BOISE – Two years ago, Pamela Smart was hawking self-published coloring books from her car. Or she’d make a sale by carrying a stack of books around with her, displaying the intricate black-and-white drawings that – under the spell of a crayon or colored pencil – come to life as psychedelic animal portraits.
Now the Caldwell mother and grandmother and a family-owned Caldwell printing company can hardly keep up with orders for the “Color Me Your Way” book series.
The whole thing started with a lottery ticket and a few people who believed in her.
“I can’t even explain it,” she said. “I’m in awe. I’m just sitting here, going, ‘Can this be happening?’ ”
Smart, 55, is originally from Hollywood, Calif. She sometimes sold art on the beach in Santa Barbara, for a time drawing whimsical animals like those that appear in her books.
She met her husband while working at a truck stop in California. He was an Idaho man. She soon became an Idaho woman. But he worked in construction, so when the housing crisis hit, followed by the economic downturn, their bank account took it hard.
“I prayed for an idea” that could turn her artistic interests into income, she said.
She remembers a feeling of peace after that, and the following weekend, her husband told her they’d just won $250,000 from a lottery scratch ticket.
They took a honeymoon they’d never had, paid off debts and ordered the first printing of her “Color Me Your Way” books.
She walked in to Caxton Printers on Main Street in Caldwell with 26 illustrations.
Teresa Sales, a sales representative for Caxton, helped her to pick out spiral binding and paper – heavy, acid-free paper fit for framing – and to design the first coloring book.
That was April 2011. The first printing was 200 books.
Sales said Smart has become one of the most successful authors in the company’s 100-year history, “and certainly in this amount of time.”
To keep up with demand, Caxton has added equipment and hired more people. When there’s a big order, more hands are needed for each of the six processes it takes to put the books together.
Production is done by hand, locally, and Caxton hopes to keep it that way, she said.
“We knew from the beginning that it would be a success,” Sales said. “We kind of joked, ‘Pam’s dream was to always be (selling) in a Costco.’ ”
Smart is a regular customer at the Costco Wholesale warehouse off Interstate 84 in Nampa. She goes about once a week to shop. Her books caught the eyes of a couple of Costco employees.
Troy Allen, the assistant warehouse manager, suggested that Smart send a copy of the book to Costco’s corporate buyer.
“I called up (the book buyer) the day after and said, ‘Did you get this?’ ” Allen said. The buyer said the book wound up in the “no” pile.
“If you really look at it, you might be impressed,” Allen told the buyer.
He was right, and soon the books were showing up in more Idaho Costco stores. They did so well that Costco decided to try them out in other states.
Costco’s member magazine recently featured Smart in a short profile. That’s when the flood began. Suddenly, everyone wanted a copy of the three coloring books Smart has created so far.
“As much as I hate the word, it’s kind of gone ‘viral’ the last couple of weeks,” Allen said. “She’s now (selling) nearly 10 times what she was every week.”
Costco now orders – in bulk, of course – in the thousands, according to Smart.
As of late July, “Color Me Your Way” books were in virtually every Costco warehouse, Allen said. Some stores were sold out and awaiting new shipments.
Smart has sold nearly 200,000 books so far.
Smart says her books are appropriate for young and old. Inspired by her mother, an artist, she didn’t make the books color-by-number or offer examples of the “right” way to color a picture. “You make it your own,” she said.
The money is nice, but the real reward for her journey from “starving artist” to successful illustrator comes in the form of letters, emails and Facebook messages.
She hears from families who have three generations sitting together, coloring, “like kids again, playing,” she said.
The books have been a salve for some Alzheimer’s sufferers, giving them focus and sometimes prompting them to share old memories, Smart said.
One woman wrote to tell Smart that she used to do art with her mother. But since her mother died of cancer six years ago, she couldn’t bring herself back to the art table. Then she picked up a coloring book.
Right now, Smart is too busy to draw pictures for the fourth book in the series. When the start of the school year rolls around, she expects to be even busier.
But she has time for one thing. She orders pencils and markers from a warehouse in the Midwest and sends them, with coloring books, to veterans, Alzheimer’s patients, children with leukemia and others.
Being able to pass on some of the good fortune that’s come her way, she says, is the real payoff.