Retired plasterer Walter Swan doesn’t fit the image of a hot author. He wears denim coveralls and a black cowboy hat. At 15, he dropped out of the eighth grade after spending so much time there he had carved his initials in almost every desk in the school. By his own admission he can’t write or spell. In his Bisbee, Ariz., bookstore, he proudly displays one of his report cards from 1932--straight Fs in spelling and straight Ds in English.
“I don’t know nothin’ about writing,” says the gregarious 73-year-old. “I don’t even know what adjectives and vowels and things like that are. But I know plastering. I could plaster your house up one side and down the other.”
But his book, “me ‘n Henry,” a collection of down-home stories about Swan and his brother, Henry, growing up in Cochise County, is gaining widespread attention. He got a brief mention in Erma Bombeck’s column, and he’s been interviewed on radio talk shows in Salt Lake City and Boston. Several newspapers and TV stations in Arizona have sent reporters to tell his story.
Now the publicity is going national. “CBS This Morning” traveled to Bisbee to tape a spot on Swan and the “Tonight Show” is also trying to line him up for an appearance. And a man strolled into Swan’s store and announced, “I’m with the Walt Disney Co. Have you sold the movie rights to that book yet?” Swan keeps the Disney fellow’s phone number on a crumpled slip of paper in his wallet.
“It’s going all over the country and I can’t stop it,” Swan says, amazed at his brush with fame. “But it ain’t my fault. I just wrote a book.”
Buyers have no trouble finding Swan to place an order. After the Boston interview, he got more than 80 letters from people requesting copies. They were addressed to the One-Book Bookstore in Bisbee. That’s right--one book.
Frustrated that ordinary bookstores wouldn’t stock “me ‘n Henry,” a self-published work marked by lousy grammar and a distinct lack of literary style, Swan plunked down $100 to rent a storefront cubicle along Main Street in this old copper mining town of 7,000. He hung a couple of crude signs on the front window, taped his report card to the wall, set up some folding chairs and a couple of tables piled high with the store’s only book--"me ‘n Henry.”
Since his grand opening last year, he has sold 3,000 books. Counting the ones he sold before opening the store, Swan has moved 6,000 copies--at $21.35 each, including tax. “Fifteen minutes after I got in here I sold enough books to make my rent,” Swan says. “I can’t exaggerate how good it’s going. At least 10 times a day people come in and tell me what a hilarious book it is.”
The book is a collection of stories Swan told to his eight children as they were growing up. It is written like he talks, with sentences such as, “I was in the third grade a going to the Frontier School.” At the encouragement of his wife, Deloris, he wrote the stories in longhand over a 30-year period. By the late ‘70s, when the Swans began searching for a publisher, there were enough stories to fill an apple crate.
Ten years of disappointment followed, during which the couple racked up 14 rejections from New York publishers. Not to be deterred, the Swans bought a computer and laser printer, and Deloris, then 66, taught herself how to use them. In September, 1988, they paid a Tucson printer $6,750 to publish 1,000 hardback copies. They sold out within three weeks. Thus far, they’ve had four printings.
Swan’s initial sales strategy was to pack boxes of “me ‘n Henry” into the trunk of his car and drive to autographing sessions at bookstores, gift shops and libraries around southern Arizona. Wherever he went, however, store owners took 40% of the profits. And response to the book was so positive that Swan figured he could successfully set out on his own with the One-Book Bookstore.
Swan’s outgoing personality and tireless promotion are big reasons for the book’s success. He talks up “me ‘n Henry” wherever he goes. “You bought a book yet, Wayne?” he calls to a patron at a Bisbee lunch counter. As he strolls the sloping sidewalks of this hill town, passers-by say hello and Swan starts in on them, sizing them up for a sale.
Swan argues that his literary style is important, too. He describes it this way: “I try to write so folks don’t have a headache when they’re done.” But there is more to it than that: “It’s all true stories,” Swan says. “Second, there’s no filth. And the clincher is there’s no big words.
“People seem to like the one (story) about me gettin’ my finger stuck in the Model-T car,” says Swan. “Or the time the billy goat et my first-grade reader. But the funniest is my father accidentally drinkin’ a pitcher full of my polliwogs.”
In April, the Swans’ bookstore brought in almost $7,000. Swan has also taken out a subscription to Publisher’s Weekly. “I want to get a line on the bestsellers and such,” he says. And Deloris answers the couple’s home phone with a cheerful “Swan Enterprises.”
Those enterprises include plans for four more self-published books--"Me and Moma and How We Raised Eight Kids and Survived,” “Cornbread, Milk, and Honey,” “How to Be a Better Me” and “Uncle Walt’s Bedtime Stories.”
But even if he hits it big, Swan doesn’t plan any major purchases. He says he’ll give some money to the Mormon Church for its missionary effort, and with the remainder he’ll buy “two of the finest hogs I can find, some good bees, and some racing pigeons.”
As he awaits the next development in his remarkable good fortune, Swan continues to greet customers and curious tourists with a big howdy, and poo-poos the idea that he is becoming a celebrity. “All I am is Walter Swan,” he says, “Never been nothin’ else.”
That includes a good speller. A customer named Mike recently asked Swan to autograph a copy of “me ‘n Henry.” Swan thumbed back his black cowboy hat and happily obliged. But he spelled the man’s name M-I-K.