Jack always called himself a merchant. He’d owned and operated a record store that many still herald as the best music store Milwaukee ever had. After a decade, he closed the store and made ends meet as a Jack of all trades, working a variety of jobs. That ended when David Schwartz hired him to work at Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops, because of that knowledge of being a merchant and his early interest in computers.
I will always think of Jack as an entrepreneur, because he always fixated on the customer and what they needed. He went out and bought one of the first toll free numbers in Wisconsin to make it easier for people to call in their orders. He asked the phone company for a number with the last four digits that spelled BOOK or READ. He got READ and one of his employees figured out that the first three numbers, 236, spelled CEO. So, they changed the name of the company to 800-CEO-READ.
Jack built a catalog business in the 1980’s and sent over a quarter million mailings each year to customers. They had to stagger the mailings because the fax machine couldn’t keep up with the orders. After one mailing in the early 1990’s, there were no faxes. He called a friendly competitor and asked if they had the same problem. They said, “Yeah, we think it’s that new company in Seattle.”
So, he shifted again, after he had dinner with Noel Tichy, the co-author of Control Your Destiny or Someone Else Will. Tichy was out promoting his book and he couldn’t get enough books to his events. Jack said, “Let me help you with that,” and he bought every copy of Tichy’s book that he could get his hands on. The story goes that boxes of books filled the hallways at Harry W. Schwartz and that David thought Jack was crazy. Within a few months, the books were gone and a new business of supporting authors was born.
Jack played every card he could to help his business. He wrote a monthly review series called Jack Covert Selects, that highlighted the category in a way it had never been. He created the 800-CEO-READ Business Bestseller List, a monthly compilation of his top sellers that was syndicated in newspapers around the country. He even worked with publishers to create a deeper level of discounting for the books that he bought and guaranteed he would not return back to them.
There are so many stories of Jack listening and learning.
As I get older, I find it harder and harder to label people. We are all such a mix of things that arise differently in each moment. What I remember most about Jack is that human-ness. He was kind. He was bristly. He loved music and books and video games. He leaned into work. If there was a problem that affected a customer, he called you every fifteen minutes until the issue was resolved. He deeply loved how the results of business provided for employees and their families.
I spent alot of time with Jack in the six years I worked with him. We schemed often, argued almost as often, and laughed alot. We wrote a book together. We travelled all over the country together, most often to New York City, to talk to publishers about everything going on in our corner of the industry. Our partnership had just the right similarities and polarities to work really well.
The last time I saw Jack was in New York City in few years ago. We had lunch at our favorite restaurant, Union Square Cafe. He wasn’t really there to catch up or talk about books. He wanted to talk about spirituality and how I was making sense of the world. At first I was surprised, but after a few minutes I wasn’t. Jack and I always had an ease about talking about just about anything. That is what I missed most when I left the company and it is what I miss most now that he is gone.