Bookpleasures.com welcomes as our guest Jim Shulman author of two 300-page volumes of Berkshire Memories: A Baby Boomer Looks Back at Growing Up in Pittsfield.
Jim is a retired Ph.D. Clinical Psychologist, healthcare CEO and hospital vice president who lives with wife, Jackie and kitten, Sparky, in a nature preserve on a reservoir in Galena, Ohio, northeast of Columbus Ohio.
Norm: Good day Jim and thanks for participating in our interview.
What served as the primary inspiration for Berkshire Memories and what would you say is the best reason to recommend someone to read the books?
Norm, first of all thank you for the invitation to share about the books in your reviews. I have always loved my hometown for providing a wonderful place in which to grow up post World War II. Pittsfield, Massachusetts and it’s county (Berkshire County) were terrific places postwar to experience the optimism of the 50s and provide the foundation to develop values, successes and challenges throughout life.
I never forgot my childhood experiences and throughout adulthood made a hobby out of collecting stories, photos and artifacts from my hometown since I was a youth over 60 years ago. I thought it was important to both document my experiences for future generations and to share them now for baby boomers to relive those experiences. Thus my years of telling stories and collecting were an inspiration. As I tell people, I am not as much a writer as much as I am a storyteller. I think my inspiration also grew out of a selfishness in that I wanted to document my memories so as I grew older and less likely to remember those good times, I could do so by looking at pictures and reading about them.
For people who grew up in the Berkshires in the 40s through 70s, especially in Pittsfield, the books are most relevant. They have been very popular as they share items that everyone will recall. For all other baby boomers from or in other locales, the stories and photos will stimulate memories of similar events, people and places from wherever they grew up. For all younger people, the books and photos provide the history and pictures of a special time in history during a period of optimism, good times and growth in the US.
Norm: What did you enjoy most about writing these books?
Without a doubt the
process of doing the research was much more rewarding than doing the
actual writing. I enjoyed researching events from old newspapers,
books, and personal files and most importantly in interviewing the
people whose families were in the stories about which I wrote. So
many of these people were thankful that I remembered their parent(s)
or grand parent(s) and that I would not only write about them, but
include their photos in the book.
People were so generous about sharing information, photos and stories. One of my biggest rewards was when people who contributed would read a final story in the books and contact me telling me they learned something they never knew before about their families.
Norm: What were the time-lines between the time you decided to write your books and publication? What were the major events along the way?
Jim: This is embarrassing in
that the first book had been planned and begun for almost ten years
before it was finished. The second book took two years as I did a 50th reunion high school yearbook right after the first book was
published and that took a whole year!
Now what really inspired or
motivated me to get the first book done involved two events. The
first was the 250th anniversary of the incorporation of Pittsfield,
in 2011. I was present for the 200th in 1961 and the local newspaper
had spearheaded the writing of an excellent book on the history of
the City. Since no one had planned a book for the 250th, I felt it
was important for me to do it.
Unfortunately the current community leadership did not embrace the book or for that matter much about the 250th anniversary until I told the mayor in 2005 about the date. It turns out many of the new leaders in the community were “transplants” and had little personal history there and were not that excited about the City’s past. Still the book sold well. It was almost only marketed on the Internet mostly through Facebook.
The second major event was
really a much bigger motivator for me. In 1998 I heard Christopher
Reeve give a Williams College (in Williamstown, Massachusetts)
commencement address from his wheelchair. What I heard Christopher
communicate was to never forget your community as you became
successful in life.
I thought about how much Pittsfield had been my
home community even though my career was in Ohio for the past 25
years. Pittsfield was going through tough times with the loss of
industry, increased drugs and crime, no jobs, and a very polluted
environment. I had just retired and my wife, Jackie and I wanted to
do something for the community.
Jackie suggested we organize the community to build a classical wooden carousel. This all began 10 years ago and we researched and studied all about carousels to embark on this venture. In the spring of 2016 we expect to open the carousel to the public. It has been a real work of art and involved 400 volunteers to build it. The project has been a “positive obsession” and the books have provided great publicity, marketing and fundraising especially among those of baby boomer age who grew up in the community.
Norm: Did you work from an outline? Describe your writing process.
Jim:I did not really have an outline. I would have a memory and just begin researching the facts behind the person, place or event and write a story. Over months, I would add more and more. I had done a display on transportation for community exhibit during the 250th anniversary of Pittsfield and I used the info and expanded into the first third of Volume I. Then for Volume II. I did an introductory section on the downtown business district on the way it was 50 or so years ago. Beyond these intro sections, my stories were more sporadic though many interrelated and some grouped by themes. When you look at the book, it is rather jumbled with topics, but that style really keeps the readers attention.
Norm: What kind of research did you do to write the books? As a follow up, can you share some stories about people you met while researching this book?
first thing I did was to write down everything I recalled about a
topic. In many of the stories, I just recalled something unique and
strange. For example, in Volume II., I wrote about the late
1940s, when our next-door neighbors would invite us over to watch
television. Television was brand new back then and our next-door
neighbors had the first set in the neighborhood.
In the living room
of their house, there was a lion skin rug. It was fairly scary to a
four year old and I never asked about it. One day a couple of years
ago, I was recalling this rug, and it led me on a quest to understand
why our neighbors would have such a rug as neither they or their
extended family members were hunters.
