Former TC editor recalls early days
During my time, the Town Crier offices were in a storefront at 350 Main St., now a jewelry store. The front half was subdivided by hideous partitions made of pressed swamp grass. We rented a cubicle to a public accountant who went into a rage when someone called for free tax advice.
Not that the rest of us were subdued. Because many of the advertisements required illustrations, our staff consisted of a half-dozen commercial artists, some part time, who could make sense of a salesman’s scrawls and a grocer’s demand that lettuce look alluring. We had clunky machines that flashed images of type onto photo paper. The artists cut up the paper, ran it through a machine that applied adhesive wax and pasted the pieces onto blue-lined layout sheets, where they got crooked. Cursing ensued.
The best days
The best days were Tuesdays, when we put the last pages together. The salespeople brought in proofs they’d shown to the grocers, who tried to find out how their competitors were pricing Crisco that week. I sometimes had to take a tiny proof to Mrs. Eberly, a tiny lady who ran a tiny shop just up the street. She would dwell lovingly over a 4-inch ad for bath towels.
“Let’s say they are large and fluffy, and change the price to $1.98 or maybe $1.95. What do you think?” she’d ask.
I think she liked to have company.
Another wistful advertiser was Bonnie Evans, an exterminator who was once a handsome young guy. He ran an old picture of himself every week.
The Bulletin Board
Separating the display ads were acres of free “Bulletin Board” want ads. These were an invention of Dave MacKenzie, our founding publisher, and enormously popular – so popular that they required rules: Limit of 20 words. First-come, first-served. Not responsible for errors. Right reserved to refuse an ad for any reason. No ads taken over the phone. The enforcer was Alma Wood, our bookkeeper, warden and Mother Superior. She turned away the late, lame and lazy. She gave no advice on wording and chastened those who asked. She answered the phone by saying, “Four four eight nine,” which baffled callers until they remembered those were the last four digits of our phone number. Often a few shoppers tried to get an early copy of the paper. Mrs. Wood shot them down at the barricades.
The Bulletin Board read like the inventory of a monstrous garage sale: Free dachshund. Chinese hand-carved telephone, $47.50. ’40 Ford DeLuxe convertible, $350 or best offer.
The coffee break
For our morning coffee, we went to the Village Pantry on Second Street, whose proprietor was Jack Francis, a high-functioning Democrat who bellowed at passersby to “come in and buy something.” He wanted customers to argue with. Pity the poor Republican who wandered in and suggested that Dick Nixon might not be tricky. Sometimes Jack’s sister, a seething liberal, was there to help Jack barbecue the fat cat.
One of Jack’s early-morning regulars was a fading attorney who practiced in San Francisco. He’d order pancakes and pour two shots of bourbon on top to ease the long commute.
The Town Crier’s competition was any paper that tried to sell ads against us. This was mainly the Los Altos News, which printed illegibly on letterpress. (It failed in 1966.)
The News regularly scooped us on mayoral proclamations. It reported in early 1963 that Mayor James P. Thurber Jr. proclaimed Feb. 10-16 as National Beauty Salon Week and that Rudy Martinez was chairman of the Los Altos celebration. “No programs are being observed in Los Altos,” the News revealed. We shouldn’t criticize Thurber for such a mild proclamation; another time local conservatives attacked him for recognizing United Nations Day.
Several times a week one of us had to drive the paste-ups to our print shop in Cupertino, usually late in the afternoon during rush hour.
In the early 1960s, as the old farm roads filled with commuters en route from Palo Alto to new subdivisions south of here, the debate on freeways and expressways was heated. Fremont to Grant to Homestead was one strategy, but it made little difference because the only traffic controls were four-way stops without lights. The temptation was to blast through the stop right after the guy in front of you. Drivers reddened and shook their fists and blew their horns as they lurched home to be asked how their day went.
Holidays brought a welcome surge of advertising. On a Friday in late November 1963, ads poured in for the biggest issue of the year. Retailers hinted openly about Christmas, and supermarkets hawked their Thanksgiving bounty: Turkey hens 49 cents at Whitecliff! Only 36 cents at Purity plus 100 Blue Chip stamps! Jumbo avocados 2 for 38 cents at Safeway! Grocers gone wild!
This was at first a happy day. We all went to work early, knowing that the printers wanted a head start. Then a customer came in weeping, saying President Kennedy had been shot. MacKenzie got out a radio and we heard for ourselves. I found a camera and drove to the high school, where I guessed correctly the flag would be flying at half-staff. We used the picture the next week, the day before Thanksgiving.
