To Buy or Not to Buy…

I recently had a defining moment in a used bookstore.

I have mentioned here on a number of occasions that my formative years were delightfully and wonderfully warped by perusing crime fiction on a regular basis. Every drugstore and supermarket had at least one revolving wire rack of paperback novels with several — I’m thinking twenty-four — pockets which could hold four to six books in each slot. Not all of these contained mysteries and detective fiction but it seemed as if more than half of them did. There wasn’t any particular rhyme or reason to the display, either. It wasn’t neat and orderly, with everything arranged by genre or alphabetically by title/ author, Each slot might have as many as six different titles. The book in the front of each slot concealed its brothers and sisters behind it. Browsing accordingly took a while. It also seemed as if titles were only there for a few weeks before they disappeared and a new crop of books took over.  Most of the covers were variations on a theme — weapons wielded by women in various suggestive stages of undress were the order of the day — and had little or nothing to do with the stories. My favorites were the Carter Brown stories and Richard Prather’s Shell Scott mysteries. Scott on each and every cover sported a blond crewcut and a knowing leer. I decided I wanted to be Shell Scott when I grew up. I kind of got my wish, but that’s another story. There were also titles by authors whose names are only remembered by their families, if that, but who no doubt had the same excitement, however briefly, that we do now when we see our names in print and for sale in public.

I used to spend hours browsing those books. I could on a rare occasion sneak one into the house but given that I was ten or eleven it was tough. I still have a few of them but at some point wistfully came to the realization that I was born too late to buy most of them at their cover price of thirty-five to forty cents apiece. Life, however, goes on. 

Flash forward sixty or so years. Last week I was in a local used bookstore and noticed that there were new displays of used paperbacks all over the premises. These weren’t just any displays of used paperbacks, either. What I saw were many of the books that I saw a few times in my youth at this or that drugstore. Each of the titles on display at the bookstore was priced at three dollars, eight or nine times the cover price but a bargain in the current collector market.

I buttonholed a clerk I knew and asked him what the story was. He said that the books had been owned by an elderly gentleman who had recently passed away after an extended illness. His longtime caregiver had been tasked with disposing of his estate, which included over fifty boxes of the paperbacks that the store now had on sale. The deceased had a longrunning interest in genre fiction (as well as several boxes of some other printed material which I was told that the store couldn’t, um, “appropriately” sell). There were so many books that the store did not want to go through the books and individually price each one appropriately. It was decided that three dollars per book was a fair average price. I was also told that if a fine gentleman such as myself wanted to make a reasonable offer on the whole kit and kaboodle, as it were, such an offer would be entertained and probably accepted. 

I thought about it. Picture the scene in the movie Animal House where the debate between the devil and the angel unfolds on the shoulders of Larry “Pinto” Kroger. The devil was telling me “Buy ‘em! Buy ‘em all, you f*****k! Who cares if your granddaughter goes to college?!” The angel was at the same time telling me, “You have all of those books at home you haven’t read yet! You should donate the money to a charity instead!” 

Twenty or thirty years ago I would have jumped on the opportunity to buy those books like it was a three-dollar government mule. My plan would have been to read every one of those books and eventually sell most of them, though not before enjoying their presence and inhaling the scent of old paper and ink. And yes, admiring the covers, too. In the here and now, however, I am aware that even under the most optimistic of estimates I have fewer reading years left than otherwise. There is also the consideration of space. I don’t have room for what I already have and am trying to downsize my possessions. Where would I put some additional fifty-plus boxes of books? How would I even get them home, realistically? Yes, I would still admire the covers. It just wasn’t enough of a reason to do it. I accordingly walked out empty-handed, though not before calling a friend who collects old Nick Carter books to see if there was anything he could use (he laughed and told me that he had a complete run of them).  I do have to admit that I tried to cajole the caregiver’s contact information out of the bookstore clerk, given that I was curious about that material that the store didn’t buy. He laughed but would not tell me. It’s just as well. 

