Cover Story: Books Revel in Cincinnati History

Arcadia Publishing churns out popular titles on local culture and neighborhoods

Raven Bull

Local writers Philip Ciafardini and Pamela Ciafardini Casebolt get inside Cincinnati's Italians.

Oddly, the best publisher of books about Cincinnati has its main business office in suburban Charleston, S.C., and its chief "local" editor in Chicago. But this isn't the only unusual thing about Arcadia Publishing.

It's managed to make a thriving for-profit business — in an era when print media is regarded as an endangered species — out of attractive, competitively priced, photo-reliant paperbacks with titles like Cincinnati Cemeteries: The Queen City Underground, Sharonville and Its People, Hamilton County's Green Township and Norwood. Not Jackie Collins, exactly, but there is a demand.

You've probably seen them handsomely displayed in bookstores, gift shops, even Walgreens. They have sepia-toned photographs on the cover, and their content usually consists of up to 200 vintage photographs with extensive captions (from 70 to 200 words) for each image. Traditional narrative is kept to a minimum.

Arcadia's newest Cincinnati title, published May 19, is Italians of Greater Cincinnati. It is a companion to authors Philip G. Ciafardini and his sister Pamela Ciafardini Casebolt's 2007 book, Italians of Newport and Greater Kentucky. Northern Kentucky Italian-Americans themselves — he's a former Newport city manager — the Ciafardinis became interested in their heritage after their father died in 2005.

"We noticed there wasn't a lot written about Italian-Americans in Greater Cincinnati and decided if someone was going to do something about it, it might as well be us," Ciafardini says.

In researching and collecting photos for the Cincinnati book, the authors consulted Sons of Italy and United Italians Society and delved into the histories of "Little Italy" communities in South Fairmount, Walnut Hills and the old "Bottoms" area of downtown. (The Ciafardinis will do two book signings in Newport on May 31: at Kentucky Haus, 411 E. 10th St., from noon-2 p.m. and Barnes & Noble Booksellers at Newport on the Levee from 3-5 p.m.)

Arcadia publishes such local-history books throughout the country — there are 3,400 titles in its popular "Images of America" series and more than 5,000 overall since 1993. (Lead Mining Towns of Southwest Wisconsin, anyone?) An impressive 684 titles are scheduled for 2008.

"To catalogue the history of every town in America and make it readily available to people is our goal," says Melissa Basilone, Arcadia's Chicago-based editor for this region.

Cincinnati is one of its strongest markets, along with Chicago. There are some 40 titles about the Greater Cincinnati area, with more on the way devoted to Lincoln Heights, Price Hill and Vine Street.

And there's a bit of pop sociology in the reasons why Cincinnati and Chicago are such hot areas for Arcadia.

"They're both cities of neighborhoods where people have rooted down and stayed," Basilone says. "They're big cities with a small town feel."

And small towns, where those who have stayed for generations have intense loyalty and pride, are big business for Arcadia.

Having said that, something interesting has been happening lately with some of the more recent, better-selling Arcadia Cincinnati titles. They're about mass media and pop culture, which, like Arcadia's sports-related subjects, transcend intensely localized interests to create a newer and more broadly appealing bond.

Randy McNutt's The Cincinnati Sound, published last fall and considered a success by Basilone, takes a look at the post-war live music acts that called Cincinnati home either because they were from here or recorded for labels like King and Fraternity. Arcadia also published a "Postcards of America" sampler of McNutt's photographs, the first such booklet about a Cincinnati topic. (McNutt is a friend and former Cincinnati Enquirer colleague of this writer.)

He and his wife Cheryl Bauer earlier did Arcadia books on Butler County and Hamilton, whose sales were helped when three local Walgreens stores started carrying them after Hamilton's only bookstore shut down.

The Cincinnati Sound cover consists of a 1959 photo of local rockers Dale Wright and the Wright Guys performing at a Cincinnati school auditorium. The book covers much ground from Country to R&B to Rock, with everyone from Rockabilly legend "Orangie" Ray Hubbard to Honky Tonk keyboardist Bill Doggett to psychedelic-rock band Sacred Mushroom.

"I had an e-mail from a guy who bought the book and to his surprise saw his father in it," McNutt says. "Others have called or e-mailed and said they found a friend, or 'I was in there!' Others have said it feels good to see photos of old performers they hadn't seen in a long time."

