Sunday, March 29, 2009

Man Bites Book

I've just returned from the Paperback Collectors Show & Sale, now in its thirtieth year, held for the last ten years in Mission Hills, CA, just outside of Los Angeles, and organized for the last few years by Black Ace Books here in L.A.

I've been attending this show, the largest of its kind west of the Mississippi, since
2000, to scout for books, and connect with dealers and collectors who, over the years, have been extremely generous in helping me with my research on vintage pulp literature. (Allow me  to point out that the paperbacks world has nearly as many reference books as the standard rare book trade; it's really quite amazing).
It's a decidedly different crowd at this show than at rare and antiquarian book fairs. No airs, blue blood or ivory tower pretensions here, just dedicated dealer-collector-fans who crowd the show's three small rooms and go through the books at each booth like locusts descending upon a field of ripe grain.

ABAA members Jim Pepper and David Meeker of Nick Adams & Company Rare Books were there. Jim's attends every year as part of the organizing staff, David to scout. David came down specifically to have Peter Beagle, one of the many authors (this year, twenty!) who come by for signing duty, inscribe a few books; this is one of the great venues for pulp authors to meet their fans and vice-versa. Ann Bannon was also there. Ann made the world safe for young girls struggling with their sexual identities with her series of lesbian-themed paperback original novels during the 'Fifties.

Ray Bradbury, every year a star presence, had to cancel at the very last minute, His current publisher, apparently, commandeered him to sign some books at home this morning and by the time Ray was finished he had run out of gas which, at age eighty-nine, is allowed though lamentable.

One thing noteworthy about the vintage paperbacks business is that dealers avoid the third-party aggregators, ie., ABE, etc.  for the usual reasons: monthly fees and credit card processing charges that are too expensive. Rose Idlet, of Black Ace, told me that she had listed through ABE but it cost her business because when she issues a catalog she reaps multiple sales per recipient whereas with ABE she gets only one order per individual and that's that; hit and run with no loyalty. In a news flash to all who have a gripe with ABE, she told me that she was recently contacted by them with the offer of a free year of listing if she would re-enlist. She passed but we have here evidence that ABE is feeling the economic downturn as well as everybody else and that if you currently list with ABE (or anyone else, for that matter) you may have some leverage in negotiating fees. These dealers do very well selling through Amazon (no listing fee or anything else until the book sells) and Ebay.

What this means for the collector is that with no aggregators, buyers are faced with many individual dealer websites to cope with and no single source to compare prices. In practical terms, it means that bargains can still be found. I picked up two of Marco Vassi's novels for Olympia Press-NY in mint condition for $4 each. I've seen them go for $20-$25 in condition far less than parfect.

There are rare book collectors and dealers who are legendary for their fussiness with condition. But there are no more fussy collectors than those who collect paperbacks. Indeed, in contrast to paperback collectors the most insanely particular condition freak for hard cover volumes is positively insouciant on the subject.

It all has to do with the nature of paperbacks, which were never produced with the expectation that they would be collected, much less survive the seventy years since the mass-market paperback was introduced in 1939. When a paperback dealer declares a book to be in Fine condition, they mean fine!! - sharp edges and corners, no creasing, soiling, or wear of any kind. In short, Fine means absolutely perfect, no excuses, no issues.

(The collector of paperbacks must be very careful when handling their books. Even reading them must be done with the extreme care you'd give to a Guttenberg Bible, actually more so because you cannot open a collectible paperback beyond a half to full inch lest you crease the spine and negatively affect the book's value. This has led to the development of the Peek-A-Boo method of reading: You hold the book close to your face, open it a half an inch and glimpse inside like a thief casing out a heist job).

Best news of the day was that I found a copy of a book I'd been seeking for quite a while. It was, alas, a disaster but a messy copy is better than no copy. I picked it up to marvel at the details of the book's debauchment by Father Time and carelessness and I noticed something quite unusual, a flaw one rarely, if ever, encounters with collectible hard cover volumes. I asked the dealer how he would describe the book's condition. "Man bites book," he replied.

I gave him the dollar (!) he was asking for the book. For a headline like that, I'd have paid ten.
Originally appeared in Fine Books & Collections on this date.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Seduction of an Innocent, Pint-Sized, Pipsqueak Book Collector

On April 21, 1954 a subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee was charged with investigating the causes of juvenile delinquency and went right to the heart of the matter: comic-books.

The subcommittee's first and starring witness was Fredric Wertham, author of Seduction of the Innocent, which, in so many words, asserted that comics were Lucifer's lure, Beelzebub's bait. Seduction of the Innocent was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, excerpted in Ladies' Home Journal, and published two days before Wertham testified before the Sub-committee. The hearings were televised.
After viewing, a baby-faced, three-year old miscreant took it on the lam. A precocious, hard-core comic book fan (even if, at the time, I couldn't actually read them) I shamefully accepted damnation but They weren't going to take me alive! A search party was formed, I was discovered in the basement of the house and was returned upstairs for trial, supper, and summary judgment. Remanded to the custody of my parents, I was sentenced to a life of guilt.

