How-To Books for an Age of Insecurity

Seed companies are struggling to keep up with demand, home bakers are testing the nation’s supply of flour and yeast, and the quickest way to get a face mask is to sew your own.

As do-it-yourself activity surges during the pandemic, some of those seeking a guide to greater self-sufficiency may find their way to Storey Publishing, an imprint of Workman Publishing based in North Adams, Mass.

Founded in 1983, with a catalog that includes a number of titles from the 1970s, Storey has long published practical how-to books focused on self-reliance and making the most of the bounty provided by Mother Nature. Current titles range from food-focused books, like “The Backyard Homestead,” “Home Cheese Making” and “Butchering Chickens,” to those on other home essentials, like “Milk Soaps” and “How To Knit Socks That Fit.”

Credit…Courtesy of Storey Publishing
Credit…Courtesy of Storey Publishing

Perhaps not surprisingly, given the popularity of all things D.I.Y., Storey’s books are selling well. In the first four months of 2020, online sales rose some 50 percent compared to the same period last year, said the publisher, Deborah Balmuth — an uptick similar to increases the company saw after crises like the 2008 recession and the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

We recently spoke with Ms. Balmuth about the latest trends in home productivity. (This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

We actually have a mission statement: to publish practical information that encourages personal independence in harmony with the environment. I find that’s kind of a wide umbrella, but we’ve always had a really strong focus on empowering people with skills: gardening, raising animals, small-scale farming, crafts, pets, building and food.

Our cooking line has always been about cooking from scratch. We also have a number of books that focus on extending the harvest and food storage. More recently, we’ve gotten into kids’ books, and teaching these skills to kids as well. There’s always been a focus on helping people do more for themselves.

ImageA variety of beans featured in “Homegrown Pantry,” by Barbara Pleasant.
Credit…Kip Dawkins

We keep our books in print for a long time, so some of the books we’ve seen spiking are older books on basic butchering, canning, freezing, curing of meat, fish and game. “Carrots Love Tomatoes,” which is a classic gardening book from 1975 that has 800,000 copies in print, has spiked recently. We have a classic book on root cellaring and one that’s a beginner’s guide to dehydrating food — we’ve seen a spike in those books. “The Backyard Homestead” — sales for the first four months of 2020 are nearly double our total 2019 sales for that title.

More recently, we’ve been doing a lot in the herbal wellness category. We have a book on the antiviral properties of herbs and how to boost immunity. We’ve seen a huge spike in that one — year to date, we’ve sold more than three times the number we sold in all of 2019.

These books are kind of like the canary in the coal mine when people are starting to feel insecure, I think.

Credit…Eric Feferberg/Getty Images

The same books we’ve seen spiking recently on canning, freezing and curing, as well as home brewing, we saw spike after 2008. After 9/11, there was a real spike in interest among a much younger audience, and in knitting. We went deep into knitting for a good 10 years. That’s really leveled out more recently, and we’re not seeing the interest in crafts right now, although we’re expecting that’s going to come.

It’s interesting when there are periods of uncertainty like this. After 2008, there was a sense of, “I don’t know what I can control, but I can actually raise some chickens, provide some of my own food and have a sense of security.”

What I’m hearing now is more about gardening as a respite and place of hope. It’s about that sense of losing yourself a little bit in the flow of the activity and just enjoying the process of watching something grow.

Credit…Jared Leeds

Well, yeah. It’s hard for me sometimes to step outside it, because it feels so central to me. We have this steady channel, and I picture the culture circling around it, whether it’s the back-to-the-land movement, the eat-local movement, the survivalists and preppers, the artisanal crafters or these uncertain times. We’re like a touchstone that people can keep coming back to, to find that empowerment and pleasure.

There are simple ways of doing some of these things that really don’t take a lot of time at all. But my feeling is that sometimes it’s not about time as much as space — and finding the emotional or psychological space.

These little projects and activities can be mindful and stress relieving. I don’t think it has to be hard. I think the surprise is that it can grow into a passion.

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