I recently received a box in the mail. It was from a life-long friend, a gent named Bill Plant who is responsible (or maybe irresponsible) for shaping much of my taste in literature. While Bill and I remain close friends, we aren’t in the habit of sending each other gifts on the spur of the moment, so I had no idea what was in the box. It could have been anything from a head to…well, anything. After making sure that it wasn’t ticking, crying, or leaking, I commenced to open it, a formidable task since Bill apparently used three rolls of scotch tape to seal it. After some effort, I folded the flaps back, pulled out some newspaper packing, and…well, I’ll confess, The Kid got just a little misty-eyed.
The box was full of books. Paperback books. From the 1950s. They were marked up and in one case a little chewed up and some of them had the binding falling loose and they all had that sweet scent of slow but inevitable decomposition. In other words, every one was a little treasure. These were USED, used books. Bill deals in antiques, and will buy items such as books in inexpensive lots in the hope of finding an acorn or two among the Buena Sierra. Collectors, alas, aren’t much interested in paperbacks that are dog-eared, or have had a crayon taken to them, or that have been labeled, using an indelible marker, with a five cent price tag. took a bunch of such and sent them to me. I don’t think I’ve had a better present in quite a while. It reminded me of one Christmas, some fifty years ago, when my mother ordered a bunch of science fiction paperbacks for me from the gone but not forgotten S & SF Bookstore in New York. It was a laborious procedure back then — check books off an order list, write a check, send the whole kit and caboodle off in the mail and wait six weeks for delivery — since the only “Amazon” most folks knew then was either 1) a river in South America or 2) Irish McCalla. But when that box arrived, it was special. And so was this one.
So what would I possibly want with such a litter of mutts? The idea of it, pure and simple. These were books that had been read and re-read before being consigned to a cellar or an attic or the back shelves of a used bookstore. Most of it was science fiction. There were Ace Doubles in that box. Ace doubles. These consisted of two covers and two novels bound into one; read one, flip it over, and there was another novel waiting for you. Hard Case Crime is going to publish two Lawrence Block novels in the doubles format in May 2012, and I can’t wait. But these were the original thing. A few short story collections were in that box, and included forgotten stories by famous authors (“Death of the Senator,” by Arthur C. Clarke, for one). There were a couple of early and forgotten novels by authors who have gone onto better things (Robert Silverberg’s THE PLANET KILLERS); and some soft core science fiction porn (are porn paperbacks even published anymore?). Then there was a copy of GALACTIC DERELICT by Andre Norton, one of the first science fiction books I ever read.
Yes, there were a couple of mysteries and thrillers as well. I was six years old when Marjorie Carlton wrote ONE NIGHT OF TERROR. It got past me the first time but I’m going to read it this year. And there were a couple of Carter Brown novels in that box. Most of the ladies who contribute to The Kill Zone are probably too young to remember Carter Brown. but gentlemen, certainly most of you do. “Carter Brown” was the pseudonym for Alan Geoffrey Yates, and there was a time when he ruled the revolving wire paperback racks. Who could forget those Signet covers? I fogged up my eyeglasses in many a drugstore perusing the wares of those gaudy damsels while pretending to look for Mad Magazine paperback collections. I have discovered, belatedly, that the stories aren’t bad either. It occurred to me a couple of nights ago, while reading NO BLONDE IS AN ISLAND, that I had never actually read a Carter Brown book until now. I had committed many a cover to memory, however.
Some of the older paperbacks are now appearing in e-book format. I discovered recently that all of those Edgar Rice Burroughs’ books which I purchased with my allowance a half-century ago are available in Kindle format, and for free; and there are even three Carter Brown books up for sale. It just isn’t the same, however. The smell and the small, non-adjustable print and the feel of paper and ink aren’t there. It’s like having a rabbit and a hat that sit next to each other without any involvement or relationship: there’s no magic. That may sound strange — if pressing a couple of buttons and having an entire book appear in a wafer thin tool that you can slip in a coat pocket isn’t magic, then what is? — but it’s true. We get something, true, but also we give something up.
So. If you had a friend as good as mine (and Bill, I know you read these posts, and you remain the best), and that friend sent you a box such as I received, what books would you want to find in it? What would bring a smile to your face, and a tear (or five) to your eye?
I feel as if I got such a gift in your post, Joe. You’ve inspired me to peruse my own collection in search of gems. Thank you.
