I was cleaning out one of my storage drives on my computer the other day and discovered photos I had taken at the L.A. Vintage Paperback Show back at the end of March. I was going to do a booklad entry on the show, but it occured right in the middle of our big bookstore move and I forgot all about it. Well, better late than never I suppose.
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.
I came to this marvelous gay curmudgeon throught the fanstasy novels of Tolkien and through the mystery novels of Ross MacDonald (Kenneth Millar). I'm one of those people who upon finding an author I enjoy reading becomes obessessed with them. I read not only everything they have writen, but often every major book written about them. In the case of W.H. Auden, I had just finished the LOTR for the second time and began looking for commentary about Tolkien and his work. I discovered that Auden was instrumental in getting the word out about how great Tolkien's work was. He wrote major reviews for each volume of the trilogy for the New York Times. He felt it was a masterpiece and explained why. I ate everyword up as if it were manna because even though I did not have an Oxford education, I felt the same way. I loved Tolkiens work as a young boy; Auden loved it as an educated man. He put me on the path to both loving and understanding Tolkien's work that has existed to the present day. I read the LOTR ever year starting in October. And I also frequently re-read Auden's essays on Tolkien as well.
The Ross MacDonald connection is a little more direct; I discovered Auden after devouring all of Ross MacDonald's novels I could find and then finding Auden's essay on the mystery in an anthology. Intrigued, I followed the essay and discovered that Auden was a visiting professor at the University of Michigan where Kenneth Millar (R.M.'s real name) was a graduate student. They hit it off well and since Auden was a huge fan of mysteries, he got Kenneth interested in the form because Auden felt the mystery was worthy of serious artistic expression. Kenneth went on to publish mysteries that were so good they caused usually dismissive critics to take notice. His novel "The Underground Man" was the first mystery novel to be reviewed on the front page of the New York Times by Eudora Welty. It was a great review, but I've always wished it could have been Auden who reviewed it there.
W.H. Auden is an unusual passion of mine because he's never had that patina of "greatness" for me that other artists like Robert Lowell or Robert Graves have. I've always thought of him as my very, very smart "best friend" because, like Auden, I never really acknowledged a distinction between "high" and "low" art. Krazy Kat was as "artistic" to me as "Crime and Punishment"; I am equally fascinated with "Popeye" as I am with "Princess Mononoke". Auden was a great consumer of popular culture, much like that other wonderful queen, Walt Whitman.
In Auden's brilliant collection of essays, "The Dyer's Hand" (1962) he makes the point that:
"The critical judgment "This book is good or bad" implies good or bad at all times, but in relation to the readers future a book is good now if it's future effect is good, and, since the future is unknown, no judgment can be made. The safest guide therefore is the naive uncritical principle of personal liking. A person at least knows one thing about his future, that however different it may be from his present, it will be his. However he may have changed he will still be himself, not somebody else. What he likes now, therefore, whether an impersonal judgment approve or disapprove, has the best chance of becoming useful to him later"
That quote was from his essay (included in "Dyer's Hand") "Making, Doing and Knowing". You can imagine how impressive this was to a 17 year old student with a love of classic literature and a secret love of heroic fantasy. In school, these subjects were never allowed to meet. With Auden, they were encouraged to meet, go out to dinner and then have wonderful sex.
No wonder Auden has been a constant in my life for over three decades.
Auden wrote in just about every field. He is probably equally regarded for his fine poetry (I love his poems about complex machines and wild woodland hills) and his criticism. If you haven't read Musee des Beaux Arts, stop reading this and go out and buy any collection of Auden's with this poem included (try the "Collected Poems"). He also wrote avant-garde plays, translations of opera, documentary film scripts and never found a crossword puzzle he didn't like. The definitive biography (for me) is the one written by Humphrey Carpenter titled "W.H. Auden: A Biography. While not a writer with high critical marks, I have admired every biography he has written (including his Tolkien biography which I've read at least 10 times). Humphrey set's Auiden's work and life in perfect contrast/unison. His homosexuality was always a part of his work, but never defined him in the way that writers like John Rechy or Jean Genet. He was gay and to hell with you if you didn't like it, he was too busy reading, smoking cigarettes, doing crosswords, drinking cheap wine, daydreaming, finding the third volume in the Maigret detective series and staring at young men. Hmnn...he does sound like John Rechy there. Perhaps I'd better re-consider my idea.