I wasn’t a dollar short but I was two or three decades too late. It’s okay. Everything happens for a reason, including a situation where you have the opportunity to wisely walk away from a temptation that, like most temptations, is more trouble than its worth. I still find myself intermittently thinking about those boxes full of books, however, the way you might think of a stranger who you encountered and found attractive but who kissed your cheek and said, “I’m trouble. Bye” before walking away, never to be seen again. Still, I occasionally wonder what I would have done should I have had some of those revolving wire racks at home. 


But wait, there’s more. A day or so after writing the above, I read a brand new mystery novel —published this week, actually — titled Eight Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson. It is Swanson’s sixth book, and in some ways, his best. Eight Perfect Murders is a dark love letter to the mystery genre, used bookstores, and readers. The book, which you really should read, in part concerns a bookseller who compiles a list of eight classic mystery novels,  each of which features a murderer who gets away with “it.” I was brought up short by one of the books which made the list of the character in Swanson’s novel. It was The Drowner, an all but unknown stand-alone work by John D. MacDonald. A character named Travis McGee brought MacDonald fame and fortune, but he wrote a number of other books of lesser note as well. Indeed, when I was standing in that used bookstore trying to decide whether to buy those boxes, it was the presence of The Drowner, with which I was unfamiliar, among those rows and rows of all-but-forgotten books that almost — almost — tipped me over to the dark side. When I saw it on that fictional bookseller’s list in Eight Perfect Murders I felt my world tilt on its axis for just a moment. Maybe I should have bought those books. If so, I’ll chalk it up to a long list of mistakes and keep moving forward. 

That’s it, my friends, for me and for now. Be well.


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About Joe Hartlaub

Joe Hartlaub is an attorney, author, actor and book and music reviewer. Joe is a Fox News contributor on book publishing industry and publishing law and has participated on several panels dealing with book, film, and music business law. He lives with his family in Westerville, Ohio.

33 thoughts on “To Buy or Not to Buy…

  1. Ah, Joe, I can so relate. Nothing gets my writer heart beating faster than a vintage 50s paperback with a sultry femme fatale on the cover. Yet I have the same shelf space issue at home…at least one shelf with Shell Scott. In an enclosed case I have the complete JDM 1950s output, which took me years to complete. Some of my favorites are his non-crime,1950s angst-filled man novels, like Cancel All Our Vows. He was better than many of the more lauded middlebrow writers of his era, e.g., Norman Mailer, James Jones. Better covers, too!

    Oh, the thought of several boxes of vintage paperbacks calling my name…

    • First! Jim, that sounds like a terrific reading library…I was thinking “Gosharootie!” I am in total agreement with you re: JDM vs. Mailer, etc.While Mailer was getting his name in the dailies for engaging in drunken brawls up and down the Great White Way, MacDonald was at home writing novels, including (but not limited to) a wonderful tale titled THE EXECUTIONERS which was later filmed under the title CAPE FEAR. Great stuff, all of it. Thanks for sharing, Jim.

      • So nice that I can brag here a little bit. I have THE EXECUTIONERS. A little bit worse for wear, but I have it, somewhere. I downsized a few months ago and I’m still trying to find where I put things.

        • Laurie, it ain’t bragging if it’s true! Thanks for sharing. I guarantee that you will find your copy in the last place you look for it.

  2. I, too, can relate, loving the smell and feel and sound and yellowed pages old paperbacks have ~ something e-book lovers will never know.

    I’m afraid I’d’ve spent more of what I’m not making – time – searching for copies I’d donated or that holy grail missing volume from my varied and incomplete collection. Like you, where would I keep ‘em, let alone pay for ‘em (or smuggle ‘em home~ the bride goes through purge sessions as it is and I know – finally – better than arguing over most – when I’m involved in the pitch/keep decisions. Fortunately, she hasn’t hit the book shelves – yet, though I’m sure she’s occasionally paused and given me that evaluating eye). And I’m sure the proprietor of the place would think I was casing the joint since I’d be back several times, rummaging and finally checking out with maybe two or three treasures.

