Mark Fleeman of Fujii Associates introduces himself on the company’s website with a few words that succinctly encapsulate his 35-year career as a commission rep: “I’ve been with Fujii since 1988, many stories, and many miles.” Indeed, Fleeman’s repping career as part of a group that covers 17 states in the Midwest and the TOLA region (Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas) is set against the colorful backdrop of an evolving publishing world, peopled with industry notables of the 1980s and ’90s whose names still resonate.

The Anderson, Ind., native says that as a youth, he loved books and bookstores, even though there weren’t many in his hometown. After graduating from Indiana State University in 1982 with degrees in history and geology, Fleeman worked in circulation for the Knight Ridder newspaper empire in Gary, Ind., before being transferred to the company’s headquarters in Miami to take part in a management training program.

After Fleeman determined that his future wasn’t with Knight Ridder, he allowed fellow Indiana State alum Jerry Stroud to “lure” him to work as a Fujii rep assigned to the TOLA region; Stroud had acquired the company in 1976 from founder Hank Fujii. Eric Heidemann now heads the company.

“I went down there with a handful of publishers in my bag,” Fleeman says. “I called on everything, probably 300 stores in a four-month period.” Noting that such an itinerary was “a little difficult,” he adds that he ended up “cutting it back to 125 stores.”

After moving to the Twin Cities area in 1995, Fleeman switched to covering accounts in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the Dakotas. “I fell in love with those accounts,” he says, rattling off the names of legendary but long-gone Twin Cities indie stores—Odegard’s, Baxter’s Books, Hungry Mind/Ruminator Books, and the wholesaler Bookmen. “One of the greatest honors in my career was calling on Bookmen. Norton Stillman, Ned Waldman—they were able to find their customers and keep them happy,” with amenities including shopping carts for local booksellers to use while browsing in the wholesaler company’s Minneapolis warehouse.

Fleeman also name-checked David Unowsky and Tom Bielenberg, respectively the owner and long-time store manager of Hungry Mind/Ruminator in St. Paul. “They knew when I was doing something wrong and they’d correct me,” he says. “I learned so much from those two.”

After moving back to Indiana in 1998, the same year that Stroud sold Fujii to Don Sturtz, Fleeman settled in Valparaiso and serviced accounts across the heartland. He currently covers his “natural territory”: Indiana, Kentucky, Chicago and central Illinois, and Wisconsin between Madison and Green Bay. From 2006 to 2013, Fleeman also serviced accounts in Louisiana, but, he says, “it became too much, even though I loved those accounts.”

While much has changed in the 35 years since Stroud persuaded Fleeman to become a rep, “the approach for commission reps is still the same,” he says. “What’s changed are the mechanics,” such as Edelweiss and other digital tools. While commission reps no longer have to send “30 pounds of catalogs to 50 bookstores,” the expenses incurred by commission reps on the road continue to rise, forcing him and his colleagues to “learn to adapt by finding creative ways” to save money while continuing to provide their accounts with excellent service and face-to-face meetings.

The time has long passed since reps could spend days at accounts, but Fleeman says his accounts—a mix of indies, museum stores, and wholesalers —still want to see their reps. “We’re needed now more than ever: the accounts want to know what’s going in the business, what’s big, and what’s not.”

Reps build community by sharing information with their accounts, Fleeman notes, and also serve as conduits between publishers and retailers, advocating for their accounts with publishers when necessary. The importance of reps was amply demonstrated during the pandemic, he adds, when publishers offered special discounts and made other concessions to beleagured indie bookstores. “The publishers really stepped up. We reps communicated to the publishers that the indies were struggling, they were working as hard as they could. And the publishers responded in a big way.”

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