Swan, 74, began writing his collection of "short but true" stories in 1952 to satisfy the desire of his eight children to hear about his childhood. Although Swan, a plaster contractor who was living in Tucson at the time, couldn't spell and could barely read (he quit school in the eighth grade), he taught himself to type with two fingers and gave the stories to his wife, Deloris, 69, for editing and retyping. Debris kept them in an old apple box, and when the box was finally full, in 1976, she and Walter went looking for a publisher.
Walter heard from dozens of big-time New York City publishing houses. "I'd get excited every time I saw a letter from one of them in the mailbox," he says. "I'd think, 'Maybe this is the one,' but all of 'em rejected me. I was crushed."
The Swans took out a loan and paid a Tucson vanity publisher $650 to bring out 100 hardcover copies of me 'n' Henry (Henry is Walter's brother). "I was thrilled," says Walter. "I loaded up the trunk of my car and drove to gift shops and bookstores all over southern Arizona to sell the books, but they wanted 40 percent of the profits. So I said, 'Mama, there's got to be a better way.' "
Last year the Swans moved back to Bisbee, Walter's hometown, and opened their store (paying $100 a month rent) in a corner of a shopping plaza, right next door to another bookstore. Walter isn't worried about the competition. "Why should I be?" he shrugs. "They sell lots of books, but me, I only sell one."
Since publication, Walter has sold more than 7,000 copies (at $19.95) of his homespun collection of 103 stories, now in its fourth printing. His biggest market is the tourists who drop in while he holds court in his rocking chair, autographing books, posing for pictures and telling stories—"squeaky clean, no bad words"—about his youth.
Local bestsellerdom, it should be noted, has not spoiled Bisbee's most famous resident. Swan still wears his black Stetson and faded coveralls as he launches into such tales as "The Rattlesnake Under the Beehive," "The Model T," "The Cow in the Mud" or—everyone's favorite—"Cornbread, Milk and Honey." And he has no plans for fast cars or big houses either, but he might buy "two of the finest hogs I can find, some more bees and a few racing pigeons."
Like all successful authors, Swan has a sequel in the works, called me 'n' Mama, and it's due out next year. Will he have to change the name of his shop to the Two-Book Bookstore? "Gee, I don't know," he says. "I haven't really thought much about that. That could be quite a dilemma, now, wouldn't it?"
Walter Swan owns a bookshop on Main Street in Bisbee, Ariz. It doesn't carry Stephen King's latest blockbuster or the mysteries of Agatha Christie. There isn't even a dictionary for sale. In fact, Walter Swan's bookshop—tellingly named the One-Book Bookstore—is devoted to the oeuvre of Walter Swan, and its stock consists entirely of me 'n' Henry, his self-published memoir.