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Beyond sales, Boston publisher’s devotion speaks volumes

David R. Godine was photographed in his home library in Milton.
David R. Godine was photographed in his home library in Milton.(Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)

Boston publisher David Godine likes to say he specializes in books nobody buys, and that includes the works of French writer Patrick Modiano, whose novels about memory and war earned him the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Modiano was virtually unknown in America before the Nobel was announced Oct. 6, and his novels sat for years in boxes at Godine’s warehouse in New Hampshire.

“I couldn’t sell them to Chicago for landfill,” Godine says.

That might upset some publishers, but not Godine, whose unorthodox approach has served him well over four decades. Considered one of the country’s great independent publishers, Godine has a knack for nurturing Nobel Prize recipients; he was the first in the United States to publish Modiano as well as 2008 Nobel laureate J. M. G. Le Clezio. He is renowned for producing — if not always selling — eclectic and fastidiously assembled and designed books.

What distinguishes Godine, 70, from the CEOs of other publishing companies is his obsessive attention to detail — editing manuscripts, choosing binding cloth, and even driving his 2008 Prius around New England to pitch booksellers on his latest titles. Last month, Godine, whose tufts of black hair make him look like the Tootsie Pop owl, spent a day slapping “Nobel Prize winner” stickers on the Modiano books.

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“You have to lie in bed at night, fold your hands, and say, ‘Dear God, thank you,’” he says. “You bet we’re going to make a lot of money off Modiano. You publish a Nobel Prize winner, you’d have to shoot yourself in the foot not to make a lot of money.”

But friends and former Godine employees, several of whom have gone on to run large publishing companies, say profits aren’t the reason he got into the business. If they were, they say, he would publish more young adult novels and fewer quirky titles like “The Hand of the Small Town Builder.” He took on Modiano and Le Clezio after asking European publishers to recommend their best writers — not their best-selling writers.

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“David is one of the great publishers of our time,” says George Gibson, a former sales manager for Godine who is now publishing director of Bloomsbury USA. “He cares about selling, but the physical object of the book is of paramount importance to David. He knows more about typeface and design than any other publisher alive.”

That’s because Godine is captivated by books and how they’re made. It’s evident wandering through the house he shares in Milton with his wife, Sara Eisenman, a former art director at Alfred A. Knopf. The place has a museum-quality library stocked floor to ceiling with old books — bound-in-vellum old — that Godine has painstakingly accumulated over a lifetime of collecting.

“I’m interested in books as works of art,” he says, serving a reporter a plate of pot roast, potatoes, and asparagus. “As opposed to people who collect Thomas Hardy or John Updike or first editions, I collect books for the integration of the image with the typography.”

David Godine  added the rollers to his Vandercook Proof Press in his barn.
David Godine added the rollers to his Vandercook Proof Press in his barn.(Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)

The bulk of his collection, some of which is stored in boxes and closets because the shelves are full, are texts from the 15th, 16th, and 18th centuries, most acquired at auctions around the world. His prized volume – for which he paid tens of thousands of dollars in monthly installments many years ago – is the so-called Kelmscott Chaucer, an edition of “Works of Geoffrey Chaucer” published in 1896 by publisher William Morris’s Kelmscott Press.

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“It’s one of the great printed books of all time,” he says. “I could never afford it today.”

Godine produced his first book while at Dartmouth in 1966, selecting poems in Latin, Italian, and French and using a variety of typefaces to print them as they originally appeared. He went on to train with the artist Leonard Baskin in Western Massachusetts and started his own business in a Brookline barn in 1970.

To make ends meet, Godine did letterpress jobs for the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, the Boston Athenaeum, and Harvard University, which hired him to print the names of graduates on diplomas in 1972.

“When we had time left over, we would print a book and publish it under my name,” says Godine, whose 1940s Vandercook printer is in his garage and still gets plenty of use.

Michael Pietsch, the chief executive of the publishing conglomerate Hachette Book Group, interned with Godine while a student at Harvard in the late 1970s. The office was then in the basement of a mansion on Dartmouth Street in Back Bay. Pietsch’s job was to monitor the Xerox machine and read manuscripts.

“It was a small, inspired shop. They’d just published (Andre) Dubus’s ‘Adultery & Other Choices’ and William Gass’s ‘On Being Blue.’ It was a little fount of energy and so exhilarating,” says Pietsch. “David has the combination of great judgment, the ability to present books in a way that grabs people’s attention, and salesmanship.”

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Godine drives to stores around New England and also flies periodically to Los Angeles to meet with buyers.

He follows up with individual thank-you notes that he spends hours typing on an IBM Selectric at home, addressing store owners by nicknames, such as “the Legend of La Jolla” and “the Sage of Second Street.”

“Didn’t your mother teach you that if someone does something nice for you, you should thank them?” he says.

A paper label for a deluxe edition of "No Ordinary Being" sat in the grippers of the Vandercook Proof Press.
A paper label for a deluxe edition of "No Ordinary Being" sat in the grippers of the Vandercook Proof Press. (Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)

Godine is not good with e-mail. Valerie Lester, whose biography of the Italian typographer Giambattista Bodoni will be out early next year, said the publisher’s production values are unrivaled, but he can be difficult to reach.

“David is a Luddite, really,” said Lester, who lives in North Weymouth. “If you want to get David’s attention, the best way is to hand-write a letter and deliver it to him personally.”

Godine published 35 new titles last year, down from 50 a decade ago. The company’s best-selling book isn’t a children’s favorite or a book about sailing, one of the publisher’s indulgences. It is “The American Boy’s Handy Book: What to Do and How to Do It.” It was originally published over 100 years ago, and Godine began reprinting it several years ago because it is in the public domain and he doesn’t have to pay royalties.

“An editor here came to me and said we should do an edition of this. I said, ‘You’re out of your mind. Nobody needs to know how to skin small animals anymore,’” says Godine. “It’s the ugliest book we’ve ever published, but we keep selling the heck out of it.”

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At last count, Godine has sold over 600,000 copies of “The American Boy’s Handy Book.”

Ellen Faran, the director of the MIT Press and another Godine alum, characterizes her former employer’s approach to business as “an endeavor powered by dedication not cash flow.”

“David has an unusual commitment to the quality of the physical product, and I think that’s unnoticed by some readers of his books,” says Faran.

Godine agrees. He’s under no illusion that his insistence on high-quality materials and interesting design make a bit of difference to the average book buyer.

Handling one of the new paperback editions of Modiano’s “Missing Person,” Godine sighs.

“This is only understood by a certain lunatic fringe. No one goes into the shop and says, ‘Show me the well-produced books.’ They buy by title and by author,” he says. “This is a fussy, fussy job and nobody sees it. But I care. The great publishers care.”

Items in the barn of David Godine.
Items in the barn of David Godine.(Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)

Mark Shanahan can be reached at shanahan@globe.com. Follow Shanahan on Twitter @MarkAShanahan.