Margaret Houchins is a stock-market whiz and best-selling financial author who works on Wall Street. Beardstown's Wall Street, that is.
Ms. Houchins, owner of the Countryside Florist and Gift Shop on Wall Street in this tiny Illinois town, is one of 15 "Beardstown Ladies" whose financial track record beats that of most experts.
Their latest feat is "The Beardstown Ladies' Common-Sense Investment Guide: How We Beat the Stock Market -- and How You Can, Too," a book that has sold more than 200,000 copies and shot onto best seller lists.
"I think it gives them (readers) the feeling that 'If they can do it, I can do it,'" said Ms. Houchins, a member of the club for four years.
The club has averaged a 23 percent annual return on its investments since forming in 1983, about twice the growth rate of the Standard & Poor's 500, which is often used as a gauge of investment performance, and much better than most money managers accomplish.
The book stresses the Beardstown Ladies' folksy demeanor, noting their ages -- the average is around 63 -- and backgrounds as homemakers, secretaries, farmers and the like.
One chapter profiles the members and gives their favorite recipes: Lillian's Chicken Supreme or Shirley's Stock Market Muffins (Guaranteed to Rise!).
Don't let the country exteriors fool you -- they achieved their results by knowing stocks. One moment great-grandmother Elsie Scheer is pouring lemonade, and the next she's discussing the proper buy-range and the intricacies of the upside-down ratio.
Their success has taken the Beardstown Ladies far from their hometown of 6,200 people, about 65 miles southwest of Peoria.
Some members just completed a nationwide four-week book-promotion tour. They've been interviewed on television and in the press nationwide. They are swamped at book signings, and their schedule is filled with speeches.
"I think we're very flattered. It's a little bit overwhelming," said founding member Betty Sinnock. "If it stopped tomorrow, the memories we have would be fantastic."
All this activity didn't pop up by accident.
Seth Godin, who makes a living coming up with ideas for books, first thought of turning the club's story into a how-to book.
He contacted the club, wrote a 20-page proposal that was shown to five publishers and found the book's co-author, freelance writer Leslie Whitaker.
The publisher, Hyperion, has arranged the marketing blitz, he said.
"We tried to write a book that half a million people would find a lot in common with. If we reach those half-million people, we have a best seller," Godin said. "The ladies' story is compelling enough that we were able to cut through the clutter and get people to notice it."
Another book -- this time on planning for retirement -- is already in the planning stages.
Investor clubs have existed sporadically throughout the 20th century.
They proliferated in the past decade, to more than 9,200 registered in the U.S. today, coinciding with the 1982 boom in equities and the determination by millions of investors to exercise greater control over how they use their money.
These clubs consist of friends or work place colleagues who pool their investment dollars with hopes of reaping higher profits than they might by going it alone. Their objectives vary, ranging from an easier retirement, college tuition for their children or a dream vacation.
Investment experts trace the origins of investment clubs to the world wars when men and women in the U.S. banded together and pooled their assets. The clubs tended to succeed because people found it easier to reach a consensus, one of the most important factors for a successful investment club.
They are popular "because people are beginning to look at their other options on how to get higher returns," said Ken Janke, of the National Association of Investment Clubs in Royal Oak, Mich.
But Maria Scott, of the American Association of Individual Investors in Chicago pointed out that clubs, while democratic in their decision-making don't always serve all of the members' needs.