The Book Pages: How a San Bernardino librarian inspired a publishing venture

Dorothy Traver was kind of a badass – although it’s doubtful she would have used that kind of language.

A graduate of Pomona College and the library program at UC Berkeley, Traver began working as a librarian in San Bernardino County in 1936, and over the decades she rose to become the county’s top librarian, from 1958 into the 1970s.

And if that sounds like she was a meek shelver of books, the facts suggest otherwise. A look through old newspaper stories tell of Traver regularly driving a station wagon loaded with book-filled beer cartons on 161-mile day trips that spanned from Chino to Needles, delivering reading material to Wrightwood, Hesperia, Apple Valley, Victorville and more on her journeys.

“It was very unusual for a woman to be head librarian,” says Danielle Dutton, an author, educator, editor, designer and the grandniece of Traver. “She had a woodie station wagon and she would fill it with books, so it was basically a bookmobile, and her job was to drive to all these rural desert communities that didn’t have their own libraries.”

Dorothy Traver and her book mobile. (Courtesy of Dorothy, a Publishing Project)

On these stops, according to a 1954 Sun-Telegram article, Traver might deliver a patron’s requested books on the occult (Westerns, she noted, weren’t in demand), stop by a nearby school to recite an impromptu story to a classroom of kids or cross paths with a French author (who was apparently a real-life escapee from the French penal colony Devil’s Island) who’d relocated to the area and become “one of the favorite citizens there.” A 1972 news story told of her facing down the County Board of Supervisors during a budget battle, causing one exasperated board member to declare the experience made him feel “like some kind of an idiot” (while another later said, “That shows she’s a smart administrator”).

Traver’s influence continues today with her grandniece Dutton.

A San Joaquin Valley native who’s lived in Los Angeles, Chicago and now St. Louis, Dutton has worked in publishing at Dalkey Archive Press, teaches creative writing and writes books of her own. Along with her publisher husband Martin Riker, Dutton is the editor and co-founder with Riker of a feminist press focusing on fiction and near-fiction writing by women.

That press, which is called Dorothy, A Publishing Project, is named in honor of her great-aunt, says Dutton.

Danielle Dutton and Martin Riker run Dorothy, a Publishing Project. (Photo by Jessica Baran / Courtesy of Dorothy, a Publishing Project)

“There’s a picture of Dorothy standing next to her woodie station wagon all loaded with books,” she says. “When we were starting the press and trying to come up with a name, we decided to name it after my aunt Dorothy because she was this librarian figure in my life, but she also every year would give me – like for Christmas or my birthday – a book stamped with an owl bookplate.”

Not only did Traver meet authors and collect signed first editions of classics like “The Story of Ferdinand,” Dutton says her great-aunt fostered a love of books in her.

“She would send me gorgeous books that nobody else was giving me with fancy illustrations. So that’s how Dorothy got its name,” she says. “The owl became our logo from those bookplates that she had.”

(Courtesy of Dorothy, a Publishing Project)

Founded in 2009 when Dutton was home in Illinois with the couple’s then-newborn, Dorothy aims to act as a corrective to what was missing in the publishing world, says Dutton. “I just felt like, where is the space for innovative or quote-unquote difficult or, you know, challenging or avant-garde writing by women that’s really championing that work? Because it’s out there,” she says.

“I started thinking, What do I want to do? What do I want this to be? And the pieces just started falling into place. Like, it had to be small because we were going to fund it ourselves – we’re not a nonprofit press,” Dutton says. “We had a newborn and we actually had other jobs, and so it was just this idea of only doing two books a year together in the fall.”

In 2010, the imprint’s first year, the couple published two books, Renee Gladman’s “Event Factory” and a reprint of a macabre 1954 novel by British novelist Barbara Comyns called, “Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead.” They liked the formal and stylistic variety between the two works.

“The idea was to publish two books that went together in some interesting way, but were from different traditions,” Dutton says, who wanted readers to try books they might not ordinarily read.

“It was sort of this utopian idea we had to do that.”

These days, the imprint is based in Missouri where the couple teaches at the Washington University in St. Louis. Now distributed by New York Review Books, Dorothy is preparing for the publication of two new books: “Some of Them Will Carry Me” by Giada Scodellaro and “A Horse at Night: On Writing” by Amina Cain.

She says Scodellaro’s book came in “over the transom” – and they immediately began working with the debut author. “We were really excited by just who she was, and her voice and what she was doing with fiction,” says Dutton. “I think she’s a completely original writer, and that’s always really exciting.”

Dutton, already a fan of Cain’s work, says she’d been searching for a full-length book that felt similar to an essay that Cain had written a few years back. She found one – by Cain.

“I’ve just been a huge fan of Amina’s for a long time,” says Dutton. “It’s a really special book to be inside of. It’s made me want to write, which is, I think, one of the highest compliments I can give another writer’s book.”

