Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

June 15–22, 2000

book quarterly

Stock Exchange

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Dry wit: Publisher Paul Dry in his Center City office.

Trader Paul Dry leaves the world of high finance to begin his own small press.

by Debra Auspitz

Sitting in his sparsely decorated office at 17th and Sansom, Paul Dry, Philadelphia stock trader turned book publisher, refuses to be interviewed. Instead, with two of his three-person staff gathered around him, what is taking place in the small office is a conversation. For each question that he answers, or for each one that’s answered by Assistant Editor Ilana Stanger or Special Projects Editor Rayna Kalas (Dry’s business partner and senior editor, John Corenswet, is not present), the tables are turned. What was the last book you read, the interviewer is asked. Why? What is your favorite book? Why? The tall, soft-spoken publisher listens attentively, as if everything being said could be used as data in his yearning to understand the question, "Why do people read what they read?"

It was exactly this question, and the love of conversation, that led Dry, at age 56, to leave the field of stock trading and start up Paul Dry Books (PBD). Dry cites three other major reasons for the change, beginning simply with his involvement in a book club for the past 15 years. He’s also co-taught for the past six years with his brother, a Middlebury College political science prof, an experience which reawakened his passion for the discussion of reading and literature. And finally, as he puts it, "I suppose, though I enjoy trading stock options, I wanted to do something different."

PDB’s first line came out this spring. The booklist, all reprints, speaks volumes about this independent book company, itself a rarity in Philadelphia or indeed anywhere outside of New York. Dry chose to reprint an unavailable 1567 translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses; a quirky 1930s John Collier novel, His Monkey Wife (which really is about a man married to a monkey); The Parnas, a novel about the Holocaust by psychoanalyst Silvano Arieti; and a 1985 novel about frontier Ohio, The Tree of Life by Hugh Nissenson. Each of the books features a new introduction by a well-known name esteemed educator Eva Brann of St. John’s College introduces Collier’s work; Rabbi Harold Kushner (of When Bad Things Happen to Good People fame) prefaces The Parnas; the New York Times’ Margo Jefferson writes the intro to The Tree of Life; and noted Shakespearean scholar Jonathan Bate contributes an essay called "Shakespeare’s Ovid" to the new-old translation of Metamorphoses (this translation is assumed to be the one that the Bard himself would have read).

Dry admits that inaugurating a small press with reprints is a financially prudent choice. But that’s not the main reason these titles made the list. "I did it because there were a couple of books that I really loved and I thought others would enjoy."

With the Internet as a tool (PDB has a Web site, www.pauldrybooks.com, and also sells books on Amazon.com), Dry sees no need for his company to be in New York. Stanger, the enthusiastic 24-year-old assistant editor, views the Philadelphia location as a plus, especially in light of recent press claiming that the city’s literary standing has diminished. "I think it’s exciting to fill a vacuum. I mean, we work here because Paul lives here, not because we set out to rejuvenate a small city’s publishing industry. But it’s sort of fun to read something like [January’s Inquirer article detailing a lack of literary presses in Philadelphia] and say, ‘No, there is a small press here.’"

Paul Dry Books is currently working on what Dry calls "a real Philadelphia story," an anthology of poems with the Philadelphia-based American Poetry Review titled Experience and Mastery. Twenty-five national contemporary poets were asked to submit one of their own poems, plus three poems that they felt influenced them and an essay on their influences. The book, due out next spring, is being edited in-house by Kalas, 31, a recent Ph.D. in English at Penn.

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For now, Paul Dry Books is trying to find its place in the publishing world and in Philadelphia. "The truth is, this has been a real learning process," Stanger says. "There’s probably an easier way to do [this work], but I think because this is Paul’s dream of being a publisher, he’s not necessarily looking for the easiest way but the most interesting way and the most exciting way."

Indeed PDB has not taken the easy road, mostly avoiding (except for Metamorphoses and an upcoming reprint of Bacon’s The Advancement of Learning) works in the public domain.

"If we wanted to do Huckleberry Finn, we would just publish Huckleberry Finn," Dry says. "But, that would be the 30th edition of Huckleberry Finn. Now, if we got William Jefferson Clinton to write an introduction, and in it he said, ‘Why I Feel I’m Like Huckleberry Finn,’ then that might be a little interesting, but, in general, works in the public domain are available to any publisher, so why do it?"

Dry is clearly interested in his books’ effect on readers. "The reading provokes the conversation and the conversation gets you deeper into the reading," he says. And, as strange as it may sound coming from a former stock trader, he swears that it’s not about the money. "It’s hard to sell enough books to become rich, that’s not what happens," he says. "You have to sell enough books so that you can go do another book."

At this point Stanger pipes in: "And then maybe Oprah picks your book…" Laughing with the slightest touch of disappointment in his voice, Dry replies, "I think we can all say, without contradiction, that Oprah will not be picking The Metamorphoses."

With a first printing under their belts, PDB is gearing up for the future. The fall line of books includes two new translations: a book about Chekhov originally in Russian and a Holocaust memoir originally in Italian. "We’re still arranging the garden," says Dry, "and we don’t quite know how we’re going to arrange it."

It seems so far that Dry’s risk is successful, especially if success is measured by the number of people who have actually picked up Ovid. Dry recalls, "A bookstore in Breezewood, California, sent us a card saying, ‘We’ve got a stack of [Ovid] at the cash register, they’re selling briskly.’ You know, we started laughing — how could this be selling briskly?" With Paul Dry Books in town, it may be only a little while before Ovid and Chekhov are duking it out with Danielle Steel at the checkout line.

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