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The World Almanac's Biggest Fan

Fans of The World Almanac often tell us that our book is a longstanding family tradition--in some cases, a tradition that spans decades (and generations) of annual purchases and gift-giving. Rich Gruber, however, has gone one step beyond. He bought his first World Almanac in 1962, at age 8 (for $1.35), and diligently picked up the new edition every year since then. But about four years ago, he started to wonder if he might be able to work his way backwards from the first copy he bought, all the way back to our first edition in 1868.

He's only missing 5 editions now, which makes his collection more complete than our own (Edward Thomas, our Associate Publisher, suspects that Rich may have bid against him in more than one eBay auction). Our own Sarah Janssen caught up with our biggest fan recently for a conversation that covered the history of The World Almanac, a personal grudge against Jeopardy!, and the missing link between the Almanac and Beanie Babies. Hit "play" below to listen, download an audio file of the interview here, or hit the jump for the transcript.

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This is Sarah Janssen, an editor of The World Almanac, and I’m talking to Rich Gruber, who I think we can safely say is one of our biggest fans. He’s collected nearly all of the World Almanacs ever published—which is a lot, considering we’ve been publishing since 1868. Rich, I guess I’d like to start at the beginning. Can you tell us about when you got your first World Almanac?

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Yeah. I was brought up in New York City, I was born in 1954, and we lived right down the block from a candy store, and starting when I was eight, we went every year and bought it. So my first one—that I bought for myself—was in 1962.

So you were only 8 years old?

Yes, it was $1.35 that year; I was given the money by my parents and I went off and bought it.

What was your fascination with The World Almanac at the time?

Well, I was always very much into facts and statistics, and I used to read it thoroughly and just learn all kinds of things. We went to the theater a lot as a family, and they always had—in The World Almanac—good lists of what the long runs were for plays. And they always had the statistics from the latest election, and from the baseball season, and the presidents. Those are the things that I liked most from the beginning.

Is that still the case or are you more into some of the other features now?

I would say it still is—what I’ve come to like more in the years that followed is during the ‘60s and the ‘70s they had all the rules and the laws of various states: the age of marriage, the rules of divorce. And, you know, economical things—how much output various countries have. But favorite stuff I always go back to. I always look at long theatre runs and things like that. But now I look at it more for world statistics and things like that.

A compendium of universal knowledge” is what Pulitzer wanted this to be when they started it.

Yeah, I’m kind of the trivia type. I tried out for Jeopardy! but they didn’t want me. I do like trivia.

You know, I was told that employees of The World Almanac are not eligible to audition for Jeopardy! because they use us as source.

Oh wow! Because it’s a research guide, right?

Right, exactly.

Well, it’s not that relevant to our interview, but the test for Jeopardy! was extremely unfair. I’d watched the show for years when I tried out. About ten years ago, I tried out. And I figure I’d been watching the show for ten years before that, and you know, back before they doubled the prices, I could consistently get 12-14 thousand dollars every show. And I went to take the test, and they were not in the form of Jeopardy! questions: it was fill-in-the-blanks, not multiple choice, and there were 100 questions. I sat down in the exam room, read the questions, and immediately knew my final score on the exam was a zero. There was not a single question I even had a hope of answering.

That’s so interesting—I wonder why the test would be so much harder than the show itself?

The theory is that people get nervous onstage and they want them to have lots of reserve power. And I said, ‘You know I’m a ham, I don’t get nervous at all.’ [Both laughing.] But you don’t do well on the test, you don’t get to go to the next level. I was so mad; I didn’t even watch the show for about five years after that.

So you had a Jeopardy! grudge for awhile.

That’s right. A big grudge. And I even met Alex Trebek in the lobby the night before; he was real nice, it just didn’t work out.

Well, that’s a shame. So, after you started getting The World Almanac as a child, how did you transition to collecting some of the older editions?

Well, what happened is, I went to college in Philadelphia. At that point I have 13, 14 of them, so I took them with me. And then I moved to Florida in ’85 and dutifully bought my book every year. And then about four years ago, I discovered that the almanacs were readily bought and sold either on Ebay or on AbeBooks.com. So I said, ‘Well, let’s see here. I’ve got all the way back to 1962…’ And I tried 1961, 1960—they were about four, five dollars a book.

The next thing you knew, the collection was over 50 years, and then it just became like an avalanche. Then I just started putting in searches and looking for every single one, and it dawned on me, when I was up to about 70 or 80, that I could try to get a complete set. And I had no idea at the time that nobody had a complete set, it just seemed like a fun thing to do.

We moved to our new office in 2003, and I actually had a bookshelf made for the collection, which you’ll see. It’s 5 shelves, pretty much the height of the almanac, and I started filing them in there. And then I said, ‘Why don’t I try to get all the paperback almanacs?’ So right now I have every paperback almanac since 1887, without exception. I had a number of hardcovers when I was first collecting a few years ago, so I have them as duplicates now. Then I’m still missing 5 of them. I’ve actually got hold, believe it or not, since we last talked, of an original 1868 one. It just arrived, just today.

Oh wow! Congratulations!

So that’s off my list. And I just saw a possibility for an 1886, so I’m only missing 1871, 4, 5, and 1887, to make it a perfect collection.

Maybe someone will either see this online, or read about it, and put you in touch with the ones you’re missing?

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Oh, absolutely because I’ve got beautiful hardcover ones. When I wanted paperback only like 1899, I’m looking at, it’s this gorgeous, gorgeous hardbound one, and it’s a duplicate. I probably have about 20 hardcover ones now that are duplicates in the set, because they don’t have as authentic a feel, because the covers on [the paperbacks] are so interesting. You know, and then the leather binder replaces it.