While in jail, I undertook a program of self-improvement. To better my chances in life, I began furiously reading and collecting Classics Illustrated comic books. My friend Donald, another four-eyed juvenile delinquent with reading issues, and I would get together to read, talk, and trade our Classics Illustrated, which kept us off the streets and out of trouble but did nothing for our social skills.

Thumbnail image for 250px-Mohicanslast.jpgClassics Illustrated comic books began as Classic Comics in 1941. Founded by Albert Kantor, the first of what would ultimately be 164 titles was The Three Musketeers. In addition to the literary adaptations, the comics featured author profiles, and educational filler. The series' name was changed to Classics Illustrated in 1951 and the cover art morphed from colored line drawings to full paintings executed by some of the top commercial artists of the era. Publication of new titles ceased in 1962.

I read every one of the 164 Classics Illustrated titles. They provided a foundation in world literature that led to reading the actual books, annuities for my optometrist and optician, and a career in the book trade.



Fun, comics-related factoid for today, permission granted to use as a party ice-breaker (or ender): By the mid-1950s, Joe Schuster, the artist and co-creator of Superman comics who had ceded all his rights, was nearly blind and completely broke. Offered an opportunity for work, he grabbed it. The books (actually comics) would be distributed in shady shops in Times Square in New York City. The distributor, Eddie Mishkin, was arrested on obscenity charges and his appeal went before the U.S. Supreme Court, the case now named after the series of offending comics that Schuster illustrated: Nights of Horror, now highly collectible as 'Fifties kitsch S&M-themed erotica. No shock, Mishkin lost but would return to appear before the Supreme Court in 1964 when another conviction of his in concert with two other related cases, would lead to the Supreme Court's liberalization of obscenity law.


Originally appeared in Fine Books & Collections on this date.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

"I Smote Him on the Boko With My Whangee"

Often, I'll be walking down the street minding my own business when a complete stranger will come up to me and declare, "Steve, I desperately want to be a book collector but I have little money and no idea what to collect."

"Are you attracted to the strange, the bizarre, and the off-beat?" I'll inquire. (This is the standard line I use when meeting anybody for any reason).

"Why yes, I am!"

"Well, then," I'll say, "I have good news for you, my off-beat, bookish friend."
The good news is that for most of their adult lives, Russell Ash and Brian Lake have been collecting strange books from another planet that looks astonishingly like Earth. They compiled what amounts to an annotated checklist of their area of interest, Bizarre Books,  originally published in 1985.

The books within are not expensive to collect and provide further evidence that when it comes to collecting categories, the only limit lies within the collector's imagination.

Here's a sample of bizarre books that Ash and Lake have amassed. Though it agonizes me, I'll refrain from providing rude or otherwise humorous captions. I'll leave that to you, gentle reader, for the Comments section below this post.

Scouts in Bondage by Goeffrey Prout. (Aldine Publishing, 1930).

The Oldest Trade in the World, and Other Addresses for the Younger Folk by George H. Morrison. (Oliphant, Anderson & Ferrier, 1898).

And I Stood There With My Piccolo in My Hand by Meredith Willson. (Doubleday, 1948).

A Treatise on Madness by William Battie. (London, 1758).

Anatomy of the Brain by William W. Looney. (F.A. Davis, 1932).

I Knew 3,000 Lunatics by Victor Robert Small. (Farrar & Reinhart, 1935).

I Smote Him on the Boko with My Whangee. (Wm. Hyde, n.d.).

Octogenarian Teetotalers. (National Temperance League Publications, 1897)

Moles and Their Meaning by Harry de Windt. (C. Arthur Pearson, 1907). Clarification: the skin, not spy, sort.

Also and Too: A Corpus-based Study of Their Frequency and Use in Modern English by B. Fjelkestam-Nilsson. (Almquist & Wiksell, 1983).

The Loathsomeness of Long Haire by Revd Thomas Hall. (n.p., 1654).

The Inheritance of Hairy Ear Rims by Reginald Ruggles Gates. and P.N. Bhaduri (Mankind Quartely, n.d.).

A Toddler's Guide to the Rubber Industry by D. Lowe. (De Montfort Press, 1947).

How To Fill Mental Cavities by Bill Maltz. (Marlbro, 1978).

Movie Stars in Bathtubs by Jack Scagnetti. (Jonathan David Publishers, 1975).

The History and Romance of Elastic Webbing Since the Dawn of Time by Clifford Richmond. (By the Author, n.d.).

The Romance of Holes in Bread by I.K. Russell. (1924).

The Romance of Leprosy by E. Mackerchar. (1949).