    And thanks for the heads up on Peter Swanson~ like I have room on my TBR list, too~ ?

    Enjoy your weekend ~

    • George, the bookstore behavior you describe is mentioned briefly but perfectly in SEVEN PERFECT MURDERS. I just found out that there is a lot of buzz about the book among booksellers, reviewers, and librarians, among others. Hopefully, it will get the numbers it deserves.

      I am wondering if more of these collections will reveal themselves as those of us who grew up in that era drop off of the radar…thanks for sharing, George. I hope you have a good weekend as well.

  3. Ah, back in the day, I would push my firstborn in his stroller to visit a friend, and our path took us past a used book store. I’d always stop and buy something. Imagine my shock when another Mom told me she barely deal with library books because “someone else had touched them.”

  4. Nope, never enough book shelf space or book $$$. But I keep trying to finagle ways. 😎

  5. Joe, I love how you find stories in life, sort of like a sculptor finding a particular shape in a piece of marble. I had a colleague, a physics prof, who always seemed to find the stories in life and share them around the lunch table. Now that I’ve studied writing some and have some idea of what a story is, I think I know why his lunch conversation was so engrossing. I envy the ability to see story in real life, which, to me, is different than the ability to write fiction, making up story.

    • Eric, thanks so much. You’re easy to please and have made my day. Re: fiction vs. reality…I think of writing fiction as writing about something that I haven’t seen. Yet.

  6. Joe, you transported me back to the 1950s and the corner drugstore in my Ozzie and Harriet neighborhood. While my mother was shopping for Toni home permanents or Maybelline cake mascara with the cute little brush, I’d sneak over to those revolving wire racks of pocket books. The covers were so salacious–cleavage and filmy blouses falling off naked shoulders (she’s not wearing a bra???)–that I didn’t dare peek inside for fear of a scolding. What went on in those forbidden books?

    Years later, my husband introduced me to JDM, Shell Scott, Mack Bolan, As you mentioned, the covers had little to do with the stories. They were the 1950’s equivalent to today’s click bait.

    Thanks for a fun trip down memory lane.

    • Debbie, thank YOU! With some minor differences, you just described my own childhood. I never got warned off of the paperbacks because I also read science fiction and could get away with more. I got caught and warned off of what were known as the “men’s adventure magazines” like Saga, Man’s Adventure, For Men Only, etc. There was a local barbershop that had many of them out to read while you waited and the barber didn’t care what you read from the selection as long as you didn’t walk off with it. And…Police Gazette…let’s not forget Police Gazette…

      • You reminded me…James Bond and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. were popular. I was in sixth grade. At Greene’s Drug Store one day I was spinning the rack and saw a secret agent and woman on the cover. Title: The Man From O.R.G.Y. Cool! A new spy series. I took it up to the counter and the middle-aged man said, “That’s not for you, son.”
        He shook his head and put the book away.
        Only later did I learn, um, what the word, um, meant.

        • Oh yeah, Jim, I remember that one, by the immora…er, immortal Ted Marks!

  7. My book problem is that I can’t stand to dispose–meaning, part with them, not flush them down a disposal–of them.

    When Babe and I decided it was time to close the house and move into senior housing, I had a collection of books that was ridiculously huge. We disposed–like dropping them down a garbage disposal–virtually everything else. Couches, love seats, recliners, beds, bureaus, dressers. Tables (think how many different kinds of and uses for tables there are), tools, and toys. Dining sets, silverware sets, and television sets. Radios, stereos, hobby stuff (remembering how many times in a lifetime one decides to start a new hobby). Interestingly, we never disposed a disposal.

    And then came the books.

