by a computer with spell check. Selling to schools and libraries where you could sit down with a teacher or librarian and explain each book doesn’t exist any longer. Computers are on kids’ desks. Instead of a blackboard there is a white board or a smart board. The electronic age is upon us. I must confess that I’m terribly uncomfortable with the new electronic gadgetry.”

But, Lerner added, as the company marks this milestone, he’s confident the publishing house he founded so long ago would continue to grow and thrive, especially since his son, Adam, has taken over the business in the past decade, and, with a technologically savvy young staff, is moving it forward into the 21st century by making books available in new formats.

“The good news is,” Lerner pointed out, to applause, “We’re financially healthy enough to take on new projects, and to aggressively pursue them—and we’re doing well enough to pop for a party like this tonight.”

“Fifty years in publishing,” he concluded. “And I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”