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She Built Her Business From the Ground Up

Books: Architect-turned-publisher Ann E. Gray's Balcony Press is just 3 years old, but already the imprint has a loyal following.

May 25, 1997|DENISE HAMILTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The books that Ann E. Gray publishes bring a rush of deja vu because her images are already part of our visual and cultural landscape--though we've never seen them framed quite so poetically before.

There's "Vacant Eden," which captures the surreal beauty of half-abandoned desert motels. "Bullocks Wilshire," a history of the defunct grand dowager of Los Angeles department stores. And "Hollywood Bowl: Tales of Summer Nights," stuffed with essays, architectural plans and photos spanning the history of the outdoor musical mecca.

In June, Gray's 3-year-old Balcony Press will publish its sixth art and architecture book--"The Last Remaining Seats: Movie Palaces of Tinseltown"--a photographic homage to the brass doors, marble floors, gold-leafed ceilings, crystal chandeliers and Beaux Arts statues of the city's celebrated movie palaces.

Ironically, many of the books published by Balcony Press were turned down by the big New York houses as "too regional," a fact that observers say only highlights the opportunities that exist today in niche publishing.

"The L.A. market [the nation's largest] is hungering for more material about where they live and what's happened in the past, and that's something that Ann does really well," says Michael Dawson, owner of Dawson's Bookshop in Larchmont Village, which specializes in rare, out-of-print and Southern California history books.

"She has a real feeling for regional history, and her books tap a nostalgic vein. Plus they're beautifully designed and printed and published at prices that are competitive."

Balcony Press reflects the personal aesthetics and interests of Gray, a 39-year-old architect-turned-publisher who runs her one-woman business out of her home on a tree-lined street in Silver Lake.

Sitting in her 9-foot-by-13-foot office, surrounded by books that span the spectrum of Los Angeles arts, history and culture, Gray ruminates on the path that led her to quit a lucrative and challenging architectural job to launch a small and quirky publishing house in an era when the entire industry is in nervous flux.

Gray grew up in Fresno and earned a bachelor's degree in applied mathematics and a master's in architecture, both from UCLA. She worked in architecture for 20 years, the last eight as head studio architect for Paramount Pictures in Hollywood.

During her time there, Paramount built several sound stages, office buildings and parking structures. Then Viacom bought Paramount and slashed capital spending.

"It had been so much fun that it was hard to imagine going in and not having the continuing challenge of major projects," Gray says.

Inspired by her husband, Peter Shamray, 38, an entrepreneur who owns Navigator Press in Pasadena, Gray took a class from the American Book Assn. that walked her through publishing, from designing book covers to drawing up contracts and finding a distributor.

She also bought computer software for drawing up a business plan, but never even fired it up. "It's such a major, major guess, and it looks so silly on paper," she says.

Using $60,000 in savings she had squirreled away as an architect, Gray took the plunge in 1994 and formed Balcony Press. Shamray signed on to help on the manufacturing end doing pre-press work.

"I always knew I wanted to go into publishing," Gray says. "I have a list of five to 10 fantasy occupations and that was one of them."

*

Gray figured she had enough to put out two to three books before either going bankrupt or turning a profit. So she sent a press release to the newsletter of the Society of Architectural Historians, announcing the formation of Balcony Press and inviting authors to submit manuscripts.

She got only one reply. Luckily for her, it an 800-page draft of "Los Angeles, the End of the Rainbow," a history of Los Angeles housing styles by Merry Ovnick that started with Native American tule grass dwellings and ended with the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

It would become Balcony Press' inaugural offering and an instant classic.

Architectural historian Robert Winter compared it to an earlier classic, Carey McWilliams' "Southern California: An Island on the Land." Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Jack Miles said the book was "delightful and informative" in analyzing "the archeology of the city's crazy dreams."

The original press run of 2,000 copies sold out in nine months and convinced Gray that there was a market for what she was selling. These days, she prints between 3,000 and 5,000 copies and usually goes on to a second printing. Because of her low overhead, she is able to make a small profit as early as the first run, unlike big publishers, who need to sell 10,000 or more copies to recoup expenses.

Many of Balcony's books--which are often joint efforts by photographers, essayists and graphic artists--have been turned down by corporate giants like Abrams and HarperCollins. The movie palace book was rejected by Rizzoli, co-author Robert Berger says, who took the photos with partner Anne Conser.

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