The Romance of Proctology by Charles Elton Blanchard. ((1938)

Careers in Dope by Dan Walford. (Prentice-Hall, 1973). Note: Prentice-Hall publishes textbooks.

Rock Stars in Their Underpants by Paula Yates. (Virgin Books, 1980)

Rubbing Along In Burmese. Anon. (1944).

Who's Who in Cocker Spaniels by Marion Francis Robinson. Mangrum (n.p., 1944).

The Muck Manual: A Practical Treatise on the Nature and Value of Manures by F. Falkner. (John Murray, 1843).

Animals As Criminals by J. Brand. (1896).

Carnivorous Butterflies by Austin Hobart Clark. (U.S. Gov't Printing Office, 1926).

The Art of Faking Exhibition Poultry by George Riley Scott. (T. Werner Laurie, 1934).

Teach Your Chicken To Fly Manual by Trevor Weekes. (Kangaroo Press, 1983).

A Pictorial Book of Tongue Coating. Anon. (Yukonsha, 1981).

Clarification: diagnosis of disease by tongue-exam, in full-color. Suffice it to say, "Deep red tongue with a slippery moist 'moldy sauce paste' fur" is trouble, though I've had Scallops with Bok Choy and Moldy Sauce Paste - quite good, actually.

Old Age: Its Cause and Prevention by Sanford Bennett. ((1912).

Shut Your Mouth and Save Your Life by George Catlin. (Trubner & Co., 1869).

Cluthe's Advice to the Ruptured by Charles Cluthe. (Chas. Cluthe & Sons, 1915 - 71st edition).

How To Be Plump by Thomas Cation Duncan. (Duncan Bros., 1878).

How To Get Fat by Edward Smith. (Johm Smith & Co., 1865).

Grow Your Own Hair by Ron MacLaren. (Heathway, 1947).

Why Bring That Up? A Guide To and From Seasickness. (1936).

Sex Instruction for Irish Farmers by Charles McSherry. (Mercier Press, 1980).

How To Boil Water in a Paper Bag. Anon. (n.p., 1891).

Teach Yourself Alcoholism by Meier Glatt. (1975).

Living Without Eating by Herbert Thurston. (1931).

How To Cook Husbands by Elisabeth Strong Worthington. (Dodge, 1899).

The Fangs of Suet Pudding by Adams Farr. (Gerald G. Swan, 1944).

Clarification: The Fangs of Suet Pudding is not a cookbook recipe revenge story but rather a WWII potboiler featuring a master Nazi spy and a young and comely British lass.

And, finally, four must-have volumes appropriate to our passion:

A Bibliography of Water Pollution and its Control by Hugh Fish. (Gothard House, 1972).

Selective Bibliography of the Literature of Lubrication by Nathan Van Patten and Grace S. Lewis. (N. Van Patten, 1926).

An Essay on Diseases Incidental to Literary and Sedentary Persons by Samuel Auguste Andre David Tissot. ((1768).

Sweet Sleep. A Course of Reading Intended to Promote That Delightful Enjoyment by Charles J. Dunphie. (Tinsley Brothers, 1879). I encourage readers to provide a list of their favorite slumber-inducing volumes.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Henry Bemis, Hero Bibliomaniac, Dead at 97

Henry Bemis, the compulsive reader whose tragedy was limned in a short story by Lyn Venable and dramatized for television in a 1959 biopic written by Rod Serling for an episode of The Twilight Zone that made Bemis a champion to reading geeks worldwide, is dead after a gallant, fifty year struggle with the cumulative effects of eye strain and radiation poisoning.

Bemis, a bank teller cruelly henpecked by his wife and brow beaten by his boss for a reading habit that they considered a waste of time, was eating lunch one day, secluded in the bank's vault and cozying up to a book, when Nuke War I broke out and ended within thirty seconds. Protected by the vault, Bemis emerged into a crumbled and depopulated Reading, PA, his home town. Alone and bereft, he was on the verge of suicide when he noticed that within the ruins of the local library were thousands of books waiting to be read. Now with Time Enough at Last (the title to Serling's Twilight Zone episode) to read as much as he wanted to without interruption or opprobrium, Bemis had just opened a book and was eager to begin reading when he reached to pick something up and his glasses fell to the ground and shattered.

250px-Time_Enough_at_Last.jpgBurgess Meredith as Henry Bemis

With all the books in the world and all the time to read them but no way to do so, Bemis' story put the "Ai!" in irony, and an entire generation of pubescent book freaks, present writer included, learned that they were not alone, that there was someone like them, a nerd with a need to read - and to always have a back-up pair of corrective lenses safely tucked away for emergencies.