    There is a scene in the movie Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, in which the U.S.S. Hornet, an honored and beloved carrier, is transporting the 24 Mitchell B-25 bombers and their crews. Doolittle’s Tokyo Raiders, to bomb Tokyo, Yokohoma, Osaka, Kobe, and Nagoya. The Hornet is spotted by what has been thought to have been a Japanese fishing boat, certainly not a Naval vessel, some 600 miles off the coast of Japan. The American Navy blows the Japanese trawler to pieces. The problems: first, the Navy command transporting the Army Air Air Corps planes, and General Doolittle immediately know they will have to go on the presumption that the civilian craft was able to warn the Japanese Navy that the Hornet has been seen, and they will have to launch the mission NOW. Second, the Hornet is still 600 miles off the coast of Japan. An immediate launch will add 200 miles to the length of the mission. The originally-planned 400 mile mission was dubbed the optimal distance for the bombers to make their runs. Now, each plane will have to carry additional fuel to make up for the additional mileage they will have to fly to get to their targets. Third, Captain Ted Lawson played by America’s cutie pie, Van Johnson, has just purchased a lot of cigarettes from the ship’s store when the proprietor has to run to his battle station. Uh-oh. (Lawson intends to sell the cigarettes to his fellow Raiders because he has increased his pay allotment to his wife, played by Phyllis Thaxter, because she is now expecting.) Captain Lawson is faced with the dilemma of not having completed his transaction with the ship’s store but with the need to man his ship: he has the cigarettes, but he has change coming. He quickly makes a decision and grabs enough Hershey Bars to make up the difference between how much he paid for the coffin nails and how much change he had coming. Lawson, of COURSE, counts out the number of candy bars; America’s cutie pie is NOT going to cheat.

    Then Lawson hustles to the quarters had had been assigned to and happily meets the Naval officers whose room he shared, carrying his flight bag, which they have packed for him. They have a happy exchange. He runs off to bomb Tokyo.

    Sorry to take so long to set the scene.

    But in this analogy, I am Captain Lawson deciding what to do to make things fair. The cigarette transaction is my family moving my Babe and me to a much, much smaller apartment.
    And the decision to grab the candy bars is: something has to be done NOW to make things right about my books–my plethora, my king’s treasure, my huge book collection.

    That’s where the analogy stops. Because there are no candy bars here–only stacks and stacks of priceless reading treasure. (Okay, with a number of trashy novels mixed in.) There is no Hollywood fix. I GOTTA do something about the books.

    So since the day we closed up the house, my Babe and I have paid out many, many American dollars to a self-storage company to house my collection.

    And now to be honest, it’s time for me to stop the bleed. An additional $40-50 bucks a month to a retired couple would go a long way to us to having dinner out one or two more times a month, or, barring that, additional Christmas and birthday presents for our adult children, our adult-and-baby grandchildren, and our first-through-fifth-grade great-grandchildren.

    I won’t tell you how or why Captain Lawson eventually lost both his cigarettes and candy bars, as well as the sewing tin of sizzle platters that one of the other Raiders didn’t have room for aboard his own ship. The intent was for the Raiders to cut a Chinese rug in China, after the completion of the mission, when all of the Raiders presumably would be gathered, safe and jubilant, in the safety of the Free China zone, out of the grasp of the Japanese.

    Unfortunately, none of that happened.

    None of my precious treasures of research, reading, and enjoyment, will be saved either. They will go to a charity that supports the efforts of our local visiting nurses here.

    Except for possibly my copy of Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. And my guide on how to construct metaphors.

    • Jim, thank you for a great summation and a terrific story that has a little bit of everything in it. Good luck with the transfer — I don’t want to call it a disposal — of the books, which will fund a good cause and hopefully be enjoyed by many, many other folks.

  8. While I wasn’t allowed to even breathe the same air as the aforementioned paperbacks back when I was a child in the ’50s and ’60s, you did send a precious memory winging my way, Joe.

