Heyday Books is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. Malcolm Margolin—who founded the company in Berkeley, Calif., at the beginning of the small-press movement—said that one reason for Heyday’s survival has been its willingness to adapt to changes in the industry, such as the growth of e-books. “I have no personal enthusiasm for e-books,” he admitted, “but we do them. My first job as a publisher is to get stuff out into the world. If that means writing it in squid ink on paper airplanes and throwing it from a window, I will.”
In 1968, Margolin, a passionately independent iconoclast, and his wife, Rina, left Boston and drove west in a Volkswagen bus. They wound up in Berkeley and never left. Heyday started in 1974 when Margolin wrote and self-published East Bay Out: A Personal Guide to the East Bay Regional Parks and The Ohlone Way: Indian Life in the San Francisco/Monterey Bay Area, which both sold over 100,000 copies within a few years of publication. Margolin was in fine company back then, with Ten Speed and Nolo also emerging as indie presses. “We couldn’t have stayed alive if our early books hadn’t been bestsellers,” Margolin said. “If you start with books of poetry that don’t sell, it’s a struggle and you get defeated. But these books were a kind of endowment. We all burst into the world with big books that floated us the first few years.”
With the exception of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Publishing, Margolin, 73, said the small presses he started with are all gone. He said his 2001 decision to make Heyday a nonprofit was key to the press’s long-term survival. “The kind of stuff I love to publish is never going to make any money,” he said. “Money comes second. I made a living on [publishing]; I raised a family off it. But I’m still renting. I was able to raise money through foundations and donors and create a community of people around Heyday to support it. These are real friends.”
Heyday’s largest category is nature books. While at Harvard Margolin took his first tentative steps to learn about nature, guided by the MIT logician Walter Pitts. “He was 40 and I was about 20,” Margolin recalled. “We became hiking companions. I was working at a hot dog stand at an amusement park, and quit to go climbing out west with Walter. We went to the Tetons, the Olympics, and the Columbia ice fields. It was a marvelous immersion into this world. I was an urban Jew and hadn’t been taught anything about nature.” These experiences led Margolin to mold Heyday into a respected publisher of award-winning nature books and field guides, which comprise 50% of his list. The balance of Heyday’s books are focused on social justice, history, and Native American studies, with about 275 titles in print. Among the company’s most popular titles over the years are A Californian’s Guide to the Trees Among Us and Cityscape: San Francisco and Its Buildings.
Heyday has done its own distribution since 1993, when it left PGW and Margolin manages all aspects of the press. “I’m not good at dancing to other people’s tunes,” said Margolin, who is mindful of Heyday’s future as he considers retirement. His children are not interested in taking over the company. “I’ve got a wonderful board. They’re good friends, and they’re taking care of me and [the company]. They’re dealing with the succession, and have raised a chunk of money for the future. We’re getting somebody in to take on some of the managerial duties. I think my function for the next five years is to be out in the world and be a tuning fork.”
Heyday has always been driven by Margolin’s personality and interests. That’s changing, though. “As the place is growing bigger, it’s moving away from my interests,” he said, and incorporating more of the interests of the 11 other Heyday staffers. Margolin views this as essential to maintaining Heyday’s vitality. He quoted the social critic Lars-Erik Nelson to emphasize his core philosophy: “ ‘The enemy is not conservatism. The enemy is not liberalism. The enemy is bullshit.’ And Heyday is a bullshit-free zone.”