The title of Patricia Johnston's memoir is Pie in the Sky, and there's no apparent irony in the name. A kind of charmed optimism genuinely seems to be the way Johnston, publisher of the Afton Historical Society Press, looks at the world and her place in it. This is a woman, after all, who wrote a high school term paper on the 1955 World Series, received a C for her efforts, and then salved her disappointment by sending it off to Brooklyn Dodgers manager Walter Alston, who returned it to her autographed by 23 members of his World Championship team. Johnston still has that keepsake (in its original envelope), and she was obviously undaunted by the less than charitable evaluation of her work by that high school English teacher.
You can find Johnston's more recent--though perhaps equally improbable--labors of love displayed in an old restored bank building on the main street of Afton, a tiny community about a half hour east of the Twin Cities. The space functions as a storefront, and though the doors are locked most days, if someone should happen to stop by and knock, he's welcome to come inside and browse or shop to his heart's content.
The books that are available at the company's tidy headquarters and at stray bookstores around the country are impossibly lavish and attractive productions--titles on Minnesota and regional artists, architects, and history, elaborately designed and profligately illustrated with photographs and artwork. Minuscule local historical presses, here and elsewhere, are a dime a dozen, and generally conjure up images of homely volumes that appear to have been crafted by a person who never updated past Photoshop 1.0, and is a little iffy on how to Xerox photographs, as well. Afton titles, by contrast, commonly include more than 100 full-color reproductions. Production costs for a book--printed in editions that seldom exceed 5,000 copies--run in the range of $125,000.
Since 1994 the press has produced four to six titles a year, books on a wide range of subjects: the 19th-century American Indian paintings of Seth Eastman; abandoned farmhouses in the heartland; the Gág family of celebrated artists and children's authors; and legendary Minnesota architects Clarence H. Johnston, Cass Gilbert, and Ralph Rapson. More recently, Afton has chronicled the early American landscape painter Gilbert Munger and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police illustrations from the Tweed Museum in Duluth. Along the way, Afton has also published the work of such Minnesota literary institutions as Jon Hassler, Carol Bly, and Bill Holm.
Despite the quality of the books Johnston publishes, and despite some remarkable success stories, her press remains something of a secret society on the local and regional literary scene. Part of that may be a product of the local historical society tag; there is not, in fact, any direct connection between Johnston's press and the Afton Historical Society. (Johnston is nonetheless planning on shortening the name to Afton Press or Afton Publishing in the near future.)
There is also the fact that by virtually any publishing model Afton is an unconventional little operation. Though the company has cultivated relationships with and benefited from the munificence of scores of foundations and a roster of well-heeled local families the likes of which one might have encountered at a Minikahda cotillion in the 1950s, Afton is still very much a Johnston family project. The press has a staff of three full-time employees, anchored by Patricia and her son Chuck, who is the director of operations. One of Johnston's daughters, Mary Sue Oleson, who is a country singer based in Nashville, designs most of Afton's books. A guy who lives just up the street from the company's offices coordinates their printing, and the press also employs a part-time bookkeeper.
There are, however, no sales reps, and though Afton does sell its books through many of the usual distribution channels, Johnston says, "The easiest way for people to get things from us is still just to call. I always intend to do more, but I probably don't make more than three or four sales calls a year.
"We've been very fortunate in that we've had lots of good publicity and word of mouth, and people do seek us out," Johnston says with typical modesty.
Consistently producing books of such high quality can't be as easy as Johnston makes it sound. Yet people who've worked with her over the years agree that this unusual knack for doing the seemingly impossible with relative ease is precisely the key to the success of Afton.
"Patricia is so low-key, and they have such a relaxed atmosphere out there," says local writer Jane Hession, who worked with Afton as a co-author of its first Ralph Rapson book. "They're not really like anyone else. When you deal with Afton you don't sit down and meet with a business manager and there are no agents or accountants involved. You just show up, knock on the door, and talk to Patricia."