Bemis died peacefully in his sleep after listening to an audio edition of Mortimer Adler's How To Read a Book narrated by philosopher of the simple life, crypto-intellectual, and Mr. Bemis' final companion, Paris Hilton, the closet bibliophile whose vast and singular collection of first editions is centered upon volumes containing the word "Paris" in the title, Collins & Lapierre's Is Paris Burning? (1965) her favorite: "It's hot," the trend-setting heiress declares, "and so was Henry. He was so cuddly, like a giant Chihuahua. I just wanted to read him all over. I'm writing an article about him, for The Paris Review, of course."

"I'm heartbroken," bibliojournalist and author Nicholas Basbanes said. "I knew Henry. In fact, I was planning an entire book about him, A Pathological Madness. You know, afterward, when the radioactive dust had settled and the world began to rebuild, he was fitted for a new pair of glasses. But his retinal rods and cones had, over time with atomic pollutants, deteriorated to the point where his eyeglasses were essentially glass bricks with earpieces. Wearing them wreaked havoc with his posture and self-image; he actually thought of himself as a leading man type and was disappointed when Burgess Meredith was cast to play him in the famous Twilight Zone episode - he had hoped that Rock Hudson would be chosen. (Hudson was, at the time, essaying his greatest acting challenge as Brad Allen, heterosexual pursuer of Doris Day in Pillow Talk). The improvement to his vision was, at best, marginal, so he refused to wear them and went slowly insane trying to decipher ultra-fuzzy text. Though he was completely unfocused, I've never met a more intense and determined man.

"The book world has lost an Olympian reader," Basbanes eulogized, "and one of it's greatest supporters. I'll miss him."

A memorial service will be held at the former site of Heritage Book Shop on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, the famed L.A. landmark building originally designed and constructed to house Pierce Brothers Mortuary, Hollywood's undertaker to the stars.

In lieu of flowers, Mr. Bemis requested that he be buried with donated copies of Baudelaire's Fleurs de Mal (1857), Burne-Jones' The Flower Book (1905), Darwin's The Different Forms of Flowers on Plants of the Same Species (1877), Rebecca Hey's The Moral of Flowers (1836), Thomas Hogg's On the Flower That Holds the First Rank Among All the Flowers in the Garden (1820), Crane's The Flowers and Folklore From Far Korea (1931), and 1,432 other floral first editions in his casket, a cargo container to be interred in Forest Lawn's necropolis for dearly departed bibliophiles and New Orleans prostitutes, Storyville.

 "You can take it with you, and I'm going to!" Bemis is reported to have asserted in his will. "You don't need glasses in Heaven."

Finally, Henry Bemis truly has Time Enough At Last.

And so end "the best laid plans of mice and men and Henry Bemis, the small man in the glasses who wanted nothing but time...Mr. Henry Bemis in the Twilight Zone" (from Rod Serling's teleplay).


Time Enough at Last originally aired November 20, 1959 on CBS as episode eight of season one of The Twilight Zone. It is, arguably, the finest, certainly the most poignant, screen depiction of the passion for books and reading ever filmed. Its themes of bibliophilia, anti-intellectualism, and solitude versus loneliness remain timeless. View the full episode of Time Enough At Last here.
Originally appeared in Fine Books & Collections on this date.

Friday, March 20, 2009

"Have Books Destroyed Your Life, Too?

by Stephen J. Gertz

We book folk are often socially inept or, if ept, we'd rather be reading: excepting the occasional clunker, a close relationship with books is very satisfying to the single/divorced and persnickety printslut.

But even the most cerebrally occupied must bow to the will of  the flesh and the desire for human company. Thus the appearance of personal ads in the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books.

The nature of the ads in each of these august publications is, however, decidedly different, and reveals the character of the British and American book-lovers who place them. Without putting too fine a point on it, the Brits are much more direct, often brutally honest, eccentric and, yes, wittier than we are on this side of the Atlantic (book) Shelf.

"My animal passions would satisfy any woman, if only it weren't for the filibustering of this damned colon. And the chafing of these infernal hospital sheets.  Write now to M, 83, for ward visiting hours and list of approved solids."

"You'll regret replying to this ad - its owner smells of peas."

"Bald, short, fat and ugly male, 53, seeks short-sighted woman with tremendous sexual appetite."

"Sinister-looking man with a face only a mother would love."

"Love is strange - wait 'til you see my feet."

"I am the literary event of 2007, or at least the most entertaining drunk on my ward."

"Blah, blah, whatever. Indifferent woman. Go ahead and write."

"Disreputable, mean, ruthless, perverse, hateful wretch. But what do divorce lawyers know?"

"Get out of my space and quit touching. Otherwise friendly F, 42, wants to get to know you. Box 4213 (please include full CV, medical records, five recent bank statements, photo and proof of signature)."

"I've divorced better men than you. And worn more expensive shoes than these. So don't think placing this ad is the biggest come-down I've ever had to make. Sensitive F, 34."

