A university press in Chapel Hill keeps on printing prize-winning books even after a fire destroyed its library.
The University of North Carolina Press is a survivor. Founded in 1922, the publisher is the oldest university press in the South and fourth oldest in the nation. In the past 90 years it has printed nearly 5,000 titles and won every award an academic press can receive, including the Pulitzer Prize.
Yet amid this busy history, a catastrophic fire nearly stopped the press in its tracks 22 years ago. On the evening of December 5, 1990, Brooks Hall on the UNC campus burned to the ground. Everything in the building, including editorial files and a complete library of books published by the press, was lost.
“The building we’re sitting in was completely destroyed from end to end,” says Editor in Chief David Perry. “We didn’t have two pieces of paper to put together.”
Perry and his colleagues were determined not to let this setback sink the institution. They recovered computer files backed up off-site and bought the reference materials they needed. They moved into temporary offices, where they continued to work.
Workers rebuilt Brooks Hall on the same spot, and authors and friends of the press combined efforts to gradually restore the lost library of books. Some people carried lists of missing books around to libraries and yard sales, looking to fill in the gaps. Today only a small number of UNC Press titles are absent from the shelves.
“It testifies to how much people care about this place,” says Editorial Director Mark Simpson-Vos.
The most enduring titles from UNC Press are popular histories, natural history guides, cultural tourism guidebooks, and books on food and Southern culture.
“We’ve always felt a responsibility to do books for the state and region that explain us to ourselves with a certain degree of rigor,” Perry says.
UNC Press brought the study of regional folkways into the mainstream with the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, a 1,656-page tome published in 1989. In terms of history, William S. Powell’s North Carolina Through Four Centuries is considered the best single-volume account of our state. The press also published Rhys Isaac’s The Transformation of Virginia, 1740-1790, which won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1983.
UNC Press has long been a trailblazer on race and African-American studies, beginning in 1943 with John Hope Franklin’s The Free Negro in North Carolina. This year brought a new edition of Winthrop Jordan’s White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812, which won a National Book Award when first published in 1968.
On the lighter side, UNC Press has done books on barbecue, basketball in North Carolina, Outer Banks fishing, and cookbooks devoted to buttermilk and pecans.
The all-time best seller is Mama Dip’s Kitchen, a collection of down-home recipes from beloved Chapel Hill restaurateur Mildred “Mama Dip” Council. As essential as a cast-iron skillet in Southern kitchens, the book has sold more than 230,000 copies since 1999.
With a full-time staff of 42, UNC Press publishes nearly 100 books every year. The landmark Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, first issued as a single edition in 1989, has grown to 24 volumes. The final pair in the series, on folk art and race, will appear next year. A series on the Civil War has been another major undertaking.
UNC Press will celebrate its centennial in a decade. With rapid shifts in technology and consumer preferences in the Internet age, who knows what publishing might look like then? Already, e-books represent nearly 9 percent of UNC Press’s revenue.
“We have to be nimble,” Simpson-Vos says. “We have to think hard about formats, book lengths and topics we publish.”
Given its storied history as a leader and survivor, there is little doubt that UNC Press will continue to meet all challenges.
Top 5 best sellers from UNC Press
Mama Dip’s Kitchen by Mildred Council
Mildred Council presents more than 260 recipes from her restaurant, one of the state’s most popular spots for comfort food.
The Scotch-Irish: A Social History by James G. Leyburn
From Scotland to the countryside of North Carolina, Leyburn chronicles the lives and rich history of the Scotch-Irish people.
Graveyard of the Atlantic: Shipwrecks of the North Carolina Coast by David Stick
David Stick offers tales of hundreds of heroic rescues and violent adventures at the stormy meeting place of northern and southern winds and waters.
Foxfire Book of Appalachian Cooking by Linda Garland Page
Linda Page combines delectable recipes with the wit and wisdom of those who have prepared and eaten such foods for generations.
Tar Heel Ghosts by John Harden
Twenty-three ghost stories fill John Harden’s book on colonial and modern spirits that haunt the mountains, Piedmont, and coast.
Parke Puterbaugh is a Greensboro-based writer who teaches at Guilford College. He is a former senior editor at Rolling Stone magazine and the author or coauthor of 10 books. His most recent story for Our State was “Waynesville” (October 2012).