WHEN ROBIN AND KATHRYN Smiley met in the early 1980s, he was a printing broker and she worked for one of his printers. Soon, she was working for him. Later, they were married. When they visited their first book fair, they were surprised to learn that there was no magazine for book collectors. They changed that.
In January of 1991, the Smileys published the premiere issue of Firsts: The Book Collector's Magazine. It met with instant praise, and much appreciation from book enthusiasts, collectors and booksellers. Based in southern California, the Smileys published 42 well-received issues of Firsts before moving to Tucson. Since then, they've published 56 more. In November, the husband-and-wife team will celebrate a milestone when they publish their 100th issue.
"Firsts is an enthusiasts' magazine," Kathryn says. "There have been other magazines for collectors, but they were scholarly and dry. They weren't any fun and didn't last. We infuse some joy into what could otherwise be a dull subject. We invite people to come and explore."
"We celebrate a side of book collecting that has never been celebrated in print before," Robin adds. "Books are a fusion of the intellectual and the artistic. They can be appreciated for their literary content and as objects, as works of art themselves." Firsts has a small staff: Robin and Kathryn as publisher and editor, respectively, a graphic designer and a copy editor. They are supported by an Editorial Advisory Board of booksellers and other experts from around the country.
Wisely eschewing the newsstand distribution racket that "eats small magazines alive," the Smileys distribute Firsts themselves, shipping the magazine to antiquarian and specialty bookstores throughout the U.S. and Canada. And, of course, to subscribers. "Our subscribers are very loyal. We have a subscription renewal rate of more than 80 percent, which is unheard of in this business. And we never discount our subscriptions." Roughly 70 percent of each issue's print run is sold to subscribers.
Recent Firsts subjects have included maverick Tucson publisher Dennis McMillan, noir maniac David Goodis, post-colonial Indian literature, Jim Harrison, Victorian women novelists and Frank Capra's book sale. The Capra article -- recounting the sale of the famed film director's book collection -- is an example of another interest the Smileys share: a love of films. That interest is evident not only in their home, which is decorated with a large number of vintage movie posters, but also in the magazine's "Books into Film" column, which reviews books, and films adapted from them.
To further illustrate the magazine's lively eclecticism, Robin offers a run-down of upcoming features: "October's issue will include an article on Kim Stanley Robinson, whose Mars trilogy is some of the most celebrated science fiction written in the '90s. Our November issue will feature a fairly well-known author named James Joyce. And in December, we'll feature Roy Chapman Andrews, who wrote about dinosaurs and was an explorer in China in the '20s and '30s."
If some of the authors featured in Firsts are less than household names, that's the way the Smileys like it. "We have a real fondness for people we call 'professional writers,' the folks in the '30s, '40s and '50s who wrote novels, but also wrote for magazines, newspapers and the movies, in all genres. We love those people." Two examples cited are Leigh Brackett, who wrote mystery novels and screenplays for such diverse projects as The Big Sleep and Star Wars; and Dorothy B. Hughes, a novelist and Los Angeles Times critic whose In a Lonely Place was adapted into a film, which Kathryn describes as "one of the darkest of the noirs." Except for serious collectors, she says, "almost nobody knows these people. We get to introduce them to our readers."
Introducing readers to little-known or forgotten authors is a mission Firsts has embraced from the beginning. "We wanted to stay away from the usual 'FitzHemi FaulkStein' way of doing things. We do cover the big names too, of course, but we've always strived to feature lesser-known writers." One such under-appreciated author featured in Firsts is Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, whose The Yearling the Smileys describe as one of the great American books. "She's often labeled simply as a children's author, or a regional author, but The Yearling is one of the greatest books ever written by an American for anyone -- adult or child -- anyplace."
The Smileys are also justifiably proud of other Firsts firsts. "We're not just a magazine for enthusiasts; we've also broken ground in scholarship. For example, we've published the first-ever James Bond-Ian Fleming bibliography. That's still one of our most popular issues."
In a business that sees quite a number of casualties, Firsts is so far a resounding success. By producing a quality product with grace and good humor, Robin and Kathryn Smiley have succeeded on their own terms: they're doing what they like, and they're doing it well. When they describe their world of book collectors, Robin and Kathryn like to say, "It's filled with interesting, independent, curmudgeonly businesspeople." Except for the "curmudgeonly" part, the Smileys are perfect examples of that themselves.