I've always loved paperbacks. In fact, my first bookstore job was in Humphrey's Paperback Shop near my home. I spent so much time there pawing the Ace doubles and eye-balling the lurid Gold Medal covers that Hump finally said, "Hey, you kid. You want a job? You're here enough". And that was the beginning of second career as a bookseller. AND it began my great love of what we now call "vintage paperbacks". You know, those old paperbacks with the covers that scream out at you in used paperback shops? Something like this:
Hump didn't much care if I oogled at all, he just wanted me to watch the books and take care of the money while he was out enjoying his retirement. There was a lot more work than I had imagined. Moving boxes, cleaning shelves, alphabetizing, dodging the silverfish in the bags of old, smelly paperbacks that people wanted to trade, cleaning the bathroom, balancing the cash register. Aw, it wasn't that bad. I managed to find time to read such classics as "The Fast One" by Paul Cain, "Dr. Bloodmoney" by Philip K. Dick and "The Yellow Claw" by Sax Rohmer.
But it was the covers that led me to these wonderful words of sleaze, booze and the supernatural. They were like magic doors decorated with wonderous figures that writhed and beckoned. I'm still a sucker for a good cover. I still buy books soley on their covers. Of course, I know the cover often has nothing to do with the book itself. I'd be suprised if the cover artists for these marvelous paperbacks actually read the book they were doing the art for.
After serving my apprenticeship with the Hump, I began collecting paperbacks myself. Doc Savage, Raymond Chandler, Conan, Lin Carter, Andre Norton, and tons more began to pile up in my bedroom until I was often surrounded with these little gems with the screaming covers. I became so addicted to them that I almost always had one with me. This eventually became a kind of neurotic fixation so that I had to have a paperback book with me at all times, especially in public. It was a harmless security blanket for me, but eventually I broke myself of the habit (and thanks to my partner Lisa for her patience).
Before I became the paperback freak, I studied the history of paperbacks and learned the names of the major paperback artists. There wasn't the same interest then as there is now in vintage paperbacks. My love of comic books closely paralled the paperback fixation. Eventually, I was put in charge of the vintage paperbacks at a major mystery store here in Los Angeles. For two years I bought and sold paperbacks. I discovered that there was a large, underground community of people like myself who shared my passion for paperbacks. I attended famous three day paperback show in Portland called the "LanceCon" back in 1996. It was named after Lance Casebeer (yes, that is his real name) who was probably the most important person in vintage paperbacks at that time. In addition to running this great show each year for over a decade, he had the largest personal library of paperbacks in the world with well over 100,000 paperbacks. He often boasted of having every paperback published from the forties to the seventies. If you walked through his attic library where they were all stored, you'd believe it.
Sadly, Lance died a few years ago and LanceCon is no more. But my three days there were some of the most interesting of my life. Talking with other paperback lovers, sharing book titles and arcane info on writers and paperback artists. Buying, selling drinking,eating, laughing. It was all great fun. I ended up buying almost two thousand dollars worth of books and shipping them back to the store where I sold half of them in two weeks. It was a heady and exciting time.
But, let me get to the point of this blog: The Los Angeles Paperback show. This show has been going on for quite a long time and it is the "other" west coast paperback event that never quite lived up to the LanceCon reputation, but still proved to be an enjoyable gathering of paperback freaks and dealers. Put together by Tom Lessor in association with Black Ace books it takes place in late March every year out in Mission Hills. There Tom rents several banquet rooms and the dealers set up their tables to sell (and talke about) vintage paperback books. Here is a shot of the main dealer room:
I usually spend several hours at the show, but since we were moving the bookstore, I could only stay for just under an hour. I did find some neat books and managed to say hello to some old friends from Portland. This kind of show is a paperback lover's dream. If you are diligent, you can find all kinds of bargains. Especially towards the end of the day when dealers are willing to make deals so they don't have to take so many books home.
Now, paperback collecting and paperback cover art is a large market today. Much of this has to do with the internet, but also because the babyboomers like me wax nostalgic and want to own some of those great paperbacks they read when they were younger. The big trend now is in "sleaze" paperbacks, especially the gay and lesbian titles like:
The history of these underground sleaze paperbacks which were sold in adult bookstores and under the counter at magazine stands is only now starting to be written. Books like "Queer Pulp" by Susan Stryker and John Harrison's marvelous "Hip Pocket Sleaze" are wonderful and droll accounts of a time that seems to be strangely relevant today. And more good news; many of the classic titles are being re-issued and are pretty cheap (in more ways than one). Torreska Torres's "Women's Barracks' and Richard Amory's "Song of the Loon" are just two examples of great, classic gay and lesbian sleaze that you can buy at a hip indie bookstore or via the internet.
Still, many of the classic vintage paperback titles are still only available in expensive vintage editions that can comman prices as high as $500 and more. So you'll have to hold off on that copy of "Black Wings Has My Angel" for now (Update: just checked on abebooks.com and it looks like this rare mystery paperback original has been reprinted. Yeah!) But even with book scouts scouring the local thrift stores and mom n' pop paperback shops, you can still find good deals on some really cool books. Just check your yellow pages and look for places like "Paperback Shack", "The Paperback Trader". Maybe there's still a "Humphrey's Books" out there somewhere. Who knows?
There are many excellent on-line paperback dealers who also have open shops. Here is a short list:
Lynn Munroe Books. Lynn is probably the most knowledgeable person on the planet about paperback books. He's done more than anyone to save this part of our cultural history. He's a gentleman as well.
Kayo Books, in San Francisco, is probably the pre-eminent store for Gay and Lesbian Sleaze.
Books are Everything is one of the largest and best stores in the country.
Black Ace Books here in Los Angeles is a wonderful, unique store that has a superb collection of vintage paperbacks for sale.
And lastly, if you'd like to read more about the history of paperbacks there is no better book to begin with than "The Great American Paperback" by Richard A. Lupoff. I'm also a big fan of Geoffrey O'brien's "Hardboiled America: Lurid Paperbacks and the Masters of Noir. You can't go wrong with either book.
I've created a Flickr.com photo collection of some of my favorite covers along with additional photos of the LA Paperback Show here:
Flickr Photo Set
Welcome to the world of vintage paperbacks! Stick one in your back pocket and head on down to the local cafe for a nice hot cup of coffee and some readin. Mmmnnn mnn.