The couple and their two
children that were my age were deceased. I pursued talking with a
much younger surviving son who had no idea about the rug except it
disintegrated and he could not recall where its remnants were. I
found two older cousins and from them I learned fascinating stuff
about the family.
But I also went through newspaper archives, the
Internet and called others for interviews. The research journey ended
up with a story describing a wealthy prominent banker, a private
school, a Civil War buff, a 60-year old Time magazine article and
many others characters and places. This was pretty typical of how I
built the stories.
Too often I felt like I was the bumbling TV
detective, Columbo, played by Peter Falk. I wrote a couple of
stories about animals in Volume I. that involved interviewing the
grand daughter of a physician who tried to deliver a lion cub that
did not make it. The cub was stuffed and displayed in his son’s
dental office for 40 years.
The other story was about an elephant
that fell off a bridge, passed away, and was buried for nearly a
century before someone wanted to display the skeleton. However they
did not know where it was buried and hired a dowser to help them. I
found the octogenarian son of the dowser and learned about his Dad’s
For another story I spent a year of searching to find the grand daughter of a well-known eccentric town character who was like a hippie back in the 40s and 50s. I also found a man in his 80s whose Dad opened a restaurant and named it the “Penguin.” Since there were no native penguins in the Northern Hemisphere, I wondered from where came the name. It turned out he named it for a clay sculpture a neighbor in NY State had given him. The sculptor turned out to become quite famous in more recent years and the late owner never lived long enough to know that or that the sculpture he had might bring six figures in an art auction. The sculpture was pitched when the eatery closed. I met a lot of interesting people in the quest to learn more about the things I remembered as a kid.
Norm: What was the most difficult thing in writing these books?
Jim; The most difficult thing in writing was to complete a story, as there was always more info to incorporate. I resolved this by adding a follow up in the subsequent book. Also when to cut a story off was difficult as some were only a few pages and others reached close to 20 pages. Another difficulty is accessing old newspaper archives for research, as there are a limited number of years for which issues are available for the hometown newspaper at least on the commercial sites. The only other source to get newspaper articles is in the hometown library over 600 miles from my home.
Norm: Did you have to travel much concerning your books?
Jim: The Internet has been a godsend as through emails and also in phone calls, I could reach many people. I would make it a point to visit people that I met online or by phone if I was visiting the area near which they lived. I only took specific trips for the book to places within a few hours of the hometown.
Norm: Did you learn anything from writing your books, and if so, what was it?
Jim: I learned many things but foremost was the willingness and gratitude of people to help me recognize their families, parents and incidents from their childhoods. Another important thing was what an importance childhood was for so many baby boomers post World War II. When I publish stories on websites or Facebook and pose a question, I get scores of positive comments about the stories and books as well as more memories that people share. We grew up in the pre-digital camera and pre -cell phone age so really good photos of the 1950s and 1960s are few and far between. When available, they are often poor quality and only black and white. I was amazed how motivated people were to share with me some very personal memories and the few photos they had.
Norm: How has the feedback been so far?
Jim: The book sales exceeded expectations with the first volume already having three editions/printings of 500 each since 2012. We have only been selling the second volume since the December 2015 holidays and sales are going well. The books are not in bookstores, given the very localized nature. They are only sold on the Internet and at the Berkshire Carousel workshop in Pittsfield, MA. A considerable number of emails, letters and postings on a Facebook site have ALL been positive and many people ask when the next volume will be published.
Jim: I do all the promotion for the books that have included online videos for each volume, book signings when back in Pittsfield, local talks in the community, a Facebook site and a bi -weekly column about stories in the books that is published on the front page of the second section of the hometown newspaper, the Berkshire Eagle. Again the target audience is very localized so it has been marketed just to that audience using the Internet primarily. Having self published the book means a significant amount of income goes to the Berkshire Carousel project. All of the monies support specific aspects of the project.
Norm: Are you working on any more books/projects that you would like to share with us? (We would love to hear all about them!)
Jim: I encourage readers to visit www.berkshirecarousel.com, which is really the major project that receives income from book sales. I have been working on this community effort for over ten years. It is a grassroots project that has involved over 400 volunteers contributing over 200,000 hours. The other site I recommend is a group on Facebook tiled, “Berkshire memories: A Baby Boomer Looks Back at Growing Up in Pittsfield. This site includes abbreviated stories from both books and previews of ones in a third volume that will probably be out next year.
Norm: How can readers find out more about you and Berkshire Memories?
Jim: The easiest way is go to the homepage of www.berkshirecarousel.com, which has links to both books and the videos promoting each. The other way is to join the Facebook group mentioned above or to write me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Norm: As this interview comes to an end, what question do you wish that someone would ask about your books, but nobody has?
Jim: There isn’t really any I
can think of, but there is one often that would be writers ask. What
are the advantages to self-publishing? It really depends on your
goals for your book and how much you want to market it. If you are
looking at national distribution then you take a very small cut
(5-10%) of the selling price and you have an agent and publisher do
everything from editing to marketing. If you are doing a localized
subject with a very specific and limited audience, then doing it
yourself works and you can make 50 – 75% of the selling price.
In my case where all the funds go to a non-profit project, 5-10% would not be worth the effort. However, doing it all yourself is time consuming and requires Internet or other marketing savvy. I have a friend who self-published with a print on demand company. He does all the marketing at festivals and farmers’ markets. His actual income is 50% of each volume sold and has minimal outlay for inventory.
Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors