The Green Tiger Press booth at this year's American Booksellers Association convention was an oasis of imagination in a sea of hard-sell advertising. From a specially constructed ceiling etched with twinkly stars hung 20 lanterns, each painted with images from current publications. In a surrounding garden, decorated with live trees and flowering shrubs, visitors could relax in antique pews and browse through titles on tall bookcases. Green Tiger staff, dressed in turn-of-the-century formal wear, even served chocolate cake and punch (recipes taken from a recently published cookbook) on silver platters.
''That's really the hallmark of the press - imagination,'' says Green Tiger spokeswoman Helen Neumeyer. ''We're constantly looking for manuscripts with creative freshness and vision. It's hard to define, but you know it when you see it.''
Browsing through a collection of Green Tiger books takes one back to an earlier, much more magical time and place. Titles like ''The Starcleaner Reunion'' and ''Caretakers of Wonder'' are just as arresting as the illustrations: a sky and horizon fastened together with safety pins; clouds flying like kites on the ends of long spools of thread; a man in a heart-shaped balloon lighting up the evening stars with matches.
Children's books are a special interest of the press, according to Ms. Neumeyer. ''We try to look at story ideas and illustrations with a child's unbiased curiosity,'' she notes. ''It's exciting to try to bring out that sense of wonder and the possibility of inanimate objects having lives and conversations of their own.''
From modest beginnings with a private collection of old-time children's books , the Green Tiger Press grew, and it now occupies a former automobile warehouse. Antique toys, mobiles, and a huge green tiger from a merry-go-round welcome visitors out front, while the editorial and production work goes on out back. Although the staff is fairly small, fluctuating between 35 and 50 as the season demands, almost all of the actual printing takes place in the office. Green Tiger has its own design staff and printing presses, and even the pictures are sometimes ''tipped in'' by hand.
''The color plates are printed separately, and a skilled crew of 'tippers' outfitted with glue machines stands by to glue each picture to each page by hand'' for many of the books, Ms. Neumeyer explains.
Instead of issuing seasonal catalogs, Green Tiger publishes a ''compendium of images'' for booksellers. There's a strong homage to the past in its publications, many of which have the look and feel of Old World masterpieces. In fact, co-owner Harold Leigh is a regular judge each year at the international book fair in Frankfurt, West Germany, where he scouts out sleepers on the European markets and often recruits illustrators for future commissions. A German artist whom Mr. Leigh met at a recent book fair is now in residence at the company's La Jolla, Calif., office.
This year Green Tiger plans to bring out a new line of ''envelope books'' reminiscent of 19th-century works. Eight to 12 pages long, they'll fit conveniently in standard envelopes and be sold in book stores as inexpensive thank-you notes. ''All of them will have elegant covers, and the story lines will run the gamut from cats to griffins, from mermaids to fairy tales,'' says Ms. Neumeyer. ''It's a new market for writers who are trying to publish inventive short stories, and a new product for customers who are looking for small gifts to mail.''
Unlike many commercially minded presses, Green Tiger relies less on advertising and more on professional trade shows to market its books. ''We have the feeling that a good book can make its own way if it's shown to reviewers and made available in bookstores,'' says Ms. Neumeyer. ''And of course, we rely a lot on word-of-mouth.''
In the high-finance world of corporate publishing, it's an old-fashioned - even imaginative - approach that appears to be working well.