Dorothy Traver receives a certificate from S. Wesley Break, chairman of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors, announcing her official appointment as county librarian in 1958. Inspired by Traver’s work as a librarian, Traver’s niece Danielle Dutton named her book imprint, Dorothy, a publishing project in her aunt’s honor. (Photo by San Bernardino Sun)

As for the future, there may be industry-wide supply chain issues and paper shortages, but Dutton says the main challenge for their two-person operation is time. Along with Dorothy, they have their family, teaching and both have new books forthcoming, Riker in 2023 and Dutton in 2024.

“Dorothy just takes a huge amount of our time. But we do it because we love to do it, and it’s also a thing we do together, which is kind of cool,” says Dutton of working with husband Riker. “We’re not concerned, first and foremost, with what’s going to sell. So we have the freedom to just publish what we want to publish, because we believe in it and we believe it belongs in the world.”

Plus, being a “super-tiny” operation allows them to seek out books that larger publishers might not be interested in or know what to do with.

“It’s especially the strange or bold things – the original things that we haven’t seen before – that get us really excited. Because we feel like that’s what we can help with,” says Dutton.

“We’re looking for the books that need Dorothy.”

Amina Cain will appear with Kate Durbin at Stories Bookstore in LA at 7 p.m. Oct. 13. For more information on Dorothy, A Publishing Project, visit the website www.dorothyproject.com.

Danielle Dutton reveals the children’s book she found ‘disturbing’

Some of the books that Dorothy, a publishing project, has put out. (Courtesy of Dorothy, A Publishing Project)

Danielle Dutton, profiled above, is the co-founder, editor and designer of Dorothy, A Publishing Project. Her next book will be published in 2024 by Coffee House Press. The images above are some of Dorothy’s books.

Q. Is there a book or books you always recommend to other readers?

Two books I find myself recommending a lot: Steven Dunn’s “Potted Meat” and Sylvia Townsend Warner’s “Lolly Willowes.” They’re nothing alike (one is a contemporary coming-of-age story set in West Virginia and told in beautiful vignettes and the other is a midcentury English novel about a spinster aunt who decides one day to move to the countryside and worship Satan), but they both fill me with joy, not because they’re overtly “joyful” but because they’re so good.

Q. What are you reading now?

As of this moment I’m between things. I just finished two books—Danielle Evans’s collection “The Office of Historical Corrections” and Elif Batuman’s novel “The Idiot”—meanwhile it’s my birthday and I’ve asked for “Death by Landscape” by Elvia Wilk and “Second Place” by Rachel Cusk. Of course I am reading—submissions for Dorothy, undergraduate and graduate student stories—and also re-reading/proofing a brilliant novel we’re thrilled to be publishing in the fall of 2023: “The New Animals” by New Zealand author Pip Adam.

Q. Do you remember the first book that made an impact on you?

When I was little, “Goodnight Moon” by Margaret Wise Brown freaked me out. I thought there was something deeply existentially disturbing about it (goodnight nobody!?), but I wouldn’t have been able to articulate this—I just knew I didn’t like it. Actually, quite a lot of kids’ books upset me when I was little, including “There’s a Nightmare in my Closet” (for obvious reasons) and Beatrix Potter’s “The Tale of Two Bad Mice” (though I was obsessed with this one and insisted on calling it Hunca Munca). I should say that I absolutely love “Goodnight Moon” now. In fact, I’ve become something of a Margaret Wise Brown buff. I especially recommend “Mister Dog: The Dog Who Belonged to Himself.”

Q. Do you have any favorite book covers?

I’m not good at having favorites, but I do love book covers. I love all the old Alvin Lustig covers for New Directions. I’m a huge admirer of the work of book designer Jeff Clark. Another designer I’ve been following lately is Anna Morrison. I especially liked her covers for Joanna Walsh’s “My Life as a Godard Movie” from Transit Books and “I, Antigone” by Carlo Gélber for New Island Press.

Q. Do you listen to audiobooks? If so, are there any titles or narratorsyou’d recommend?

I don’t, except on road trips. In general I prefer the silence of reading a book by myself. Having said that, probably the best audiobook we ever listened to was Phillip Pullman’s “The Golden Compass” narrated by the author with a full cast. We also like listening to Agatha Christie novels, and of these our favorite was “And Then There Were None.”

Q. Is there a person who made an impact on your reading life – a teacher,a parent, a librarian or someone else?

Yes, my great aunt Dorothy. She was a librarian and would send me very fine editions of children’s books (but none of the scary ones) when I was a girl. Cherishing the books she sent was a sort of education. Though I wouldn’t have thought of it in this way, she helped me understand early on that the book, as an object, is something not just practical but potentially beautiful and surprising. Actually, thinking about the potentiality of the book as an object makes me want to recommend one last book: Amaranth Borsuk’s “The Book.”

What have you been reading lately? Send me your book recommendations to epedersen@scng.com and they might appear in the column.

Thanks, as always, for reading.

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Bookish.

What’s next on ‘Bookish’

The next free Bookish event will be Oct. 21 with guests Anthony Doerr, Michelle Tea and Martin Dugard joining host Sandra Tsing Loh.

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