JOHNSON CITY — When Daniel Lewis graduated from college in 2002, he had no idea he’d end up heading a growing school book fair company and publishing children’s books to boot.
But six years later, that’s just where the 31-year-old East Tennessee State University graduate ended up after two years working for his grandfather at the Overmountain Press and Sabre Printers.
In 2004, Backyard Books became part of the group of family-owned businesses that began with Sabre Printers in the 1950s and then grew to include Overmountain Press, the Olde Books Place, CopyNet and, most recently, Backyard Books..
His business card identifies him as a “Business Genius,” but he laughed that he’s otherwise the owner and president of Backyard Book Fair. It competes with the national Scholastic Book Fairs, part of the Scholastic publisher, for school book fairs in a growing area of East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia and western North Carolina.
Foreword to a start-up
To understand the history of Backyard Book Fair, Lewis said you need to understand the history of Overmountain Press.
Archer Blevins, Lewis’ grandfather, started Sabre in the 1950s and was approached by ETSU professor Pat Alderman to print a book he had written called “The Overmountain Men,” a book to be used in a class Alderman taught. After the book sold out, Blevins offered to become the publisher and named the business Overmountain Press.
Lewis said the family businesses, adjoining or across the street from each other in downtown Johnson City, include his grandfather’s “passion” — Olde Books Place, a book store that carries many Overmountain titles but also thousands or older and/or out-of-print books Blevins has purchased through the years.
Birth of Backyard Books
Lewis went to work in marketing and editing for Overmountain in 2002 after getting a bachelor’s degree in business management from ETSU.
While there, Overmountain began to expand its children’s book publishing but was having issues getting the books widely sold.
“We thought, we’ll take our books to the kids,” Lewis said of the genesis of Backyard Books, headquartered at 420 W. Walnut St. Overmountain is at 325 W. Walnut St.
The forte of the business, Lewis said, is kindergarten through fifth grade; although, the company carries books suitable for through the eighth grade.
Offerings include everything from classics like “Treasure Island” to SpongeBob books, the Cheetah Girls series and Hannah Montana books.
“You can’t have a book fair without Hannah Montana,” Lewis said.
The business also offers books published by competitor Scholastic, including the Clifford the Big Red Dog series, and recently added video games to its book fair offerings.
Backyard Books offers about 2,500 titles and can get others if requested.
“We’ll tailor it to a school,” Lewis said of special interests of students or as a supplement to academics or activities at the schools.
At any one book fair, Lewis said the company usually provides no more than 1,100 titles tailored to a school, based on space limitations.
All about local authors
Of the titles Backyard Book Fair offers, Lewis said about 25 are Overmountain titles.
Backyard has republished a series of “haunted” books by the late Charles Edwin Price, a local author from around Jonesborough.
Billy Dixon, a former Kingsport Times-News sports writer, has had four books in the Patty Paper series published by Backyard: “The Missing Dog Caper,” “The Treasure Hunt,” “On the Burglar’s Trail” and “Heritage Days Ghost.” The beginning of the series was initially published by another publisher
The latter is based on a historic site visited by children, loosely on some place like Rocky Mount and sharing the Heritage name with the annual festival in Rogersville.
“For as long as I can remember, I always wanted to be an author and write books,” said Dixon, who left his Times-News job in October of 2005 to do a yearlong tour to promote his books.
The tour, in which he spoke mostly at elementary school assemblies, took him south to Florida, throughout the Southeast and to Ohio and Indiana. No matter where he went and how affluent or humble the schools, he said all parents would buy their children books..
Dixon first met Lewis at a book fair in 2004, and by 2006 Backyard became the publisher of Dixon’s growing group of books. He said speaking at book fairs or assemblies gives him feedback from teachers, parents and — most importantly — students who want to meet the author.
“That’s always one of the biggest thrills to me,” said Dixon, who is 35. He and his wife, Robin, a kindergarten teacher at Brookside Elementary School, have two daughters: Reed, 9 and Allie, 5.
Elsewhere in the Backyard group of authors is Denvil Mullins of Lebanon, Va., who has written the Backyard title “Boodro Beaver Searches for Over the Hill.” Mullins also has books published with Overmountain Press.
The other Backyard-published book is by Joe Tennis, a features writer for the Bristol Herald Courier. It’s called “The Marble and Other Ghost Tales of Tennessee and Virginia.”
Lewis said a yet-to-be-published book by Tennis will let readers choose the direction the story takes.
“It’s a choose-your-own adventure about this area,” Lewis said. He said the multiple-choice story line puts young readers in a situation, such as one, now under consideration, in which wolves have escaped from Bays Mountain in Kingsport.
The reader gets to choose where to go and how to get there after the escape.
What Book Fair offers
Aside from unique local titles and bringing an author to the book fairs free of charge, Lewis said Backyard also differentiates itself from Scholastic by providing a turnkey book fair, setting it up, staffing it and breaking it down.
Students are sent home with a “wish list” they fill out, and parents go over the book selections and then send money for the purchases.
Prices range from $1 to $19.95.
“We show up Monday morning to get set up. We stay and take the money,” Lewis said. “‘We do all the work, you cash the check’ is kind of our motto,” Lewis said.
He said another difference is that Backyard gives schools 25 percent of sales in cash, 30 percent in books or some combination.
He said Scholastic requires schools to reach a plateau of $5,000 in sales or they get 15 percent in cash instead of 25 percent.
“With us there are no plateaus to reach,” Lewis said.
He said that some schools that used to have a Scholastic book fair once a year are having two a year — one by Scholastic and one by Backyard.
“Seventy-five percent of our customers have us both times,” Lewis said.
Dixon said Backyard will never put Scholastic out of business but that it fills a niche and predicted it would continue to grow beyond a regional book fair business.
Another unique offering of Backyard’s books fairs is that Lewis sometimes shows students how a book is printed, cut and bound. He’s got first-hand knowledge of that since the bindery for Overmountain and Backyard is in the same building as Backyard and the book store.
Overmountain and the printing company are catty-corner from CopyNet, the book store and Backyard, across Walnut Street.
Backyard will remain headquartered in Johnson City, Lewis said; although, it is opening a Knoxville location in early August to be staffed by store business manager Brandon Glasheen.
In the Tri-Cities, author Dixon is joining the company as assistant business manager next month.
Lewis said his brother-in-law, Christian Hawley — the “Baron of Business” as identified on his business cards — has worked for the company for two years but is leaving next month to go to divinity school at Vanderbilt University in Nashville — which for now is outside Backyard territory but could be on the horizon.
“Asheville is next, then we want to take over and try Chattanooga,” Lewis said.
He said Backyard has done well in Washington County, Va., Sullivan and Carter counties. Backyard also has done book fairs in Hawkins County, Washington County, Tenn., and Greene, Knox, Campbell and Anderson counties, and he is working on Sevier County.
The Backyard Web site has testimonials from librarians and others who use Backyard for book fairs, which can be reached at (423) 926-2691.
Lewis said Backyard has had limited success getting schools in Bristol, Kingsport and Johnson City to try its services.
It has set up at Southside Elementary in Johnson City, John Sevier Middle School in Kingsport but no locations in Bristol, Tenn., or Bristol, Va.
He said Backyard sends out letters to schools but that most of its advertising comes from word of mouth among librarians, parent-teacher associations and other groups involved with book fairs.
In addition, Lewis and Dixon said Backyard is on the lookout for more children’s book authors to publish.
On the Web: www.backyardbookfair.com and www.scholastic.com/bookfairs.