Almost every year I come back to "The Dyer's Hand". And each time I find something new to admire and think about. Listen to this from his essay "Reading":
"Good Taste is much more a matter of discrimination than of exclusion, and when good taste feels compelled to exclude, it is with regret, not with pleasure"
and this, from "Writing":
"Some writers confuse authenticity, which they ought always to aim at, with originality, which they should never bother about. There is a certain kind of person who is so dominated by the desire to be loved for himself alone that he has constantly to test those around him with tiresome behavior; what he says and does must be admired, not because it is intrinsically admirable, but because it is his remark, his act. Does this not explain a good deal of avant-garde art?"
Auden chooses, for the most part, to write in the epigrammatic style of short sentences or short paragraphs. This allows him free range to address a variety of topics within a single subject, unlike the traditional essay form with it's relentless forward motion. There are a few traditional essays in the book. "The Guilty Vicarage" is a wonderful explication and love poem for the mystery novel; "Genius & Apostle" introduced Ibsen to me as a vital and modern artist with much to say about life and happiness; "The I Without a Self" gave insight into the mind/world of Kafka that goes beyond simply reading Kafka. Listen to what he says about Kafka's readers:
"Kafka may be one of those writers who are doomed to be read by the wrong public. Those on whom their effect would be most beneficial are repelled and on those whom they most fascinate their effect may be dangerous, even harmful"
What's fascinating about this quote is that initially one is inclined to disagree, but upon reflection (especially after reading works like "Penal Colony") one see's the real truth in Auden's words.
There are other essays on the "Master-Servant" relationship in Literature (some consider this the showpiece of the book), Shakespeare, Byron's Don Juan, Marianne Moore, Robert Frost (a wonderful essay with a funny/serious ending), D.H. Lawrence. But what finally most interests me in the "Dyer's Hand" is Auden's fascination with religion and God. I am by no means a Christian, nor do I believe in God or some "supernatural" realm of existence beyond this one. But when I read Auden I become a believer for the time I am reading his essays on relegion. Somehow, the "best friend" relationship with him surfaces and I am caught up in his storytelling. I like this. It allows me to secretly "try out" spiritual thinking while I'm in his company, but then maintain my own beliefs when I'm myself again. I supose this is the storyteller's "spell" that the ancients say Homer had in spades. I guess this makes Auden my "Homer", something I have never considered until now. I like that thought.
"What is the function of the critic? So far as I am concerned, he can do me one or more of the following services:
1) Introduce me to authors or works of art of which I was hitherto unaware
2)Convince me that I have undervalued an author or a work because I had not read them carefully enough.
3)Show me relations between works of different ages and cultures which I could never have seen for myself because I do not know enough and never shall.
4)Give a "reading" of a work which increases my understanding of it.
5)Throw light upon the process of artistic "Making"
6) Throw light upon the relation of art to life, to science, economics, ethics, relegion, etc."
Some of the email and comments I've received about the "Five Things" post have given me the idea that a short commentary on book buying on the internet might be helpful. Since I am essentially buying and selling via the internet (and in our open shop) every day, I am aware of the advantages and pitfalls of internet book buying. This post will try to point out some of those issues and help you make better book buying choices.
1. The majority of internet booksellers are not open bookshops, but virtual booksellers.
An "open shop" is a traditional bookstore that has an established place of business and open shelves where customers can buy/sell new or used books. A "virtual" bookseller is someone who does not have an open bookstore, but rather a space where they store their books. Their bookstore is a web-page at places like Ebay or Amazon.com. While there are many good virtual booksellers (including some who, because of rising real estate prices, used to be open shops and have become virtual booksellers in order to save on overhead, there are many, many individuals who use unethical business practices to squeeze money out of the unwary book buyer. Such practices include copying other booksellers booklistings, offering the books at higher prices (their profit on the sale) and then when they have a sale, contacts the original bookstore to pay for the item (usually asking for a "discount" in the process) and having the book "drop-shipped" (shipped to their customer).
