Stanley Moser, Virtuoso Encyclopedia Marketer, Dies at 88

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This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

Stanley Moser had a knack for selling Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedias and other affordable reference books to the American middle class. One of his earliest great ideas was to price the first volume of a set at 9 cents. Supermarket shoppers snapped them up, and then were hooked on buying the rest.

Mr. Moser spent three decades in the encyclopedia business, starting out in accounting, rising to become an executive and owner, and exiting just before the internet effectively marked an end to the era of the printed encyclopedia.

He died on April 14 in Fort Lee, N.J. He was 88. His daughter, Elena Moser, said the cause was complications related to Covid-19. Nine days earlier, Mr. Moser’s wife of 67 years, Marilyn, had died in the hospital of complications of the virus.

Funk & Wagnalls was a mass-market product, an affordable alternative to the World Book or Encyclopaedia Britannica. In a world without Google or Wikipedia, ownership of these comprehensive stores of facts and information was a point of pride for many middle-class American families.

Funk & Wagnalls volumes were typically sold in supermarkets as part of a “book-a-week” program. When Mr. Moser came up with the idea of reducing the normal charge to just pennies for the first volume, “People thought he was crazy for doing something like that,” said Harvey Strackman, a former partner of Mr. Moser’s at Funk & Wagnalls. He added: “He was an innovator.”

The entire 27-volume Funk & Wagnalls set — along with the free two-volume dictionary, another sweetener dreamed up by Mr. Moser — cost a little more than $100. By contrast, Encyclopaedia Britannica cost well over $1,000 in the mid-1980s.

Mr. Moser was born in the Bronx on Dec. 12, 1931. His father, Isidore, was a postal worker. His mother Ceil (Kaufman) Moser, had done piece work in a sewing pattern factory. He grew up in the University Heights neighborhood, attending DeWitt Clinton High School, graduating from City College and becoming a certified public accountant.

Besides Ms. Moser, he is survived by another daughter, Gail Wichler; a son, Niles Moser; and eight grandchildren.

During the mid-1950s, Mr. Moser served in the U.S. Army and was stationed in Japan. When he returned, he first worked at an accounting firm before, in 1958, joining the Standard Reference Works Publishing Company, then the publisher of Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedias.

Through a chain of mergers, Funk & Wagnalls became a unit of the financial publisher Dun & Bradstreet by the early 1970s. But the inventory-heavy business proved a poor fit with the parent company, a specialist in credit ratings guides and business directories.

In 1984, Mr. Moser joined with a group of executives to buy the Funk & Wagnalls unit for an undisclosed price. It was a leveraged buyout, a transaction that involved significant amounts of debt to be repaid slowly over time.

But a deal Mr. Moser helped secure with the Children’s Television Workshop to publish a 15-volume Sesame Street series of stories and activities provided the cash to pay back the loans in a year, Ms. Moser said.

As computer technology emerged, the partners decided it was time get out. In 1988, they sold Funk & Wagnalls to Field Publications, an educational publisher. A price was not disclosed, but an analyst placed it between $70 million and $100 million.

“We saw the handwriting on the wall,” Mr. Strackman said.


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