Obituary: Madge Baird Pays Tribute to Indie Publisher Gibbs Smith
Wednesday, November 29, 2017
Gibbs Smith, the co-founder of the Utah-based independent publishing house that bears his name, died October 28. He was 77.
Smith and his wife, Catherine, founded the publisher, originally called Peregrine Smith, in Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1969. They moved the company’s offices to a refurbished barn in Layton, Utah, in 1973 and changed the name of the publisher to Gibbs Smith. The house specializes in design, craft, cooking, regional interest, and children’s books and also has a textbook division that publishes supplementary materials.
Below, Madge Baird, managing editor for Gibbs Smith Publisher, pays tribute to her boss of more than 40 years.
A Tribute to Indie Publishing Pioneer Gibbs Smith
I first met Gibbs Smith in 1974 when I interviewed for a job at Peregrine Smith Books, then a very young company. I walked into a partially remodeled old barn, not knowing what to expect. In my wildest dreams I wouldn’t have seen myself working in that barn for my entire career. But lucky for me, it was a perfect fit.
Working with Gibbs these 40-plus years has been a rich experience. I think of him as a visionary who was motivated by passion. His eclectic interests and driving optimism enabled him to see the potential for publishing books on a wide range of subjects, from state histories and art education to primitive survival skills, architecture, design, humor, cooking, and so much more.
Gibbs had a unique ability to discover and immerse himself in cultural undercurrents and detect impending eruptions. The methods he used to sniff out and become influential in the popularization of cowboy culture in the 1990s is a case in point. First came his interest in the emerging revival of cowboy poetry; his research included organizing a jaunt for most of the company’s small staff to a ranch in Elko, NV, where we ate around a campfire and listened to real working cowboys recite poetry and sing trail songs accompanied by a the strumming of a guitar. It was an electric night. In 1990 Gibbs published what, I believe, was the first modern-day anthology of cowboy poetry.
Simultaneously, he became enamored with dude ranch furniture and sniffed out a community of craftsmen in Cody, WY, who were replicating the style and also interpreting it in new ways. He set up a dinner at someone’s home in Cody and invited these furniture makers to join for supper and a discussion on what they were doing and who their predecessors were. Along the way, he snagged a young newspaper writer from Jackson Hole and nurtured her as the author of what became the company’s first full-color design book.
Within a couple of years, Gibbs had made a reputation as publisher of cowboy culture—poetry, rustic architecture and interior design, cowboy boots and western wear, and humor. He thrilled to see his cowboy books in stores in NYC. His vision of exporting western culture to the world through books sustained our company for nearly a decade. For me, editing many of those books was an amazing experience and produced some of my most memorable years with Gibbs.
Gibbs wasn’t a dreamer, though dreams fueled his passion. He wasn’t a true eccentric, though some of his pursuits were seen as unconventional and perhaps weird. He definitely wasn’t practical or presupposing. He worked hard. He pushed against opposition. He was persuasive to the nth degree, convincing people to do things they didn’t know they wanted to do, to write books they didn’t know they had in them. In every conversation he had, everything he read, everywhere he went, he was looking for new book ideas. Being a publisher wasn’t what he did for a living; it was who he was.
Gibbs’ office tells the story. Rough cedar walls are filled to near-capacity with artwork; hundreds of small pictures of people—some he knew and others being historic writers and artists who inspired him; letters from the White House bearing portraits of Democratic presidents, thanking him for support; poignant notes from authors; favorite quotes; Asian art hanging side by side with handmade horse tack; antique Native American willow baskets; a shiny gold Chinese dragon introduced by a feng shui master; two pairs of leather snowshoes sized for his very tall frame; massive shelves overloaded with books on world history, art, biography, nature writing, Beat poetry, fashion, and Paris writers, to name just a few. There is also a colorful Cuban cigar box; matchbooks; incense; and telltale signs of his sense of humor: a magic 8 ball; a Hillary laughing pen; a cutout of a turn-of-the-century, mustached detective.
All in all, Gibbs’ eye was attracted to art and design, while his interest was drawn to nearly everything—in rotation and for seasons. As a consumer, he had a voracious appetite for ideas, wisdom, beauty and culture. As a producer, he published the same for export. Occasionally the books didn’t work, but often they did. And always he was proud of the eclectic list generated from his interests as well as the passions of those who worked with him.
—Madge Baird, Managing Editor, Gibbs Smith Publisher