"5 September is the anniversary of my divorce. So too are 17 November, 12 January, 8 March and 21 June. Summer is usually much quieter - take advantage of the sunshine and lawyers' vacation periods by dating impatient, money-grubbing F, 39."

"I butchered three volumes of Seamus Heaney to produce this ad."

"Meet the new me. Like the old one only less nice after three ads without any sexual intercourse. 42 year old fruitcake (F)."

"Every time I read these ads I cringe with the knowledge that they are all me. And some are you."

"Today just isn't my day. Neither was yesterday. Tomorrow will be worse. I'm putting all my money on Thursday week. Also my ex-wife's car and my children's tuition fees for 2005-08. Compulsive gambler (M, 53) seeks either love or sound racing tips. Or both. Though, strictly speaking, the latter generally results in the former."

"Last time I had this much fun, I was on forty tablets a day. It's all downhill from here, so reply to edgy woman, 36, before the good times come to an abrupt halt and the prescriptions finally dry up."

"So many men to chose from, so few vitamin supplements. Arthritic F, 73."

"In a certain light I look like Robert Mitchum. In a certain light you look like Kim Novak. More usually I look like Shrek. More usually you still look like Kim Novak. Yes, you're very unlucky. Now pass me the Doritos and get over it."

"Tell me your dreams. I'll laugh at them all and prove how unlikely you are to achieve them."

"List your ten favourite albums. I don't want to compare notes, I just want to know if there's anything worth keeping when we finally break up."

"I have known only shame. Then, last week, I experienced surprise."

The above (as well as this post's headline) appear in They Call Me Naughty Lola (Scribner, 2006), an inspired collection of personal ads from the London Review of Books amassed by LTR editor, David Rose.

Contrast these with the personals found in the latest online edition of the New York Review of Books.

We are so lame here, so earnest, so sincere, so sappy, so boring, and anxious with a whiff of desperation. With far too many U.S. personals, it's all sharing romantic walks on the beach, sunsets, picnics in the park, drives up the coast with the top down, a glass of wine in front of the fireplace. There's a distinct lack of imagination exhibited, an overabundance of banality and idealism, and a lot of wishful thinking. It's a wonder anyone in the U.S. finds a viable partner through the personals. The Brits don't seem to care about optimizing first impressions, marketing themselves and creating positive brand awareness: This is who I am, take it or leave it but I will never bore you! You can make book on it.

And what a delightful book They Call Me Naughty Lola is, social anthropology at its entertaining best. Put it on your list of approved solids.


Originally appeared in Fine Books & Collections on this date.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

What Are You Reading For Dinner Tonight?

As I cannot eat meals at home without a few savory print-based side dishes as accompaniment, I routinely have reading matter piled on my little dining room table.

Per usual, there are the latest issues of The New Yorker, New York, Macworld, Traps (a quarterly for drummers), etc. that require attention. Though these magazines, over time, sojourn, nomad-like, at various spots throughout my home, they always find their way back to the table.
On the chair to my left, I keep the prior two weeks' Sunday New York Times: It generally takes me a full week to get through the entire paper and its supplements; I keep the prior week's issue around for bird-cage duty.

On the chair to my right lies a stack of recently read magazines and catalogs of all sort, kept just in case. In case of what, I don't know but I seem to need them around for at least a month.

I tend to favor the al fresco magazine dining experience simply because magazines lie flat and do not require that I devote one hand to holding a book open while eating with the other hand.  No rude remarks about one-handed reading, please; honi soit qui mal y pense, pal.

Despite the periodicals advantage, I always have two or three reading-in-progress books on the table. When books find their way into this rotation, progress is generally very slow.

And progress can grind to a halt when my head hits a book in its solar plexus, the wind gets knocked out of it, and my interest flees like a fart in a windstorm, i.e. I was reading a book on reading theory when, all of a sudden, I realized I was reading a book on reading and could no longer continue reading the book: this was going too far, and could have only been worse if I'd been reading a book while eating at my dining room table about a single/divorced guy reading a book while eating at his dining room table.

In my experience, there are no rules about matching the right reading material to the right foods. While the best books do get better with age, they ain't wine. For instance, it is completely unnecessary to read Amy Tan with Chinese food; Umberto Eco with Italian; Aravind Adiga with Indian; or Amos Oz with Middle Eastern. Nor do you need to read Tolstoy while eating a big, heavy meal to keep the food from overwhelming the book; Tolstoy and tapas work just fine together.

When I get home each evening, the dining room table is a smorgasbord strewn with open magazines, a newspaper section, a book or two with bills, napkins, and knives re-purposed as bookmarks, the result of profligacy during breakfast; I'm a slob. It's an open buffet, and like a rat I nibble here, nibble there for awhile; graze with goat-like gusto when I hit on something tasty. I also have to have the reading matter positioned correctly so lighting glare is minimized, I can comfortably read, and bring fork to mouth without incident.

