By Kenneth Alton Clark
The first woman in America to own and manage a book publishing company got her start in Back Bay.
On an early spring day in 1892, a ruffled executive at the old Shepard-Norwell firm, which occupied the block between Winter Street and Temple Place, stared in disbelief at the young woman sitting in front of him. His day was already busy with invoices to be mailed, bills to be paid, and meetings to attend, but he had been asked by his boss to deal with a small, yet determined woman asking for credit and start-up inventory. She wanted to open a store nearby, one that might even take some business away from his own firm.
This bold, ambitious woman was Carro M. Clark. Two years earlier, she had come to Boston from Unity, Maine to continue her education and to begin her professional life. After learning some accounting and basic business principles from a private tutor, and already stuck in a bookkeeping job at the Hotel Clifton, Clark grew restless. An old acquaintance from back home worked at Shepard-Norwell, and he helped her secure an interview with company executives. When she had made her pitch at similar firms around Boston, men simply laughed at her. By the time she sat down with Shepard-Norwell’s financial manager, she was in tears. Still, she refused to give up.
In the end, the executive granted her credit and some preliminary inventory to sell. Carro Clark already knew where she wanted her business to be: a vacant storefront on the southeast corner of Commonwealth and Massachusetts avenues. And so, in 1892, Clark began a 10-year run as the owner of a dry goods store, right in the heart of Back Bay. She sold basic necessities to the upscale clientele living around her, but focused her energies on paper items: magazines, newspapers, pen and ink, stationery, envelopes and, most importantly, books.
Well-heeled Bostonians frequented her store, which thrived from the outset. Its entrance was on west side of the building, at 86 Massachusetts Ave., an address and space still used by small businesses today. Notable people came by often, including Charles F. Atkinson, who managed the Bowdoin Square Theatre and the re-configured Boston Zoo. Recently widowed, he struck up a relationship with Carro and in 1897 they were married at the City Point Methodist Episcopal Church in South Boston.
Clark changed her storefront displays often and took care to notice what colors, images, products and arrangements worked the best. One year, she printed her own Christmas calendar and, seeing it sell well in Boston, set out across the United States on a grueling trip to market her product. Going as far west as Minneapolis, she returned to Boston with a healthy stack of orders.
By 1900, with her dry goods store thriving, she grew restless again. Her husband, Charles, had long been friends with Bostonian Charles Felton Pidgin, who, in his spare time, wrote skits, song lyrics, plays and musicals. The two had worked together on Atkinson’s “Jollities” Comedy Company. Pidgin invited Carro to hear a story he was preparing, one that would change her life.
From behind the counter at her store, for almost a decade, Clark had been watching closely what people, particularly women, liked to read. She had refined her advertising skills with her storefront displays and polished her personal touch on cross-country business trips. After hearing Pidgin’s story, set in rural Massachusetts, she offered to publish and market it for him.
Carro launched the C. M. Clark Publishing Company in September 1900 from her Massachusetts Avenue store and began to prepare Pidgin’s work. In November, she released the firm’s first book, “Quincy Adams Sawyer and Mason’s Corner Folk-A Story of New England Home Life.” According to an article appearing in the Los Angeles Herald on March 2, 1902, she determined “to advertise this book as no American novel was ever advertised.” In trolley and train cars and in buggies-for-hire, the book cover’s image appeared. She paid people to paint bare walls in cities as far away as San Francisco and commissioned a Cincinnati agency to make the largest billboard ever designed to promote a book.
Sales orders poured in to her Back Bay store from booksellers across the country. The initial printing of 3,000 volumes surely took up precious office space, but only briefly as demand soared. Before long, presses were running nearly continuously and the Quincy Adams Sawyer enterprise soon overshadowed her now mid-sized dry goods establishment. By the spring of 1901, she had to open a separate publishing office off Dewey Square just to handle the sales of her new company’s books.
Male publishing executives were mortified to learn that the brains behind C. M. Clark was a woman, and they began to imitate her marketing strategy. From that point forward, books would be advertised just as aggressively as any other consumer item. Quincy Adams Sawyer went on to sell 500,000 copies. A play version appeared on Broadway in 1902 and was performed nearly continuously around the country for the next 10 years. In 1922, it was made into a silent film starring Lon Chaney. From her little store on the corner of Massachusetts and Commonwealth avenues, Carro Clark transformed the book advertising world with a catchy Massachusetts tale that remained popular for over two decades. The C. M. Clark Publishing Company went on to release 170 more titles before closing in 1912. By combining “location, location, location” with her strategy of “publicity, publicity, publicity,” Carro told the Minneapolis Journal in 1904, she made some big waves in Back Bay over a century ago.