Although Ted Heinecken describes himself as having been an eminence grise at Fujii Associates until his February retirement, he’s considered by many to be the elder statesman of the entire Midwestern book world. Heinecken, 82, is a veritable repository of industry history from the 50-plus years he spent selling books as a sales rep. An interview conducted at Heinecken’s book-filled Chicago home about his long career overflowed with anecdotes about the industry notables with whom he’s worked, as publishing evolved from the “gentleman’s” business it was before the 1960s paperback revolution to an industry now dominated by five corporate conglomerates.

Armed with a master’s degree in English literature from the University of Minnesota, the Nebraska native quit academia in 1957 to launch his career in publishing as an editor in Philadelphia. After a series of changes and mergers, that first press where Heinecken worked is now Augsburg Fortress Press. He left Philadelphia in 1962 for Encyclopaedia Britannica Press in Chicago, “a short-lived enterprise,” where he met Hank Fujii, who educated him about the marketplace. “ ‘If you had some sales experience, you wouldn’t have to ask these questions,’ ” he recalls the salesman Fujii telling him, “ ‘but once you get into sales, you won’t be able to afford [being] an editor.’ ” Heinecken laughs, adding, “Maybe he meant it in an existential sense. I sense he was referring to the money.”

Heinecken took Fujii’s advice, obtaining a position in 1963 with Oxford University Press as its Midwest sales rep. He quickly realized he had found his life’s calling. His first sales call was on Chicago’s Barbara’s Books, “when it was still owned by Barbara.”

Chicago was at the time “the capital of the book business,” Heinecken says, with “all these legends” selling books, such as Kroch’s and Brentano’s and Stuart Brent.

But “B. Dalton was really a game changer,” Heinecken says. When he first called on the Dayton Hudson–owned bookstore chain (which would later be acquired by Barnes & Noble) in 1968, the order was “$80 net.”

After six years at Oxford University Press, Heinecken and another rep, Jay Ide, formed their own commission sales group in 1969. “Working for a company where you don’t have control over your destiny,” Heinecken notes, “wasn’t such a great idea.” There were very few commission groups in the region at the time. Fujii, who mentored Heinecken and Ide as they set up shop, had launched his own group, Fujii Associates, two years earlier.

The Heinecken-Ide Group launched with six publishers. Heinecken recalls, “They’re either imprints now or totally gone.” They included Heinecken-Ide’s two primary clients, Crowell and Regnery.

After the partnership dissolved nine years later, Heinecken formed his own group with two employees—one of whom is Charlie Boswell, PW’s 2005 Rep of the Year. In 1972, Heinecken says, they picked up “this odd little publisher called Workman” that published three or four titles each season. “We discovered later that [Fujii] had turned them down,” he says, noting that he himself made a similar miscalculation a few years later, when he turned down a company in Kansas City “run by these guys who were too naive and weren’t going anywhere” named Jim Andrews and John McMeel. “You can’t be right all the time,” Heinecken says wryly.

[Another Heinecken rep, Wes Caliger, who joined the team in 1981, was named PW's rep of the year in 2003.]

In 2008, Heinecken wanted “to stay involved, without the hassles of running a business,” and so he merged with Fujii Associates, which is now owned by Eric Heidemann. After he joined Fujii, Heinecken says, the company’s 10 employees realized that he was the only one that knew its founder, who had died in the mid-1960s.

Reflecting on publishing’s future, Heinecken is unabashedly optimistic. “It’s never been easy,” he notes—except for those early days, when he and Ide provided a service that “very few others else were doing.” But, he insists, even in an industry where “the only constant is that it is always changing,” it is essential for booksellers and publishers to maintain a constant connection with one another. Sales reps are a “direct conduit” between booksellers and publishers, he points out, adding that “what keeps us going is our customer [the bookseller]. Our obligation is as much to the booksellers as it is to the publishers. And that’s the way it is.”