    My grandpa drove the local bookmobile and grandma worked in the basement of the local library, repairing bindings.

    Just typing the above sentence gives me the same goosebumps I got as I climbed the steps into grandpa’s book-filled cave on wheels. I always asked him if he could let me sleep there. And that delicious mix of smells where grandma worked-old paper and glue-as she brushed it on the bindings.

    When Mom and Dad dropped me off for a visit while they went and did secret Mom and Dad stuff, I’d sit next to grandma and watch. She’d sometimes read the back cover to me as she worked. And I’d think there must be no better job in the world, besides writing the book, than making it new again.

    Alas! My Kindle just doesn’t compare. But the struggle is real-no more bookshelf space.

    • Deb, thanks so much for those stories. You had the coolest grandparents in the world, without a doubt. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree, did it? I LOVE that you wanted to sleep on the bookmobile. That kind of gives me an idea for a popup hotel concept…

  9. In reading this article my thoughts went immediately to my husband’s collection of science fiction paperbacks. They, too, have yellowing pages and many still bear their fraction-of-a-dollar price tags. I have to admit there is a bit of magic on those shelves. Though not my genre, it was there I discovered the wonder of Ben Bova, Asimov, and Poul Anderson.

    • I used to read a lot of science fiction, RLM, though I left the genre (or maybe the genre left me) many years ago. BTW, Ben Bova is still alive and still writing! Thanks!

  10. The older paperbacks have a decent lifespan, but the newer ones do not because of the ridiculously cheap paper and binding that both often fall apart within months of being printed. (A friend of mine received her author copies right of the press, and they were already falling apart. This from a high-end publisher who is destroying the used book market one printing at a time.)

    People collect the older paperbacks, but the book’s survival after a reading is minimal so most are put in a light and air free box never to be opened, then are thrown away by the disinterested heirs. The good news is that the big publishers are digitalizing their legacy writers, and others are digitalizing books as they go out of copyright. A good daily email sources for deals on legacy and out-of-copyright books is Early Bird Books if you don’t want to spend days roaming Amazon and Gutenberg.

    Romance covers have the same lurid past as the thrillers and mysteries. Romance publishers realized that guys ordered the books for their distribution companies and bookstores and young horny guys usually put them, cover forward, on the shelves of bookstores and supermarkets. The big boobs on the cover made those books more attractive to the guys instead of the female readers who bought it, despite the cover. The romance covers have become so dang iconic that they won’t go away.

  11. Thank you Marilynn, especially for that link to Early Bird Books which I just signed up for. Re: the romance covers…I had forgotten about those. The historicals of that genre earned the nickname “ripped bodice” novels for the reasons you mentioned. While on that subject…the Archie comics of the 1950s and 1960s were hiding suggestive material in plain sight. They have acquired some newfound respect on the collectible market. While lads such as myself regarded Archie comics as the ones that got in the way of the superhero books on the rack, there will all sorts of things going on. Dan De Carlo, who drew most of the books, also drew cartoons for adult digests and there was some occasional bleed over both ways. A friend of mine who takes an almost scholarly approach at going over the Archie books from that era panel by panel finds something new every day, it seems. Ah well…

    • The CW TV shows RIVERDALE, NANCY DREW, and KATY KEENE would fit right into that. Horny teenagers by the bucket load. I watched the first episode of NANCY DREW out of curiosity, and the first scene was Nancy having casual sex with Ned. The spooky elements and the mystery held me for a few episodes. They title each episode from one of the original books and recreate the cover in a scene which is amusing, but all those horny teens were so boring I lost interest.

      • That’s interesting, Marilynn. Thanks. Nancy and Ned, huh? If I had been in charge of that show I would have opened with Nancy and George making out! Now that’s edgy!

    • Thank you so much, Sue. And as I have mentioned before, you are a solid favorite in my house and my beyond!

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