Until last November, Jean and Mike Hardy knew their famous neighbor, The Bridges of Madison County author Robert James Waller, as just another browser at Front Street Books, the cozy store they own in Alpine, Texas (pop. 5,786). Then, out of the blue, came the phone call: It was Waller, Jean recalls, saying, "I have a manuscript that I'd like you to read."

Waller's effort—the sequel to his '92 blockbuster which sold a record 12 million hardcovers—had been turned down by his publisher, Warner Books, because it fails to reunite Bridges' photographer Robert Kincaid with his paramour Francesca. But Jean, 58, who with husband Mike, 59, also owns the tiny John M. Hardy Publishing Co., had no such reservations. "I stammered, 'Well, yes, we can talk,' " she says.

With that, the Hardys—whose grandest project to date had been a local guidebook that sold 3,000 copies—took on A Thousand Country Roads. Planning to publish only 25,000 copies, they quickly had to enlist outside printers and distributors to help them with advance orders for 330,000.

Why did the reclusive Waller, 62—who was widely panned in 1997 for leaving his wife of 35 years for landscaper Linda Bow, then 34—choose the Hardys? "Well," he says with a laugh, "they were in town." If his new work, out this week, hits big, the Hardys (who own a second bookstore in nearby Marathon) have a plan. "I'd love to add a coffee-and-wine bar," says Jean. "Wouldn't that be wonderful?"