It's the same when I go out to dinner by myself; I always bring something to read. Books are a cheap date and, like another solo human activity, you don't have to look your best or try to charm.

In a recent New York Times piece by Leanne Shapton, Dinner Companions, leading novelists talk about the one book they want to have with them as a dinner date. Jay McInerney, for instance, opts for A.J. Liebling's classic gastronomic memoir, Between Meals. Too obvious, for my taste. A.M. Homes would like to dine with John Cheever's Falconer. I say, feh.

I'm more into exotic literary nourishment, like Bruce Wagner, whose perfect dinner companion is In the Land of Pain, Alphonse Daudet's journal chronicling his slow, agonizing death from syphilis. A dream date, I do declare, and a meal to die for.

Speaking of meals to die for, those who enjoy stewing in their own juices with a side dish of suicidal ideation to accompany an entrée of fricasseed sorrow, shame, and hopelessness will be pleased to learn that Schopenhauer's World as Will and Representation makes Daniel Kehlmann's mouth water as "the most enjoyable, and the funniest, of all the major works of philosophy, perhaps because it's the bleakest." This is my kind of guy, getting right to dessert.

And then the aftermath. As I do not read and tell, suffice it to say that when dinner's over and I bring my dining companion home and into the bedroom, I don't remove its dust jacket until I've gotten to know it a little better. That's just the way I was raised. But after the second dinner date, it's dishabille time and no book is safe from my peepers and paws.

Bon appétit e bon livres!

Originally appeared in Fine Books & Collections on this date.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

One Touch of Venus (Library): Odyssey of an Imprint Part 2

The story so far: In One Touch of Venus (Library): Odyssey of an Imprint, Part I we find Grove Press publisher Barney Rosset on the ropes, desperate for money, and, in a deal with his paperbacks distributor, Kable News, establishing Venus Library. Venus Library flounders, Kable News' chief John Hayes seizes the imprint from Rosset, it becomes Venus Books, loses a a small fortune, and Hayes seeks a way out.

Enter Maurice Girodias.
John Hayes, who had been distributing Olympia Press - New York through his Kable News, was obviously aware of Girodias' troubles; he'd lost OP-NY for distribution when it entered bankruptcy. He offered to give Girodias Venus Books if he'd just keep it alive to feed Kable's distribution maw. With this distribution contract Girodias established Freeway Press. Apparently contractually obligated to maintain the Venus imprint, Girodias released as Venus-Freeway Press. And, apparently contractually locked by Kable into issuing at least six titles per month  and desperately scrounging for material, Girodias immediately began to reissue, yet again, some Olympia Press - Paris titles as well as many reissues of Olympia Press - New York books, and a host of the most unlikely titles: a paperback edition of Sax Rohmer's [Arthur Sarafield Ward] only work of non-fiction,  The Romance of Sorcery,  a survey of the occult originally published in 1914; seven books in a series entitled K'ing Kung-Fu by Marshall Macao [?Leonard Mears]; two dreary dirty books, Mama Liz Drinks Deep  and Mama Liz Tastes Flesh  anonymously written by Howard Reingold, ostensively part of "The Acid Orgy Trilogy"; An Astrological Guide to Living in the Age of Aquarius; The Office Worker's Manifesto; Pyramid Power; two reprints of novels that originally appeared in the pulp magazine Operator 5 in 1934;  a bio of Mohammad Ali, Ali: Fighter, Poet, Prophet,  and Springtime for Hitler (the title "borrowed" from Mel Brooks' film, The Producers) both co-written by Über-literary agent Andrew Wylie prior to his rise to power.

It had come to this for Maurice Girodias: He holds the dubious honor of being the only porn publisher in history to have his writers organize a strike. Bearing picket signs reading "Give Us Our Dirty Money," and "Pornographers' Kids Need Clothes, Too," in June, 1971 sixteen male and female Olympia Press -  New York scribes demonstrated outside his offices on Park Avenue South under the rubric Dirty Writers Of America. The DWA demanded royalties and was  upset that Girodias, the champion of literary freedom, now had forbidden humor in their books; he now had to issue trash to maintain his contractual commitment to Kable News; and the two hundred dollar check he wrote to Wylie as down payment for Springtime For Hitler, the seventy-third Venus-Freeway release and the last book that Girodias would ever publish,  bounced.

But in the meantime, Venus-Freeway Press' President Kissinger. (Double-take). No need to re-read the last sentence; you had it right the first time: President Kissinger.

It was a collaborative effort amongst Girodias, acclaimed erotic novelist Marco Vassi, Monroe Rosenthal and Donald Munson, and an as yet unidentified woman. The book's forthcoming release was the subject of a story in the June 12, 1974 issue of the New York Times; the novel was causing no small degree of consternation within the government. It seems that the Justice Department's Immigration and Naturization branch received an anonymous complaint, investigated, and discovered that Girodias had allowed his resident's visa to expire. Girodias was ordered to be deported.

