LAYTON — In 1973, Gibbs Smith and his wife, Cathy, converted an old barn in Layton into offices for their new publishing company.
At that point, they were still sharing the space with cows, and people on the phone could hear the mooing through the walls.
On June 24, Gibbs Smith Publishing will celebrate its 50th anniversary from when it was originally founded in Santa Barbara, California, in 1969. Many employees still work in the repurposed barn in Layton, only instead of cows they're now surrounded by sheep, chickens and cats that all the employees help feed and take care of.
Smith, who passed away in October 2017, first started the company to publish history books, and today it's the nation's leading publisher of state history programs, used in 30 states across the country. They've also since expanded their line to include home reference, cookbooks and children's books, among others.
Madge Baird, the chief strategy officer for Gibbs Smith, started with the company as a bookkeeper 45 years ago. She showed up to her job interview in a yellow suit she'd made herself, and yellow just happened to be Smith's favorite color.
"I got hired on the spot," she said in an interview. "I never in my wildest dreams imagined that, living in Utah, there would ever be an opportunity to work in book publishing. It fell into my lap and it was a fit."
Baird said she fell in love with Smith's vision of transporting the values of the Rocky Mountain West to the rest of the world.
Though her office is in a barn in Layton, Baird said her brain is all over the world as she works with many different artists and authors on many different subjects. Her job, she said, never grows stale.
After working with Smith for decades, and with his wife still on the board of directors, Baird said it's been a "seamless, natural progression" to continue the founder's legacy since his passing.
Suzanne Taylor, chief creative officer and publisher at Gibbs Smith, came to the company serendipitously after finding their name on the inside of one of her books. She had family in Utah and had attended Brigham Young University, but never heard of the company before. She called them up and one of the company's four editorial positions just happened to be opening up. That was 21 years ago.
"I have a bachelor's degree in journalism," Taylor said. "But really, my education has been in being able to participate in this company and learn and grow and be challenged every single day."
Finally, Brad Farmer, CEO, came to the company in 2004, bringing his background in accounting and finance to strengthen those aspects of Gibbs Smith.
"I've been a book lover for my entire life," he said. "I still am an avid reader, and I didn't know that you could do books in Utah. I fell in love with the company, I fell in love with the people, I fell in love with what we stood for and I fell in love with the kind of books that we do."
With only 43 employees, Gibbs Smith is a B Corp and an ESOP company, meaning that they work to be socially and environmentally sound and every employee is a shareholder.
"We work together and we share a passion for making the world better through what we create," Taylor said. "We are small and independent. I think that's very appealing and attractive, that we can chart our own course."
Though a small press, Gibbs Smith has published 158 authors from Utah, as well as thousands of other authors from around the world, and sold more than 28 million books internationally.
"We're publishing books that go all around the world from a little barn in Layton, Utah," Farmer said. "We're not a big corporation located in a high-rise office building somewhere in New York … and we've been able to succeed. It's been hard, it's been a challenge, but it's been enjoyable."
Part of that challenge has been adapting to the drastic changes in the publishing world in recent decades. Farmer said Gibbs Smith stayed on top of the e-book trend, being among the first 100 publishers that Apple used to introduce their iBook platform. They've also had to expand their marketing methods with the advent of Amazon and social media.
"Part of the key is figuring out what needs to change and adapting, while figuring out the core values that shouldn't change," Farmer said. "Our creativity, our relationships between our authors and editors and readers — those are cores that should never change."
Gibbs Smith has also managed to stay competitive by identifying niche markets that aren't being catered to, Taylor said — such as their BabyLit board books on classic literature.
"We saw market opportunities with people gravitating toward classic literature — but it hadn't been done for babies," she said. Moving into that space has been one of the ways this small publishing house continues to thrive, despite being so far removed geographically from traditional publishing.
But no matter where they are, Baird, Taylor and Farmer all feel lucky to be able to work in the world of books.
"Being able to do what you love, being surrounded with ideas and people who want to help move the world in directions that it needs to move in — it's a magical business," Taylor said. "Books are magical themselves."