If You Ran A Small-town Weekly

PrintPrintEmailEmail

The Star , which was the community weekly for Kennebunk, Kennebunkport, Wells, Ogunquit, and Arundel (combined population about twenty thousand), had been sold with the promise that it had a circulation of almost three thousand and a solid subscription list of at least two thousand. Sandy, who had been in Kennebunk for two weeks before my arrival, had already been through the files and had been able to produce about nine hundred living subscribers.

We were in trouble before we started. Payments to the bank on the elaborate and convoluted hundred-thousanddollar mortgage loan that Sandy had engineered had to be made every month. Part of those payments depended on subscription income, a rather steady element in the cash-flow system that was supposed to come in regularly as readers renewed their expired subscriptions. With more than half that estimated money apparently among the missing, Sandy and I had to increase circulation fast and cultivate immediate advertising revenue in conservative country communities where we both were newcomers.

It would have been a tough assignment for professional, experienced weekly journalists. Sandy and I were neither. We were two idealists who wanted to be the champions of virtue, sculptors of good government, improvers of the public schools, defenders of the consumer, arbiters of taste, supporters of the arts, and above all, creators of the well-turned phrase. These virtues, we thought, would ensure the Star ’s success and our continued solvency.

On that first day, we communicated as much to the staff of five we had inherited from the previous owners. The employees were stunned by our innocence, by our brave talk about style and quality. It was almost incredible that two strangers should step in from afar and pick up the reins without as much as a nod in humility’s direction. But the staff could accept arrogance. What they could not abide was total inexperience. They looked at us with the same alarm that would be seen in the eyes of nurses who discover that the surgeons they are assisting are really short-order cooks.

The entire staff walked off the job that first day before the noon whistle blew at the shoe factory just across Garden Street from the Star . Sandy and I were left alone, staring dumbly at a room full of senile machinery.

That was a shock. Neither of us had ever seen a typesetting device like the Star ’s cranky Linotype. We had never run a press, never composed a newspaper page, never set a headline, never cast a mat, processed a photograph, packed papers for delivery to the post office, run a folder, or become involved with an addressing machine.

We spent the next three months learning. After lunch that first day, two of the discouraged staff returned. They had, over their morning beers, discovered a compassion that prevented them from standing by while two fellow humans perished in the Star ’s low-ceilinged, smoke-stained jungle of a shop where machines a half-century old awaited their living prey like giant, lurking crocodiles.

The staff walked off the job that first day, leaving us staring dumbly at a room full of senile machinery.

For one hundred dollars a week Sandy and I spent seven days a week in that jungle, working sixteen to twenty hours a day, often sleeping on blankets pushed into a corner of the shop. We survived molten lead squirted from the maws of the Lino and the Ludlow. We discovered the appetite of the flatbed printing press that consumed sheets of blank paper as casually as carp swallow doughballs. And we began to understand how items of community information could move from the marble grave marker (face down) on top of the office safe to the eight-page newspaper that somehow made it to Main Street’s stores every Thursday afternoon.

That headstone on the safe (there were a bunch more in the composing room) was like a bar in a tavern. Visitors to the Star found it directly in front of them when they opened the door; they had to wait there for either Sandy or me to come from the shop, lean across the marble, and learn what service we could render or what outrage we had sponsored.

There was no end of outrage. As the person identified as editor on the Star ’s prominent masthead (boldly designed by Sandy and myself before we realized how vulnerable it made us), I was the individual most often sought. I was a compelling curiosity, a fellow “from away” who had been blown into a quiet Maine community to tell them each week how to do what they had done all their lives. Often the Star door would open, one or two natives would enter, stand, survey, stare, and leave. They had seen the editor and they could say so that evening at the lodge supper.

Once, when I came from the shop to the counter, I saw across the marble an austere platoon of pale and earnest men: the town’s funeral directors.