There are many good virtual booksellers, but I tend to buy more from established open bookshops. Why? Because service is usually better, you get a wider variety of books to choose from and because you are supporting a social institution that benefits the community as well as the individual who owns the bookstore. Plus, most open shops who sell online have added a percentage to their online price in order to cover the fees they are charged by the "broker" they are using to sell their books (Amazon.com, Abebooks.com, etc). If you ask, usually the bookseller will tell you that the in-store price is cheaper and they will offer the book to you at that lower prices. Our books at Iliad Bookshop are 20% more expensive on line than in our bookshop. We routinely inform customers who order direct from us about the difference and offer to sell at the lower price. Virtual bookstores, on the other hand, have no open shop and all the prices already include the mark-up for broker fees, so you generally don't get a price break shopping at a virtual store.
2 How do you tell if a bookstore is an "open shop" or virtual?
This depends upon the business that is "brokering" the deal between you and the bookseller. In the case of Amazon.com, you have a huge amount of virtual booksellers and finding out if the seller has an open shop is often difficult. By following amazon links for the seller (including the seller ratings page) you can usually come to a link for the sellers homepage which will reveal whether the seller has an open shop. On a site like abebooks.com, each seller has a homepage that will reveal an address and contact info. Usually if the seller has a P.O. box, it means they are a virtual bookseller. Other sites may have the information easy/harder to find, but if you just take the time, you should be able determine the kind of bookseller you want to buy from.
Also, keep in mind that on sites like amazon.com, the bookseller has a rating that you can examine. I've purchased low-priced books from virtual booksellers because their rating was very high and the feedback comments were positive. Never buy a book from a seller whose rating is below 95%. You'll be asking for trouble. In fact, I never buy a book from seller's whose rating is below 98%, but that's just my own personal preference.
3. Try to buy the book directly from the bookseller
If at all possible, contact the seller directly to buy the book. As I've already mentioned, open bookstores who do internet business are set up to sell over the phone or via the internet. Some virtual booksellers do not have accounts with Visa/MC/AMX and so they rely on the broker to handle the charges for them. By contacting the seller directly you can get a possible disount and get a reasonable quote on shipping. Established booksellers usually have an honest returns policy, so if you get the wrong book, they are less likely to give you a hassle about returning it. Or, if the book is lost in the mail, you can work out a reasonable compromise in dealing with the loss. Virtual booksellers are much less likely to process returns easily or, unfortunately, with honesty.
4. Figure out your shipping options carefully.
Shipping is the one area where the internet book broker is still failing it's customers. Because no real system has been developed to handle shipping betwen the broker, the buyer and the seller, honestly, there is all kinds of price gouging going on. For example, Amazon.com charges a flat rate regardless of the size of the book. Unless we choose the size of our books carefully, our bookstore usually loses money on shipping. So, many booksellers (both open and virtual) add
some money to the cost of the book to cover those times where they lose money on shipping. In other words, these booksellers are charging you for potential loss on shipping. Understandable, but not really fair, in my opinion.
There are two basic types of domestic shipping that I think are best for books, both involve the USPO and not UPS or FedExp (which, from my experience, I do not recommend). They are "media" mail and "priority" mail. Media mail is your best bet because it's very cheap and generally reliable. A package travelling across the country will take about 7-10 days to get to you. The package that amazon.com charges you $3.50 for actually costs around $1.97 to ship, if it's a standard, 2-pound package. Priority mail is even better for those packages you want quickly. There are "flat rate" priority packs that fit books perfectly and are free at local post offices. A bookseller would pay $4.05 for a priority pack that would take about 2-3 days to arrive cross country. Larger books can use flat rate boxes for $9.90. In both cases you can expect to pay several dollars more than the actual cost for priority shipping. Check the rates carefully to make sure you are not being over-charged. Amazon.com isn't too bad, but abebooks.com allows booksellers to set their own rates and many unscrupulous booksellers will rely on the fact that many book buyers don't take the time to check what they are being charged for shipping. They offer very cheap prices for the book, but scalp you on the shipping. Still, remember that if the book you are buying is large and heavy, you'll be paying extra for the shipping. As size and weight go up, so does the shipping. You can get a good idea of what the USPS charges for shipping by going to their "domestic shipping calculator" page here:
Choose "package" for the size of item shipped. Put in 2 lbs for the approximate weight of the average book and then check the level of shipping you want. This is a good way to understand the range of shipping options you have and their relative costs.
International shipping is even more problematic than domestic shipping. Since foreign shippers will be using their own postal system for shipping, there's no way to tell what a fair rate would be. You'll have to do some comparison shopping here to get an idea of what a reasonable shipping rate would be. The first thing to do is to contact the seller and request a shipping quote for both surface and air shipping. Any decent seller will offer this information. If they refuse, do not buy from them period.
