"It was probably pure idiocy. It was the '60s and we felt we were in there with all the other guys trying to do things a different way," said Catherine Smith, Gibbs' wife, recalling the couple's 1969 plunge into publishing from a sculptor's studio in Santa Barbara, Calif.

Three lean years later, the only two employees of Peregrine Smith Books left their office-home-warehouse and moved east, not to the sky-scraping strongholds of publishing in Manhattan, but to the pastoral solitude of their northern Utah roots.

Her father, a banker, gave them a house rent-free. They lived on $200 a month, scraping by on many a Sunday dinner at his parents' or hers. The only recreations they could afford were hiking and camping.

Born in California, Gibbs Smith had been largely raised in Utah, but like Catherine, in the mountainous and populous north. Now the couple tramped as newcomers among the colorful cliffs and spires of the southern Utah desert canyons, their awe matched only by the sandstone solitude.

"I could see that what we had in southern Utah was just as beautiful in its way as the California coast and just as unusual. I came with those eyes, where I didn't have those eyes in college," Smith said.

He had earned a master's degree in history at the University of Utah and, as a graduate student in Santa Barbara, turned his thesis into "Joe Hill," a book on the American labor hero and song writer.

Enthralled by each detail of the publication of his work by Grosset & Dunlap, and with $15,000 for the screen rights, Smith started his own company, publishing four books on California history and culture the first year. The $2,500 the couple earned ensured a second year. But four years passed before they hired anyone else.

"I loved writing and I loved the publishing process," Smith said. "And I loved the idea that you could actually produce something as an author or publisher that could affect large numbers of people and live on for decades or centuries."

From the beginning, Smith had envisioned reaching a national audience with the company's expanding range of elegantly illustrated books, many combining his activist's adoration for the Great Basin with his passion for history, art, photography and western culture.

"We've tried to publish a lot of books that help sensitize people to the beauties of these canyonlands," said Smith, 48, chairman of the Utah chapter of the Sierra Club. "They are books about Utah, but I don't think of southern Utah as local. It is public domain nationally."

In its 20th year, Peregrine Smith has 17 employees and the remodeled but still-rustic barn on Peacefield Farm produces some 30 new titles a year - among them illustrated nature books, natural history, poetry, fiction, drama, short stories, anthologies and criticism.

"When I first went to New York many years ago as a publisher, people were saying `Peregrine who?' Now people at least know who we are and appreciate what we do," said Smith, whose volumes sell best on the East and West coasts.

Smith concedes that running a modest publishing house outside New York is not easy.

"One of the advantages of being there is to be more on the circuit. You hear more directly, quicker what's going on. You pick up on ideas, suggestions for books. That also is one of the disadvantages," he said. "You are a little more like one of the pack."

At a time when many of the traditional giants in publishing have become parts of much larger conglomerates, Smith finds it oddly provincial for the bulk of the nation's publishing to emanate from a few streets in New York City.

But over the years, Smith has seen the publishing landscape sprout with dozens of smaller, independent houses in other parts of the country. He considers the trend healthy.

"Publishing really is a creative act, and where you are and who you're with inform your mind and judgment," Smith said. For example, publishers "living in the Western lands among Western people" have different sensibilities about what to contribute to the nation's literary bloodstream.

"I'm not saying better, I'm saying different," he said. "I think our country needs more diversity."