Speaking of coversthe cover of the World Almanac has changed quite a bit over the years. Do you have any personal favorites as far as the cover designs?

Yes—in the 50s, it had a picture of the globe and it had the year in a kind of script font, and I really liked that one. Then, in the 1880s, it had this beautiful, beautiful building with a dome on it. So those are my two favorites on the covers.

I wonder if that domed building was the Pulitzer Building for the New York World offices?

I would almost be certain that that is true. [Checking a cover] Yep. Pulitzer Building, New York. It’s got a gorgeous, gorgeous cover and its miraculously good shape—1896… That’s another favorite. I always loved it during the election returns—something about the election always fascinated me. I would study the returns over and over: the idea that somebody could be elected president, even though more people preferred somebody else. I always thought that was fascinating.

That’s always been one of my favorite sections of the Almanac also—all the interesting election returns, statistics, and how different states went…

And good profiles of all the presidents and so that’s always a fun part. Yeah, the cover started having character then in 1886. Until then, it was just like a pamphlet. I’m looking here, the Pulitzer Building made it all the way up to 1934. And then in ’34, it went to that globe that I liked so much, and that globe made it all the way up to the bicentennial [sic] edition, up to the 99th almanac. They changed it to kind of a boring cover in the 1970s. Very boring. And now, what they’ve done in the last couple years, I don’t like, because it kind of looks like a Guinness Book of World Records kind of cover—but I’m a traditionalist at heart.

Well, we appreciate your honesty, certainly.

Absolutely. But I’ll still get one every year, regardless of the cover. I don’t think I’m a really flexible buyer, that it would affect my decision.

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You’re not just judging the book by its cover, in other words. You know, I also wanted to ask you—you’ve had all of these books for so long, and you’ve probably gone through a lot of them. Are there any features that you particularly liked that disappeared over the years? Any chapters that were taken out or replaced with something else?

You know, there’s one more that I always loved and that’s “Celebrated Persons.” Because I would say every year we always look at it, to determine when people were born. And in the earlier years, because there were less famous people, they used to have more about [them]. The topical articles, about what happened in the last year, I’ve never focused on that much. But now I’ll use it as a reference for births and deaths and things. I’m a CPA, and when my clients come, they’re always fascinated if I show them one for the year they were born. I guess for showing to people, the section on events for the past year is very significant, but I’d say my favorites have always been the lists and the statistics.

Other than Ebay, where did say you built your collection?

There’s a search engine called AbeBooks, and that’s not an auction site. Booksellers use that, and they’ll list it like inventory. They list their price and if you want it, you just buy it. It’s not an auction process. You go to Ebay on any given day--there’s usually hundreds out there. You figure it this way. I’ve got now almost 50, you know, that I got myself, and I’m up to 135 books—so I got about 80 of them in the internet era. Which is incredible irony if you think about it, because the almanac is almost like the anti-internet. It’s traditional and it’s hardcover, but I have them all thanks to the internet.

Just one of those funny coincidences. So you never looked at used bookstores, or antiquarian bookstores?

No, I never did, because what happened is when I went from the 50 to over 100, it was like an explosion. It literally happened within weeks. The ‘50s and ‘40s were really easy to find, super, super easy to find, and then I started dabbling in the ‘30s and ‘20s. And then it got to the point where I made myself a document on my computer as to which ones I need. That was the one I pulled up today to talk to you, and it’s still called Almanac2003. So I’ve been doing it for almost 4 years now. According to my numbers, the 2007 is the 130th almanac, because they missed those years in the middle.

Right, the short interim where they took a break and didn’t publish.

So, of 130, I’ve got 125. Pure internet. My son and my wife and I actually collected Beanie Babies in our day, so when they died out, this became my new passion.

From Beanie Babies to reference books. I wonder how many people make that exact transition. Probably not many.

Probably few and far between… It’s hard to explain. As a kid I just sat there and read it for hours and hours. It’s not like I was one-dimensional, I always had lots of interests, but the book always fascinated me. I guess, you know, once the idea of collecting it came, it just seemed like a natural thing to do.

When we spoke previously, we were talking a little bit about how the almanac used to have advertisements in it…

You know, I don’t list that as an all time favorite, because I’ve only seen those in the last few years, but they’re absolutely great. It’s like getting an old Sears catalogue or something; they’re absolutely amazing, the ads.

It’s almost as though the ads date the Almanac more than the content does, in some ways.

Absolutely. What I would do is I would look at them and in, say, 1903, they would make a big deal if they actually had a telephone: you could call the place. Typewriters, really interesting stuff; the ads are terrific.

I’ve always particularly enjoyed looking at those in some of the older editions that we have. Though our collection is not as complete as yours.

Do they let you look at them, or do they keep them locked up?

No, no, they’re just on a shelf in the office.

Same as mine. And I think there’s only one that you have that I don’t have, because I looked on the site where you have the covers…I also have the commemorative one, the 1929 one, and I also have one of the reprints of the original one. There’s really not too many extras on the World Almanac, with the exception of those two, there’s really nothing else other than each year. There’s just something very appealing and simple about it. Like with the Beanie Babies, it started getting ridiculous, you know. If there was a flaw, or a spot, or a different label, all of a sudden you have to get more of them. The World Almanac is sort of a pure collection—either you have them or you don’t.

We definitely don’t release as many every year as the Beanie Babies did. Just one edition, I think is going to be about it. But we are actually working on some new sorts of reference books, like 10,000 American Facts, which is coming out this spring and which we’re very excited about.

Oh, wow. Sounds terrific. Your office was very nice, as I told you, they actually sent me a book; it’s the first time in 45 years that I didn’t buy one.

I think you’ve more than made up for that.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on December 14, 2006 1:30 PM.

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