The book itself? Printed and sent to the Kable News warehouse,  the entire shipment vanished within a day of its delivery. John Hayes, owner of Kable News, disingenuously reported to Girodias that he had absolutely no idea what happened to it. There is evidence implying that the complaint to the Justice Department came from Hayes himself, who may have a bad case of the willies: the legal climate vis a vis obscenity had, by 1974, turned distinctly chilly and Hayes no doubt recalled what had happened to Greenleaf Classics when they screwed with the government by publishing a brilliantly conceived and subversive, wild, lavishly and graphically illustrated edition of the U.S. government's Presidential Report of the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography: Greenleaf's publisher and editor went to jail. Hayes also, apparently, objected to certain passages in the book.

I think it fair to assume that the objectionable passages were probably the ones that featured Henry Kissinger "having an affair with a German girl in whose closet he discovers an S.S. uniform. She confesses to him that her brother had been in the Gestapo and in their subsequent sex scene has her wearing the uniform and Henry a frilly French maid's outfit, with him walking around on his hands and knees while she straddles his back and whacks him with a riding crop," as Marco Vassi related in an unpublished autobiographical snippet provided to Olympia Press - NY bibliographer, Patrick J. Kearney; his intimacies with a Radcliffe girl at the Paris Ritz-Carlton, and "a strapping Prussian noblewoman in a Heidelberg inn." John De St Jorre reports that after Kable News refused to distribute the book, Girodias decided to distribute it himself and had friends and staff affix stickers to each copy reflecting the new situation but the book has disappeared off the planet; find a copy, you're an Antiques Roadshow winner.

With deportation, court cases, debts, and a long list of simmering antagonists plaguing him, in 1974 Girodias, yet again, entered bankruptcy with Venus-Freeway Press' failure. With a gift for self-destruction, and a "sometimes kama-kazi approach to his business" (Kearney), Girodias was the only major publisher of pulp-porn during the era to have lost money. That required special talent. The times had passed him by; his brand of provocative publishing had become commonplace as the freedoms he had fought so hard for had been won. And a great, if deeply flawed publishing genius and champion of literary freedom faded from the scene. He died in 1990.

As for Barney Rosset, still alive, he "wasn't the only publisher who took risks, but he was one of the most visible and uncompromising. Not everything he published was high-minded. Some of it aimed below the belt, and he was uncompromising about that too. His stubbornness made his achievements possible, but it also helped to undo him. At the end of the '60s, Grove moved into fancy offices, into film, and, to some extent, away from books. The repression of the '50s and freewheeling openness of the '60s were over, and other houses, now free from fear of censorship, took more chances. The left splintered. The feminist movement attacked him. Grove began to drift...Grove bought a six-story building and installed air conditioning, an executive elevator and a front door in the shape of a 'G.'

"The renovation was completed in 1970, and that was the year that Grove began to fall apart. Prompted by the success of I Am Curious,Yellow, Rosset, who had always wanted to be a filmmaker, bought foreign films as fast as he could find them. 'Barney was buying the entire output of Czechoslovakia, Poland, God knows, whatever,' [Grove editor Richard] Seaver said. 'None of them worked. Suddenly, all the money we'd made on Yellow was down the drain.'

"There was the growing sense that Grove had lost its mission. 'Things were already beginning to go into a tailspin,' said [Grove executive, Nat] Sobel, who had resisted the new emphasis on film and was fired. 'I almost think that Barney fired me to spare me from watching the company that I helped build fall apart.' The '60s had ended, and the hope was turning sour. Peaceniks gave way to militants. Grove's move from an upstart house to a media conglomerate made its anti-establishment posture seem more like a contradiction. The feminist movement gained strength, and Grove became a target.

"...The real-estate market collapsed, and by the end of 1971, Grove was deeply in debt. It sold its new building at a huge loss and suspended Evergreen. Meanwhile, other publishers were taking advantage of the more permissive environment, and there were fewer untouchable manuscripts. 'They had such a distinctive position, particularly in the '60s, as the countercultural publisher,' explained Morgan Entrekin, who merged Atlantic Books with Grove's backlist to create Grove/ Atlantic in 1993, several years after Rosset had left. 'As they moved into the '70s and '80s other publishers started to occupy the same ground.'

"Finally, in 1985, Rosset was forced to sell to the oil heiress Ann Getty and the British publisher George Weidenfeld. Rosset believed he would remain in charge. But a year later, on a snowy evening, he walked into the Bar Americain in Paris, where a group had gathered to celebrate Beckett's 80th birthday, and announced he'd been pushed out," as Louisa Thomas reported in Newsweek.

Barney Rosset's last hurrah would involve a return to the pulp-erotica (he HATES the term "pornography") of Venus Library to start a new line of paperbacks, Blue Moon, to reprint early erotic classics and publish new , original works in the same literate but sexually charged style.

