Idaho Arts Quarterly » Southwest Idaho

Bound By Family

The ongoing epic of Caxton Press


At first glance, Scott Gipson's office doesn't appear to be particularly distinctive. But look a little closer at the walls and you might actually learn a thing or two.

To the left of his desk hang inscribed pictures from two former presidents, Theodore Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover. To his right, above a vault door a century old, hangs a portrait of his great-grandfather, J.H. Gipson, done by artist E.A. Burbank. Burbank is famous for being the only painter for whom the Apache chief Geronimo would sit for a portrait. Appropriately, sitting on Gipson's desk with some papers is a file containing a pristine--and previously unknown--red-pencil drawing of Geronimo, by Burbank. Gipson says he noticed it for the first time while cleaning out the vault recently.

"We find that sort of stuff lying around here all the time," he says. "I think people in Boise don't understand how much history is out here in Caldwell."

Gipson, the publisher at Caxton Press, should know about history. He and his brother Ron, the printing manager, are the fifth generation of Gipson men to work at Caxton, which has operated on the same spot in downtown Caldwell since 1907 (not counting a rebuilding following a fire in 1937). The company is the oldest member of the local chamber of commerce, and while the names on the doors may not have changed much over the last century, Caxton Press has attained a national level of prominence throughout its history that belies its humble location across from the train tracks and the derelict grain silo.

The history of Caxton starts in the 19th century, when, in 1895, Albert E. Gipson and his family moved from Greeley, Colorado, to the newly formed town of Caldwell. After trying jobs in banking and magazine publishing, Albert E. Gipson founded Caxton Printers as a commercial printing firm in 1907, naming it after William Caxton, who printed the first-ever book in English in 1474. To this day, books published by Caxton Press still contain William Caxton's original "W.C." insignia on their colophons and spines.

Albert's son, James Herrick "J.H." Gipson, who began working for the company in 1907, is responsible for starting the publishing house portion of the business. An avid reader who, according to family legend, read at least a book a week throughout his life, J.H. Gipson was a man of letters with connections far beyond Idaho. When Roosevelt ran for president under the Progressive party or "Bull Moose" banner in 1912, Gipson served as the party's regional party chairman. He also exchanged correspondence regularly with Hoover, and the resulting letters are in a collection at Washington State University. But at heart, J.H. Gibson was a publisher.

"When he started publishing, part of his justification was that there wasn't anyone else out here to do it," Scott Gipson says. "There were people out here wanting to research and write, but there weren't any outlets."

Caxton Press's first release in 1925 was a civics textbook, The Idaho Citizen, by future Idaho Secretary of State Fred Lukens. Over the next five years, the publisher printed a few cookbooks, textbooks and occasional novels, until leaping up to a dozen titles in 1931. By the end of the 1930s, Caxton was printing over 30 new titles every year, with wide-ranging topics including not only western history, but also novels by Idaho author Vardis Fisher, nature textbooks, arctic travelogues, western anthologies and, to an increasing extent, libertarian and anti-communist texts by nationally prominent writers such as Garet Garrett and Isabel Paterson. In 1953, J.H. Gipson's literary ambition and individualist ideals united when Caxton released the first (and, until 1995, the only) hardcover edition of Anthem, an early novella by Ayn Rand.

Caxton maintained an intense and varied lineup through J.H. Gipson's death in 1965, when his son, J.H. Jr., took the president's chair. Within a few years, the publisher had trimmed down both the amount and the scope of releases bearing the Caxton insignia, usually releasing around five western-themed books a year. J.H. Jr. passed away in 1991, and today, J.H. Gipson Sr.'s grandson, Dave, is president, with his sons as co-vice presidents, publisher and printing manager. After taking the reins as publisher in 1998, Scott Gipson says he has continued the trend of narrowing Caxton's focus.

"If you look back, you'll notice that we did very little Idaho work, because Idaho was such a small market," he says. "Now, it's a conscious choice to try to publish every important book about Idaho that comes out."

That's still a lofty goal, and one that Caxton has been able to achieve mainly due to the myriad other services the company has quietly taken on over the years. Since 1927, Caxton has served as the Idaho State textbook repository, stocking over 10,000 titles, ranging from textbooks to picture books sent directly from publishers. With these titles sitting in-state, Idaho school districts only have to pay shipping from Caldwell, rather than from the large eastern cities where the books are printed.

"It's a way that rural states level the playing field," Gipson says. "Boise would be able to negotiate really good freight terms. Pingree, Idaho wouldn't."

Across an alley from the depository warehouse, in its commercial printing wing, Caxton prints voting ballots, school report cards, calendars and media guides for Idaho colleges, among other projects. From another 50,000-square-foot warehouse in Caldwell, the company also maintains a school supply distribution service, doling out everything from glue to desks to butcher paper to districts statewide. For a time, Gipson says, the company was even in charge of storing and shipping high school football bleachers.

Adding to the load in recent years, Caxton has begun storing and distributing titles from other, smaller in-state presses such as University of Idaho Press, Black Canyon Press and Snake Country Publishing. And earlier this year, when Historic Idaho, the nonprofit publisher mainly responsible for producing the Idaho history books by author Arthur Hart, donated its assets to Albertson College of Idaho, the Caldwell-based liberal arts college promptly made a distribution agreement with Caxton. Indeed, Caxton has its hand in so many projects around the state, Gipson admits, that sometimes the publishing operation itself seems like a luxury.

"In another situation, it would be difficult to justify the operation of the press," he says. "But it's something that J.H. felt was important. The entire identity of this company, and to a lesser extent, this family, is tied up in the book publishing operation. We continue to believe that it's not just about the commerce part of it. It's about what we have to offer this state, in terms of providing an avenue for regional, state and local history, books and authors.

To further that identity, Gipson says he recently purchased the domain name By next March, he plans to have a site on which visitors will be able to purchase Idaho-related books by Caxton Press and the smaller presses it distributes. The site will also feature a rotating lineup of Idaho book reviews, an Idaho book blog and perhaps even original pieces contributed by Idaho writers and historians.

"It'll focus on all the Idaho titles that aren't travel guides," he says. "Instead of just reacting to the marketplace, where everything needs to be Stephen King and Tom Clancy, this will be a place to focus on the book world in Idaho."

While Caxton currently keeps around 200 titles from throughout its history in print, Gipson says he remains open to publishing new projects. Of the estimated 30 book pitches he receives a year (he handles most of them personally, he says, along with editor Wayne Cornell), Gipson says he pursues five or six, almost always by dealing directly with authors rather than through literary agents. Most of Caxton's newer releases are explicitly historical or geographical--a history of the Idaho Shakespeare Festival and a photo book of the Salmon River being two of the most elaborate recent examples--but the firm's clarity and simplicity is what, in Gipson's opinion, makes it as strong as ever.

"We remain the house that people look to when they say, 'I've got a book about Idaho history. Who's my best choice?" Gipson says. "I like to think that we're adding to the cultural landscape and the historical landscape of this state by simply doing what we do, and doing it well."