Another pop culture related book, Jim Friedman's Cincinnati Television, has been selling at a torrid pace. Released just before Christmas, it almost immediately sold out its initial 1,800-copy printing as well as a second 1,200-copy run. It's now in its fourth printing.

The book covers the history of Cincinnati's local television celebrities from 1949 through about 1985. But Basilone thinks the sizzling sales are due to one key decision — putting legendary and long-time WCPO-TV children's show host Uncle Al on the cover.

"Everyone related to Uncle Al," she says.

Friedman, who has won 56 regional Emmys for his work on local television productions, agrees that Uncle Al is a major draw. But, he says, Cincinnati television was far more.

It was special in having, during the golden years, community-involved local owners for its three powerful network-affiliated stations — Scripps Howard (WCPO), Taft Broadcasting (WKRC) and Avco Broadcasting, an offshoot of Crosley Broadcasting (WLW). The latter was home to Ruth Lyons, Peter Grant, Bob Braun, Paul Dixon with Bonnie Lou and many others.

Friedman says he knew his idea was so good that when he saw Arcadia originally had slated Cincinnati Television for 2008, he made a plea: "If I get it done in time, will you move my publishing date ahead of The Sewer System of St. Louis?"

That's a joke, he cautions, there's no such book. Not yet.

The drawback to the Arcadia format is that it can truncate or isolate its historical subject, since the lack of an extensive, flowing narrative usually is necessary for context and greater meaning. Still, some of the writers get some surprisingly deep social commentary into their captions.

Kevin Grace, an archivist and historian at the University of Cincinnati who's worked on several Arcadia projects, got this insight into captions of Jack Klumpe's old Riverfront Stadium photos for The Cincinnati Reds: 1950-1985:

"Given the cultural, political, and racial turbulence of the 1960s and 1970s, ballparks like Riverfront provided a notion of safety for the prevailing number of Reds fans who came from outside city limits. Access was directly to the stadium to see the game, with quick access for the journey home. A highway separated Riverfront from the city, and thus from city life, despite the pedestrian bridges joining the two. It was indeed safe and sterile. Even the artificial turf provided a semblance of unchanging security in a polyester world."

By and large, authors propose projects to Arcadia. If accepted, they're responsible for finding, assembling and writing captions for the photographs, often by working with local historical societies.

Arcadia markets and sells the books. A typical first printing is 1,200 copies, authors say, and authors receive 10 percent of the net (wholesale price) as a royalty and don't pay to underwrite the books. The popular "Images of America titles" retail for $19.99.

A private company that doesn't release financial records, Arcadia originally was a U.S. offshoot of Britain's Tempus Publishing Group but was subsequently purchased by Richard Joseph after selling his chain of London bookstores to Borders Books. In addition to Mount Pleasant, S.C., and Chicago, Arcadia has offices in San Francisco and Portsmouth, N.H.

There is competition brewing, but Arcadia's books dominate the Cincinnati "local history" photo-book market. Turner Publishing Co., which has offices in Nashville and Paducah, has published a $39.95 hardcover Historic Photos of Cincinnati book, along with an $11.99 companion wall calendar.

Arcadia got off to a strong start in Cincinnati by forging a relationship with UC's Grace. He and Tom White published Cincinnati Revealed, a trove of historic photographs. Grace has since authored seven more, including Over-the-Rhine and Cincinnati Boxing (with his son, Joshua) and helped with at least that many more.

Perhaps the biggest Cincinnati best-seller to date is Allen J. Singer's The Cincinnati Subway: History of Rapid Transit, which has gone through five printings since 2003. Singer, who writes in his off hours as a wiring technician for Cincinnati Machine, had been shopping a more traditional text about the never-finished subway system to local publishers. Without much luck, alas.

Ohio University Press, for instance, rejected him because it had already published Walking the Steps of Cincinnati.

Singer sent Arcadia an e-mail after seeing its Forgotten Columbus book and was encouraged to reshape his book. He had plenty of archival photos from the city and other sources, including the city's many mass-transit enthusiasts.

"I think it's done well partially because the subway is still there but practically nobody can see it," Singer says. "Many people are attracted to big, dark, mysterious secret places. And it would have transformed Cincinnati had it been finished. We would most certainly have a large mass-transit system of some sort. Think how different that would be." ©

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