Publisher Gibbs Smith, who reinvented Western stories from his Utah barn, dies at 77

<b>1940-2017 • </b>Creative and influential publisher, writer and artist died Saturday.<br>

(Tribune file photo) Gibbs Smith is seen outside his Layton publishing office in this undated photo. Smith was a book publisher and former Sierra Club president.

In the book world, the backstory of the Gibbs Smith publishing company — that it published beautifully designed books from a renovated 1919 barn on the founder’s family property in Layton — made for a pretty great yarn. Better yet, of course, is that its mythical founding story happens to be true.

Smith co-founded the company, originally named Peregrine Smith, with his wife, Catherine, on the strength of his University of Utah master’s thesis, a biography of Utah labor leader Joe Hill that has remained in print for nearly 50 years. Smith, who continued making daily trips to the office even after the company was sold three years ago to its 43 employees, died Saturday from complications of an injury. He was 77.

On Monday, Utah historians and booksellers mourned their friend, whom they termed a Western Renaissance man. “He was blessed with tremendous intellectual curiosity,” said John Sillito, an author and longtime friend, underscoring Smith’s warmth and thoughtfulness.

“He’s always been at the center of all kind of things — history, art, environmentalism, publishing — and he had a real impact on all of that,” said Sillito, an adjunct history professor at Weber State University. “I’ve never known anyone who didn’t respect him, even if they didn’t agree with him.”

Beyond his love of regional art, culture and history, Smith remained at the forefront of new ideas. The company weathered economic downturns through innovative book-adjacent ideas, such as gifts (mugs and tote bags with “I heart Darcy” for Jane Austen fans), craft and BabyLit picture books. Also significant are the company’s apps and extensive line of cookbooks.

“At a time when Western history was really opening up, Gibbs Smith was on the frontier of those changes,” said Catherine Weller, co-owner of Weller Book Works. “It was a change in landscape, and he was on that frontier.”

In 1969, while in graduate school in Santa Barbara, Calif., Smith founded the company with the publication of a history textbook. The Smiths launched the company with $12,000 they earned from a film adaptation of the Joe Hill book.

After moving the company to his family’s Layton property in 1973, Smith expanded its catalog. State history titles, including textbooks for fourth- and seventh-graders in Utah, are still a core part of the 48-year-old company’s offerings, says Brad Farmer, chief executive officer of Gibbs Smith, Publisher.

Key titles for the Utah company include beautifully designed art books, such as the work of LeConte Stewart and Maynard Dixon. “There was a real humanity [to the list], above and beyond the usual publishing,” said Brad Westwood, director of the Utah Division of State History.

The company’s books were distinguished by Smith’s artistry and creativity, as well as his consummate ability as a wordsmith, said Betsy Burton, owner of The King’s English Bookshop.

“I can’t emphasize how highly respected that press is,” said Burton, whose book about her years as an independent bookseller was published by Gibbs Smith in 2005. “Every bookseller knows that press and buys his books. That’s no mean accomplishment, [being based in Utah] particularly.”

In 2009, the company published a collection of Smith’s paintings, “Art of the Bookstore,” an homage to the independent spirit of retail stores threatened economically by chains and online companies. His paintings included iconic Salt Lake City stores such as Weller Book Works and The King’s English, as well as the famed Shakespeare and Company in Paris.

“The book business is a calling more than a business,” Gibbs Smith told Publishers Weekly in 2014. And leaders pledge the company will continue to operate in its namesake’s honor, Farmer said: “We’re going to stay in the barn until the cows kick us out.”

(Courtesy Gibbs Smith Publisher) A photo of Gibbs Smith's painting of Sam Weller's Zion Bookstore.

(Courtesy Gibbs Smith Publisher) A photo of Gibbs Smith's painting of The King's English.

Funeral services will be Saturday, Nov. 4, with details to come.