Atticus Finch, the legendary Harper Lee character, certainly helped inspire the name of Atticus Books, but the D.C. metro-based publishing house also owes a debt of gratitude in name and fellowship to that old damsel of last resorts known as Serendipity, in addition to a much older and perhaps even wiser Atticus.
Serendipity shined her bright light upon the publisher’s path on a journey he made to Virginia on his 43rd birthday. On this day, Dan Cafaro, the founder and publisher of Atticus Books, happened upon an ATTICUS BOOKS sign while antiquing in Leesburg, Va. This sign rallied Dan from a corporate-induced coma so much so that he began to research and develop the idea of opening a hybrid bookstore/book publishing house by the same name somewhere in the Washington, D.C., metro region. Dan went as far as visiting Northshire Books in Manchester, Vt., over the Christmas 2009 holiday, to see the Espresso Book Machine in action and inquired about the impact the print-on-demand technology was having on the Morrow family business.
As he mounted thousands of miles on his SUV and continued his hunt of a physical location for Atticus Books, Dan stayed focused on the goal of building a book business that served authors, readers, and the offbeat literary community. The more he pursued the goal of opening a retail operation, though, the more he was foiled by the exorbitant price of commercial space in highbrow places like Bethesda, Md. Not to be derailed by the harsh economic realities of starting up a brick & mortar retail business during an abysmal, nationwide economic stretch, Dan opted instead to concentrate his efforts solely on publishing books.
With a business plan pieced together much more by intuition and passion than the promise of upward trending profit margins, Dan immersed himself in the trade and began learning all there was to learn about the nuances of publishing works of fiction. Up to this point, Dan’s book publishing experience primarily had consisted of carving out a niche career in the professional association world, specifically in human resources, aerospace sciences, and performance management. His knowledge of the literary presses, mostly as a bookseller, reader, and collector, gave him a distinct, well-rounded edge to attempt the implausible: create a viable book business whose purpose was to discover voices otherwise lost in a crowded, unforgiving marketplace.
Hence, Atticus Books, the independent press, was born.
The “other Atticus” that inspired the name of the small press was not the venerable bookstore that once existed in Washington, D.C., and Alexandria, Va., but rather the Atticus who was known for his elegant taste, fine judgment and financial acumen. This Atticus lived more than 2,000 years ago, and breathed outside the pages of a book and the high-resolution plasma of the silver screen.
Titus Pomponius Atticus (109-32 BC) was a Roman writer, publisher and bookseller. When the Roman emperors decided to become book burners in the name of censorship, Atticus stepped in and preserved many of the Greek and Roman documents that we treasure to this date.
Atticus acquired much of his wealth through inheritance as well as his skillful dealings in real estate – this helped support his love of letters. He managed a staff of slaves trained as copyists and book binders, and published, among other tomes, the works of his close and now famous friend, Cicero. He also published their vast and intimate correspondence.
As for Atticus’s own literary works, he is said to have written a single book (in Greek) under the counsel of Cicero, and a small amount of poetry, none of which has survived.
So let us not forget Titus Pomponius Atticus.
Though he’s not nearly as well known in modern times as our beloved attorney from Macon, Ga., the other Atticus made a contribution to literature quite likely of far greater value than Harper Lee’s creation.
Hard to fathom perhaps, but without the noble Titus Pomponius Atticus, today’s reader would never have been given the chance to shake his head in wide wonder at Homer’s epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey. And for that twist of literary fate, many a high school student, we’re sure, would mourn – and just as many, we’re afraid, would celebrate.
Editor’s Note: The image of Gregory Peck (Atticus Finch) was taken during the filming of To Kill a Mockingbird by photographer Leo Fuchs, whose new book is for sale. Many images from To Kill a Mockingbird are included in the book, including yet-unpublished images of Harper Lee with Scout.