Sex, money, and dirty fingernails

By Elizabeth Kiem

Stefan Bechtel’s latest book, Growing a Fortune, is a conversational little manual of investing tips derived from gardening. It’s been on the shelves less than a month, but Bechtel is confident that there is a market of wealthy old ladies who embrace financial advice written in their language. For instance:
Spend a lot of time preparing the soil. Investors should thoroughly research a stock before they buy it.
Put a chair in your garden. Like gardeners, investors often over-water, over-fertilize. "Just keep your seed in the ground," advises Bechtel.
What gives him the right to preach? Bechtel says his own portfolio has enjoyed a 35 percent annual gain over the past seven years. His books haven't done too badly either.
“I’ve been unbelievably lucky,” says Bechtel. And while luck may have a role, the fact that three of his six published works are about sex didn’t hurt. His 1993 book, The Practical Encyclopedia of Sex and Health, has over a million copies in print and has been translated into Polish, Bulgarian, and Mandarin.
Many a full-time writer would covet Bechtel’s set-up. From nine to five on weekdays he sequesters himself on the second floor of the historic Swan Tavern building in Court Square, replete with ambient lighting, framed magazine covers, fresh-cut flowers, and a gel screen computer monitor that montages idyllic images of canyons, rain forests, and exquisite bugs perched on dew-dappled fronds.
Sounds perfect. But Bechtel sighs and glances at the three-ring binder holding his latest project. He can’t finish it, he says, until he gets a grant to spend a month at a writers’ retreat near Sweet Briar College, where he can “live like a hermit and just work.”
“I know, I know,” he says ruefully, scanning his domain, “but I don’t have the discipline.”
What Bechtel does have is a penchant for finding the perfect personal environment. Now 50, he’s been searching for over a decade. In fact, this is the subject of his work-in-progress.
Prefaced with the non-hypothetical, quintessential baby-boomer question: “What would you do if you had $5 million to secure your own personal paradise?,” the book is a compendium of the many candidates on Bechtel’s list: a farm here in Free Union, property in Belize, the Maine seacoast, and Homer, Alaska.
Bechtel decided to commit himself to writing in 1989, when his first book, the true story of a woman with multiple personalities, won media acclaim and a segment on Larry King Live. He and his wife, a Roanoke native now active with Live Arts, packed up their two small children and left Allentown, Pennsylvania, for a three-year trial of greener pastures.
They’ve been here ever since.

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