Surface mail is the slowest and most unreliable method of international shipping. You package travels by boat and is usually stored in huge bunches on pallets in the ships hold. Needless to say, the handling is terrible and your package might get damaged. Airmail is the best method. Many countries have a flat rate airmail rate that can be a cost saver if the bookseller is honest. Ask about this when you inquire about shipping. Remember though, there is usually a weight threshold where the price starts to increase dramatically. In the U.S. that pound limit is 4 lbs. So, don't be suprised if your large book shipped via airmail from Germany is very expensive.
5. Don't be afraid to ask questions, but ask intelligent ones
Always ask about something you don't understand when you are purchasing a book. While some obvious questions are tedious to answer over and over, I really don't mind telling you that I will pack and ship your book carefully. In fact, I probably pack these shipments even better because I want to make sure they get their book in the best condition. While I generally pack books in jiffy bags, I'll box it if the customer makes the request. It's also important to ask about the bookseller's return policy if the book is damaged. Some will not return you book or refund you unless you have purchase insurance. The USPS has very good insurance rates and you should be able to get insurance for a regular sized, average books for only a few bucks. ALWAYS insure your expensive purchases. UPS and FedExp have a slight advantage here because insurance and tracking are automatic with these carriers. But I think the terrible customer service these huge corporate dumbells provide offsets their benefits in this area. That is why we choose not to use these companies for shipping.
Tracking your package is another big issue with books. Many customers assume that packages are trackable and routinely call us and ask for a tracking number. The USPS does not provide tracking unless you pay for it. We spend a little bit more on our shipping to get delivery confirmation so that when a dispute arrives we can verify if the package was delivered or not. Personally, I don't need tracking info on a package so I don't ask for it. Each internet book broker has different polices regarding tracking. You'll need to read up on them in order to know what you can or cannot do.
6. The lowest price is not always the best price for a book.
The internet is a book buyers market. While sellers make money, a book buyer has the advantage of being able to search hundreds of sites for the best price. Many sellers routinely underprice books in order to move them out of their store. I almost always research the books I catalogue for sale on the internet and underprice all of the other sellers on Abebooks.com because we bought the book cheaply and I want to sell it cheaply. This is another advantage in using an open shop bookstore to buy books from: you'll almost always get a book in the condition it is described in. I only buy books in good condition and when I describe the condition of the book on the internet, I over grade it. That is, if the book is Fine condition, I list it as "Very Good", etc.. This results in happy customers.
When you see a book online for forty cents and then another one for $4.50, you might think that the forty cent book is the one to buy. But this isn't always the case. On amazon.com check the sellers rating. Sure they sell cheaply, but they often ship very late and package poorly. Also, you might be getting a book in very poor condition, even though it's described as "in good shape". Underlining, highlighting, torn pages, are all underscribed in very cheap books. Since they are selling their books so cheaply, they want to spend the least amount of time in processing the book. This includes the book description. That $4.50 book might be the best one to buy because it's coming from a legitimate booksller with a high bookseller rating and because it will arrive in a timely manner in the same condition it was described.
I hope these comments have helped you understand better how to buy books on the internet. Please leave any questions you may have regarding this topic and I'll answer them as best I can.
And now here is a short list of internet sites and brokers you can use to look for that special book.
The best book search engine is:
this is a meta search engine that covers almost all of the major sites including abebooks.com, alibris.com, amazon.com, powellsbooks.com, etc. The advantage with this site is that you can comparison shop with different book brokers to get the best price.
The three best book brokers on the net:
Each of these book brokers have advantages and disadvantages that you'll have to weigh before you use them. On balance, abebooks.com is the best, in my opinion, because of direct access to the bookseller. But their shipping matrix is poor, whereas Alibris.com has an excellent shipping system. Amazon is an excellent site for more contemporary books. Pricing is all over the map on collectable books, so you'll have to do some searching using addall.com to find the best price.
Three outstand bookstore with major net presence:
Tattered Cover Books
and, of course, The Iliad Bookshop
Powell's books, in particular, is an outstanding online bookstore. I highly recommend them, even though their huge size sometimes leaves for occasional inconsistent customer service, they have one of the best collections of used books in the world.