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Green Tiger Is Alive and Purring in New Home

In a time when the publishing industry echoes with tales of multimillion-dollar advances and glitzy marketing strategies, there’s a San Marcos press whose award-winning children’s books are known instead for their magical illustrations, beautiful craftsmanship and wondrous stories.

When the great-grandson of L. Frank Baum, creator of “The Wizard of Oz,” decided to follow the Yellow Brick Road of family tradition and write “Dorothy of Oz,” he brought his manuscript to the Green Tiger Press.

“They make books in the traditional way at Green Tiger, just like the old Oz books, complete with frontispiece illustration and hand-sewn pages,” said Roger Baum, whose second Oz book, “The Rewolf of Oz,” will be released this fall. “The color and definition of the pictures is outstanding and the appeal is deep.”

Green Tiger’s pages open upon a world of crescent moons, Japanese lanterns, dogs that dance, bears on parade, radiant-faced sunflowers, sugar ships, cool green sea nymphs and romantic, apricot-hued interiors.

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The publishing company, which in August marked its first birthday at its San Marcos location, boasts something of a Cinderella tale itself. Founded in 1970, Green Tiger distinguished itself by its meticulously made books and its use of charming and fanciful illustrations from a 5,000 volume library of antique children’s books.

However, financial woes dogged Green Tiger, despite a number of best-sellers by Cooper Edens and Alexandra Day. By 1986, the tiger was tottering, and the founders, Harold and Sandra Darling and Harold Leigh, were hoping to find a buyer.

An unlikely Prince Charming came to the rescue. Jerry Macchia, a Leucadia businessman who had retired from the forklift industry, had an eye out for a new business to acquire when he heard from a banker friend about Green Tiger.

Apprehensive about the publishing industry (a field in which he had no experience), Macchia was ready to demur--until he looked through some of Green Tiger’s books. “I was captivated,” Macchia said. He bought the company.

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Macchia has combined a hands-on, low-key approach with a continued commitment to quality to help get Green Tiger back on its feet. Despite a change in management, readers discovered that pictures were still pasted perfectly in place by hand. Writers began receiving delinquent royalties.

A growth rate of 15% a year since 1986 and $13 million in sales last year were signs enough of success for Publisher’s Weekly to run a “Green Tiger Bounces Back” headline last year.

A move to the San Marcos location meant a shorter commute for Macchia and provided greater breathing space than the former rented quarters in downtown San Diego. The Carmel Road building, a peppermint pink structure with aqua pillars, was bought by Green Tiger last year.

Inside, a carousel ridden by two green papier-mache tigers doubles as a book display center. Only a handful of new volumes are chosen for publication each year.

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“A Visit to the Art Galaxy” by Annie Reiner, a painter, poet and daughter of Carl Reiner, is one of only six new titles to be published in 1990. Her book introduces children to modern artists such as Matisse and Picasso through a trip to outer space.

Meanwhile, Green Tiger continues to publish a booming back list of best-sellers including “Good Dog, Carl,” by Alexandra Day, the story of a mischievous dog baby-sitter, and “If You’re Afraid of the Dark Remember the Night Rainbow,” by Cooper Edens, a collection of whimsical aphorisms and illustrations.

Green Tiger counts adults as well as children among its fans; grown-ups make up the majority of the more than 6,000 members of the Green Tiger Press Collectors Club--who pay $12 a year in exchange for a membership card and a quarterly newsletter featuring updates on books, authors and artists.

A classically executed fairy tale series is said to be especially popular. It uses a variety of images culled from the Green Tiger’s collection of old children’s books to illustrate such stories as “Jack and the Beanstalk” and “Little Red Riding Hood.” Works by Edmond Dulac and Arthur Rackham, among other 19th-Century illustrators, are included. Edens, the editor, explains in his introduction: “It is an exciting and effective way to tell a story. No one artist sees every episode with equal clarity.”

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A daily datebook called the Magic Spectacles Engagement Calendar is another project that draws on the company’s library. Each month explores a visual theme such as “An April of Baseball” or an “October of the Mysterious.” Pictures come from sources such as “Mother Stork’s Baby Book” and “The Waterbabies,” with many images dating back to the 1800s.

If the Tiger’s tale is one of renewal, so too is Macchia’s own. He was virtually paralyzed by a rare spinal disease, arteriovenous malformation, which struck him at age 48 and forced him into early retirement.

He was told he would never walk again. “I was like a puppet whose strings had been cut. I had to learn to walk all over again,” Macchia said. “It still drains my energy, mentally and physically, just to concentrate on my movements. A crack in the cement can trip me.” He walks, carefully, with a cane. After his rehabilitation, Macchia spent a few years in retirement, “planting vegetables,” before deciding to return to the business world.

In addition to the financial end of publishing, Macchia heads an editorial board that pores over as many as 3,000 manuscripts a year, many of them unsolicited.

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There are times, he says, when he reads something and thinks, “This is wonderful, this should be shared.” Speaking shyly, he added, “I know it sounds crazy, but there are times when I read something and think, ‘If a few people read this, it might make the world a better place.’ ”

Macchia revels in his work as a publisher of children’s books, but not because his own childhood was especially literary or rosy. The son of struggling immigrants was working by age 12. At dawn he would be in the kitchen of a restaurant in Jackson, Mich., shucking shrimp. He would then run to school for the start of class, and return to the restaurant by 3 p.m.

In Jackson he met and married his wife, Wanda, a co-owner of Green Tiger. (Their sons, Jeff, 34, and Ty, 32, also work for the company.) Starting as a warehouseman at Clark Equipment Co. in Michigan, Macchia worked his way up to vice president, then left to head his own Clark dealership in San Diego when illness struck.

With computers and fax machines, nearly all aspects of publishing--from editorial matters to marketing--are conducted from San Marcos. The books are printed in Asia. The staff includes an art director, two editors who also work in marketing, and some 30 others. Except for one San Diego sales representative, Green Tiger is sold through independent representatives who usually work with a number of publishers. The company also markets a successful line of note cards and posters that are also sold in England, Australia and Canada.

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A recent afternoon found Macchia in his office looking at a new manuscript--for which he had waited two years.

The original sketches, idyllic forest scenes, had been unsolicited, but they so captured Macchia’s imagination that he accepted the book, even though the illustrator had warned him that he worked “very, very slowly.”

Carefully turning page after page of veil-thin drawing paper, Macchia said: “This is beautiful. Who wouldn’t wait for this?”


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