Burton Latimer’s author and publisher, Phil Mason commenced his career in a very small way in 1969, with the support of his wife, Mary. At that time, Phil was organist and choirmaster at the local Mission Church in the town and wrote and produced an annual pantomime.
The story of these pantomimes became Phil’s first “Little Book” entitled "Let's Have a Pantomime" and he published it himself to sell to local people and friends. It took two years to sell the 500 copies. Profits from the sale of the book were given to the Wellclose Square Fund, London, to help continue the work started by Father Jo Williamson. Requests have been received for the book from such places as Hawaii University, Mexico City public library and from a panto producer in the Transvaal.
For 33 years Phil worked in a shoe warehouse and would have been content to stay there until he retired. Then in the early 1980’s the local boot and shoe industry collapsed and in July 1982 he was made redundant.
He was offered two jobs but due to the fact that he was unable to drive a vehicle he couldn’t accept them. He also knew that he wanted to publish ‘Christian’ books but without the capital it wasn’t possible. Then in 1984 he read an article about the Enterprise Allowance Scheme and the support it gave to people who wanted to launch their own business. He applied and two months later was accepted.
So on 31 July 1984 he became a Christian publisher aiming to provide inexpensive books and cards that would be helpful not only to commited Christians but also to people on the fringe.
It was a very small operation a cottage industry - with just Phil on the staff and an ancient typewriter on the kitchen table as the office.
Due to lack of finance the books had to be small and the first publication was a slim Christmas booklet selling at 50p. It was tough going. The next spring he did three more small booklets: “With Sympathy”- a booklet offering hope and comfort for the bereaved -, “Together in Love” a small keepsake for the bride and groom and “Welcome to London’s Churches” a small guide to a few of the capital’s places of worship. They all sold reasonably well but his wife (who managed the accounts) was in no doubt that they would have to cease trading at the end of July which was the end of the financial year.
Then an amazing thing happened. He realised that at that time there was very little Christian humour in the bookshops. For some years he had been collecting humorous stories about church life and he put them into a slim booklet and gave them the title "Christian Crackers". The printers rushed 200 copies through for late June and he took 100 to London to test the market. To his amazement and delight he sold the hundred copies at the first call and by lunchtime he had sold over 400 copies. Kind reviews in the Christian press brought a stream of orders and this series kept them in business. Six years later, sales of the “Christian Crackers” booklets were in excess of 150,000 copies worldwide. Their aim was to publish small inexpensive booklets that would make a gift for the price of a card and as well as supplying bookshops. A ready market was found in the Church shops and Cathedral shops especially in tourist areas. Eventually there were twelve "Christian Cracker" booklets selling side by side and working from home over 300,000 were sold worldwide. They sold well in Canada, the USA, Australia, New Zealand also with the cathedral shop in Hong Kong providing excellent business.
Examples of the many "Christian Crackers" booklets. The booklet on the left was the first one of the series and was produced in 1989
A quote from the European Christian Bookstore Journal gives the following philosophy from Phil: "During a recent telelvision programme someone remarked that many Christians going to church looked as if they were on the way to the dentist, and after they have attended church they look as if they have been to the dentist. If we have achieved nothing else "Christian Crackers" have proved that Christians can not only laugh - but they can laugh at themselves"
Of course, a variety of other titles were published but Phil didn’t want to grow too large or lose the personal touch. The slogan was that the customers were friends of Phil and Mary and they believe that this remained throughout their time in business.
When they retired in 1998 they had a list of around 24 titles and generally speaking everything sold reasonably well. However the "Christian Crackers" were always the best sellers and enabled them to keep going. A number of books were marketed for various people and Norheimsund Books were sole agents for an attractive range of cards by Anne Graham.
After retirement, Monarch Books continued publishing "Christian Crackers" in an attractive new format (with copyright awarded to Phil and Mary) and they sold well throughout the English-speaking world. In June 2010 they had been selling for 25 years in various forms.
Examples of the New Christian Crackers booklets published by Monarch Books
Though Phil and Mary have been officially retired for almost 13 years (2011) they are still in touch with many former customers, suppliers and authors. This was a very happy business bringing them many friends locally, nationally and worldwide. Over the years Phil has given many talks to various groups about "Norheimsund Books", especially featuring "Christmas Crackers", resulting in many orders and numerous friends.
COMPLETE LIST OF PUBLICATIONS BY PHIL MASON
PUBLISHED PRIVATELY PRIOR TO 1984
"Let's Have a Pantomime"
"In Quires and Places"
Love in a City
Love is the Way
This is OUR LIFE
East and West of Aldgate Pump
The Joy of Living
Life with a Mission
Christianity is Fun
Bridges of Love
PUBLISHED BY NORHEIMSUND BOOKS FROM 1984
Chriistian Crackers Editions 1 to 11
The Christian Cracker Story plus more Christian Crackers
YEARLY CHRISTMAS BOOKLETS AT 50p:
OTHER MINI-GIFT BOOKLETS INCLUDED:
With Sympathy, Love and Prayers
Together in Love
Joining the Family
Thinking of You
FAITH-SHARING BOOKLETS INCLUDED:
Bridges of Love
More Bridges of Love
Building Bridges of Love
Our Life in His Hands
Lives Worth Living
CHOIR BOOKS by REG FRARY
What about the Choir, Vicar?
Don't Upset the Choir
Havae you Heard our Choir
Don't Blame the Organist
Meanwhile Back at the Vestry
ADVENT BOOKS by RUTH RUSSELL
Down to Earth
Christmas Amongst the Neighbours
Visions of Christmas
Angels in Waiting
The Forgotten Bridegroom
Welcome to London Churches by Phil Mason
Taking the Mike by Paul Needle
Exploring Churches by Patricia Hunt
Exploring Cathedrals by John Wittich
The Church Around the Corner by Margaret Cundiff
Taking the Mike by Paul Needle
The Sparkes Fly Upward by Sheila Sparkes
VicarageView by Sheila Sparkes
It's No Laughing Matter by Don Sparkes
Lighten Our Darkness by Don Sparkes
* Norheimsund the name of a picturesque village situated on the Hardanger Fjord in Norway where friends of Phil and Mary live.