Joe, you are so right about this. I treasure my collection of John D. MacDonald 50s stand alones, gathered lovingly over the years as I haunted used bookstores. There was something in the search itself that make these even more valuable to me. I’ll miss doing that.
Jordan, thanks so much. If you think of it, let me know what you find in your collection. I’d love to know.
James, thanks for sharing. I know what you mean about those MacDonald stand-alones. I had an intermittent correspondence going with John when I was in my late 20s (a long time ago! Before internet!) and he was a true gentleman.
My Mom, long gone now, always had a steady supply of paperbacks coming in and out of our house. I remember stumbling upon a Sidney Sheldon novel – or did she put it there for me – I could not put that paperback down. It was a big, grand adventure tale, and I loved it.
I’d love to receive a magic box of her favorite old paperbacks.
Joe, your friend’s gift stirs my heart. Think I’ll check out our local bookstore today.
You’re a lucky man, Joe, to have received that box of treasures. If someone would like to send me one, fill it with all the Burroughs paperbacks, especially the Pellucidar series. I’ve got a whole shelf full but am still missing many of ERBs wonderful tales of Tarzan, John Carter, Gordon King, Carson Napier and so many other memorable characters. Burroughs took us to the Earth’s Core, Venus, Mars, and the Land and People that Time Forgot. And all for $.40 a trip.
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Man, I wish Blogger had an edit button!
I was a vintage collectibles dealer (can’t use the lofty term “antiques”) for many years. At a country auction with my then-husband/partner we bought two flatbeds full of vintage paperbacks for $5 a load.
All pulps, lots of westerns and crime. It was a hoot. Our shop had developed a thriving used book section (small town, no bookstore) and I sold hundreds of them at 25 cents each or 5/$1.00 to appreciative readers and fans.
I used some of the covers that had gone public domain in the graphic design for packaging in the company I run now. I’ve tried to find artists who can capture the pulp feel, but have been unsuccessful.
Thanks to your friend and you for preserving this box a little while longer. Enjoy!
What a gift! My parents collect antiquarian books but we all share a love of children’s books so when we get some great old copies of the ones we loved we all get misty eyed!
Paula, we always had books in my childhood house, too. My mom was a huge fan of John O’Hara, my dad of James Michener. It also seems like we had every Little Golden Book in existence.
You sound like an Ace Paperback man, Joe. I loved (and still do) those Burroughs covers that Frank Frazetta and Roy Krenkel, Jr. used to do for the books. They stood out on a drug store rack like nothing else. Hope you get those books!
Terri, I LOVE THAT STORY! Two flatbed trucks. That is amazing. I would have had trouble letting go of any of them.
Clare, it sounds like your parents are almost as cool as you are. I can’t think of anything that be more interesting to collect. Walking into their home must be like visiting a treasure trove. Wow. Thanks for sharing.
Shane Stevens …wait I have ALL of his books. John D. McDonald as well. Ed McBain. Most of Patricia Highsmith’s.
John M.: Do you have the J.W. Rider books as well?!
Those McBain books are each and all treasures. Not a bad one in the bunch. Next time I’m through your neck of the woods I’d love to see those.
Joe – they were a lot of fun to sell as well. It was great seeing folks bring up stack after stack and saying how cool it was and how wonderful the books are and don’t I know what a treasure I have and so on.
I do confess, every once in a while something would surface that hadn’t caught my eye before and I’d blanche a bit. But mostly it was fun.
Are you sitting down? When we closed the shop, we auctioned off some 2000+ books. I didn’t have any place to store them and they weren’t doing any good in a box. So, I released them back into the wild.
Terri, knowing how the Universe works, I would not be at all surprised if at least one of those books you let loose somehow wound up in that box I received. You never know. My brother found an old 45 — that we had sold/traded ages ago — at a record convention. A dealer from St. Louis had it. It still had our name on the label. You never know.
Thanks, btw, for the plug on Facebook. Much appreciated.
Joe, books I’d love to get my hands on are a bit newertend toward the romantic, paranormal or simply surreal.
I loved Taylor Caldwell’s books-every one of them. Mary Stewart. My fascination with the morbid was honed on Edgar Allen Poe.
What a great gift you received. True friends know us best, eh?
…oops on the typo. “newertend” could be a new word, though! (It should be ‘newer and tend’, but I’m sure you get that.