After a long pause, the artists rallied to finish the layouts. Late that afternoon I drove the pages to Cupertino. Commuters inched along Fremont, taking time at the four-way stops, no honking and no fist-shaking. Such sad faces in all the cars going slowly home.
Personal memo to our readers
As we celebrate the 63rd birthday of the Los Altos Town Crier this month, it is fun to flash back and review where this publication came from and how my wife, Liz, and I became involved. The fact that it is among the oldest continuously operating Los Altos businesses speaks loudly about the service it provides.
A unique enterprise
The Town Crier is a unique enterprise. Which other local business has the daily production of its staff, its work team, reviewed by thousands of people each week? Our editors, writers, copy editors, proofreaders, ad sales personnel, graphic designers, circulation managers, billing and collection department staff – 20 people in all – are professionals.
What makes the business stay on course day in and day out is that three key people have been with us since we took over 17 years ago: Bruce Barton, editor; Howard Bischoff, circulation manager and associate publisher; and Chris Redden, ad services coordinator.
In the beginning
I am proud to say that a hometown weekly has been a part of my life since I was born. I grew up on a dairy farm in northern Minnesota, out in the country, 4 miles from the little town of Hinckley. Those were Depression days, and I attended a one-room school for eight years, had one classmate named Lloyd all eight years. Lloyd did not really take school seriously, so, yes, I was valedictorian when we graduated from eighth grade! I achieved partly because I learned to read early on.
During high school, I spent every afternoon after school on the farm – no time for sports or after-school activities. One connection we remote farm families had was the weekly Hinckley News. Its publisher, Cliff Mann, was one of my heroes. There was something about his awareness with what was important in our community and the very local focus of every page in the paper that made a lasting impression.
The Hinckley News never won a Pulitzer Prize. But it was a winner with all the farmers and townspeople. It had weekly columns written primarily by farm ladies representing the neighborhoods surrounding the town. The columns were made up largely of one-liners about real people. A few samples I recall:
“Hank Neidorf helped Burl Myers butcher a pig last Saturday.”
“Neighbors Dorothy Bowen and Elizabeth Sikkink drove to Minneapolis to buy shoes for their kids last week.”
“District 43 (my one-roomer) is looking for volunteers for the school board.”
Well, the Los Altos Town Crier has always had a little more class than that. When Dave MacKenzie started the paper in 1947, it was really an advertiser with limited news. Gradually, by the mid-1960s, it added more news. Over the following decades, it passed through three different owners’ hands with varying degrees of success. By 1993, the Chicago Tribune, which had tried to make it work for the previous eight years, put it up for sale along with several other weeklies on the Peninsula.
All news is local
When we were given an opportunity to buy the paper in March 1993, we jumped at it. For the past 17 years, we have worked at keeping three magic words foremost in mind: local, local, local.
What is especially gratifying is that Liz has been sharing responsibility from day one as human resources director. She handles all that messy stuff I hate: insurance, workers’ compensation, employee records and maintaining accurate financial files for the company. Her involvement in countless community activities adds to our insight. She is vice president of Partners for New Generations, serves on the board of the Los Altos/Hills Newcomers Club, is active in our church, acted as president of the Los Altos History Museum Board during the years of construction and keeps track of our 12 grandchildren.
Some new things worked
Having a weekly communication tool has given us opportunities to try out new ideas: taking a page out of Time magazine when we started the annual “Los Altan(s) of the Year” in 1994 to recognize the goodwill-builders in our community; creating and co-sponsoring the Los Altos Cultural Association, which invented the Millennium Celebration 10 years ago and raised funds to purchase the Olympic Wannabes sculpture for Village Park; launching the Town Crier Holiday Fund, which has raised more than $1.2 million in the past decade for Silicon Valley area non-profits; introducing the “Town Crier 50 Index,” which publishes the weekly stock prices of 50 public companies whose executives live in Los Altos and Los Altos Hills; and initiating the new Youth Activities pages that feature the hundreds of youth involved in Little League and other sports.
Today, amid a recession that has closed many businesses nationwide and witnessed the page count of many newspapers shrink month after month, we are happy to report that we are still at a healthy level and doing OK. Our paid subscribers and our strong base of regular advertisers keep us humming. Advertisers keep advertising because they get results. Readers keep reading because it is about them, their families, their schools, their churches and their city.
We thank our readers, many of whom claim to read the paper cover to cover each week, and our advertisers for sticking with us. This paper is here for the long haul, folks.