Carle Nolte: Arcadia Publishing Makes Money On Nostalgia/History

Roundup: Talking About History

[Carl Nolte is the author of "The San Francisco Century," published by the San Francisco Chronicle Press.]

The biggest thing in the history book business these days is Arcadia Publishing -- a company that thinks small.

Arcadia's specialty is a line of standardized little books about city neighborhoods, small towns, fire and police departments, and obscure railroads. Arcadia is the master of the niche market, with a huge list of books (2,367 titles in its "Images of America" series alone) that are mostly pictures and pretty much all nostalgia. Just now Arcadia is mining California history, with 240 titles on the past of the Golden State.

Arcadia pumps out books like nobody's business -- seven books on California subjects premiered in a single week in mid-October, including a book on Sausalito, one on Castro Valley, one on the Mother Lode town of Nevada City, and another on Sacramento's Curtis Park.

The company is based in Charleston, S.C., but opened a Western branch office in San Francisco two years ago. The local office has been busy since its first book, "Sebastopol," the story of the Sonoma County town, appeared in the fall of 2003. Arcadia has since published 92 more titles about the Bay Area, including 31 on San Francisco topics.

Arcadia itself operates under the radar -- "The average person who lives in San Francisco has probably never heard of Arcadia Publishing,'' said P.J. Norlander, the company's marketing director. "But they know the books.'' Nearly every bookstore in the region has a "local interest" section, and most are loaded with Arcadia books.

" 'Phenomenon' is the perfect choice of terms to describe them,'' said Jack Tillmany, a former San Francisco theater manager and one of Arcadia's authors. His book, "Theatres of San Francisco," came out this year.

Arcadia's products are standardized, sort of a McBook, each with a sepia-tone cover, and each exactly 128 pages long. They are heavy with pictures and spare with text. They are printed in Great Britain (Arcadia's parent company is British) and sell for $19.99.

Norlander won't say which books sell best. "It's not an easy question to answer," she said, "nor will I answer it."

[Editor's Note: This is a short excerpt from a much longer article. Please see the SF Chronicle for more.]

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