Once Hession signed on for the project, she says, she was amazed by how much autonomy Johnston gave her and her co-authors. "We were given the freedom to choose our own designer and editor, and she never made any attempt to beat the life out of the book. That's what she's so good at: She allows writers to produce books they can be proud of. Her whole story is sort of a fairy tale, really. She's like a wizard. She just never seems to doubt that she can make these things happen."
As a young mother of four children, and without the benefit of a college education, Johnston began to carve out a career for herself as a freelance writer in the 1970s. This mostly involved penning articles on her two lifelong passions, art and history, for a variety of local and national publications. Often as not Johnston found that writing these pieces only served to further spark her interest in the subjects, and eventually she started expanding some of her projects into books.
She went to the bank and borrowed money to publish her first five titles, under the Johnston Publishing banner. As encouraged as she was by the success of those books--including a history of Stillwater built around John Runk's historic photos--she was also finding the challenges of self-publishing increasingly daunting. Johnston Publishing was strictly a family business; books were stored in the family's garage and hand-delivered to local bookstores, media outlets, and distributors. And Patricia was pretty much her own marketing and sales force.
In a stroke of good and enduring fortune, she one day received a call out of the blue from Duncan MacMillan, the now retired Cargill director and an heir to the Cargill-MacMillan fortune. Cargill was then, and still is, the largest privately held company in America, and MacMillan was interested in enlisting Johnston to help him produce a history of his family and its historic grain business. The resulting two-volume MacGhillemhaoil, with its lavish design, full-color illustrations, and tartan covers, was in many ways a model--however impossible to duplicate--for things to come.
While she was working on the commission Johnston was also finishing off a book on pioneering Minnesota wildlife painter Francis Lee Jaques. She had sold the Jaques manuscript to a South Carolina publisher, which intended to release it as the seventh book in a "Masters of the Wild" series, but the press went bankrupt after the release of the sixth title.
Johnston then approached MacMillan with the idea of starting a nonprofit press devoted to publishing books of regional importance. MacMillan was surprisingly amenable to her proposal, and incorporation papers were signed in July 1993. By the following year Afton Historical Society Press was in business with the publication of Johnston's Jaques book. Titled The Shape of Things: The Art of Frances Lee Jaques, the book made an immediate splash, winning both a Minnesota Book Award and a best first book citation from the Midwest Independent Publishers Association.
"I recognize how truly fortunate I was to cross paths with Duncan when I did," Johnston says. "And I also know that were it not for Duncan's generosity and vision, and the support of his entire family, Afton Press would not exist."
For Johnston, Afton remains "the center of the universe," and she says her original mission--which she has some how managed to follow to the letter--was to "publish the very best and most beautiful books we possibly could, books that would have the very highest standards of scholarship, design, production, and literary value. We also wanted our books to have a strong Minnesota connection, but also felt it was important that they have some broader appeal."
According to former Minnesota Governor Elmer L. Andersen, who is working with Star Tribune editorial writer Lori Sturdevant on a forthcoming collection of speeches and essays for Afton, "The central factor [in the success of Afton] is the genius and vigor of Patricia Johnston. She's been fortunate to have substantial financial support, but that's really a reward for her initiative and vision."
Johnston says that she had a long list of dream projects when she started Afton nearly 10 years ago, and she hasn't come close to knocking all of them off yet. She's got a couple of books in the can on the 150th anniversary of Millard Fillmore's "Grand Excursion," the steamboat caravan from Rock Island, Illinois, that brought more that 1,200 politicians, journalists, and other dignitaries up the Mississippi river to St. Paul. And further out there's a book Johnston hopes to do on Roland Reed, an Indian photographer who was an overlooked contemporary of Edward Curtis. After that, who knows?
"I had absolutely no idea when I started out that this was going to go where it's gone," Johnston says. "I was perfectly content when it was just me in a one-room office down the street. And to be honest I'm still never quite sure where we're headed, but something interesting always seems to turn up."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.