And so ends the saga of Venus Library, a forgotten imprint significant for reprinting otherwise lost original American erotica of the clandestine era, publishing a few new books of true literary value, and issuing many volumes that were just plain weird, yet whose ultimate importance lies as an imprint whose ownership was bookended by the two greatest publisher-champions of literary freedom during the twentieth century, two men who had known - and tangled with - each other when Girodias originally came to New York and sought Rosset out as a partner.

"After intense negotiations... [MG's lawyer Leon] Friedman produced a draft contract that he thought was fair to both sides. Both parties agreed to the terms but at the last minute Girodias, according to Friedman, 'changed the numbers,' and the deal fell through. 'It was a good contract,' Friedman said, 'and Maurice would have made good money out of it. But his attitude was if the other guy wants to sign a contract, it can't be a good deal.' Girodias saw it differently. After it was all over, he wrote to Friedman: 'It's all like a bad dream, concocted by the Superman of sadism, Barney Rosset.'

" 'It's just as well we didn't get together,' said Rosset, who laughed when he heard the Superman epithet again. 'It wouldn't have worked.' " (De St Jorre, pp. 270-271).

The two publishers, though both geniuses quite different in the details, were possessed by the same fateful demons that assured their rise and guaranteed their fall.


Part 2 is based upon Patrick J. Kearney's Introduction to his Bibliography of the Olympia Press- New York (Privately Printed, 1988); John De St Jorre's Jorre's Venus Bound: The Erotic Voyage of the Olympia Press (Random House, 1994); The Most Dangerous Man in Publishing by Louisa Thomas; and sources cited in Part I.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

One Touch of Venus (Library): Odyssey of an Imprint Part I

In a recent post, I mentioned one of Canadian poet John Glasscoe's novels, Fetish Girl by Sylvia Bayer, originally published in 1972 by Venus Library, and noted that Venus Library "evolved from Olympia Press- New York."

This is sort of true but far from the whole story. The history of Venus Library is much more tortured and I'll have to get on the rack and stretch out a bit to tell it.

Grove Press, a small hardcover imprint, was dying when Barney Rosset bought it for $3000 in 1952. Over the next decade, he built it into the premier publisher of avante garde literature in the United States. By 1962, Grove Press had become the "Little Giant of Publishing" according to a contemporary trade journal, whose mission was "to do things which stimulate people, to help them see new things, to broaden and irritate them, to give them pleasure and always to keep probing." Barney Rosset had become the leading exponent of literary freedom in the publishing world. It was said of him that "he has made more contributions to the cause of literary freedom than any other publisher of our day." Rosset had a simple publishing tenet: "If you feel a book has literary merit, you publish it. If you get arrested in the process you fight it." By being the first to publish in the U.S. the work of Henry Miller, William S. Burroughs, Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, Ionesco, amongst other literary luminaries, including Sade, and "Pauline Reage," as well as publishing the country's first literary journal of the contemporary avant garde, Evergreen Review, Rosset set a standard for American publishers that to this day few can match. His commitment to literary freedom had paid major dividends - by the mid-late Sixities he was rolling in dough.

But this kind of success can turn heads, and Rosset's was now spinning on its axis like the child's in The Exorcist: he was possessed by dreams of grandeur that diabolically undermined his fortune. He spent profligately, sinking small fortunes into ill-fated movie projects: he set up a film distribution unit to release I Am Curious-Yellow and a film adaptation of Henry Miller's  Quiet Days In Clichy in the U.S. He was in the big-time but money was now cascading out at a greater rate than it was coming in. And he now had tax problems. Releasing editions of his fine erotic and otherwise hardcover titles since the beginning through his Zebra and Black Cat paperback imprints, now he decided to establish a mass-market paperback line devoted exclusively to  erotica to mine the motherlode that had become the pulp-porn marketplace.

It was strictly a money-making idea, literary standards taking a back seat to the urgent need for cash flow. It was a scheme to provide Grove's paperback distributor, Kable News, with eight titles a month - John Hayes, Kable's owner, had been urging Rosset to get in on the porn bandwagon - and provide Grove with a transfusion of green at a time when it is bleeding red and in mortal danger. Kable wanted the deal and Rosset needed it: Grove's Black Cat and Zebra imprints were not issuing enough titles per month to satisfy their contract with Kable News, and Kable was threatening to drop the lines unless Rosset could fill-in with other titles.

Venus Library is born.

The original idea was to reprint vintage clandestine American erotica of the 1920s and 1930s in well-designed and printed paper editions. The imprint's original wrapper design was clean and simple: well-wrought, distinctive lettering of the title, subtitle and author against a plain, single color background with thin white margins, at the head Venus' elegant signature vignette - a highly stylized, abstracted Venus figure in black, a stemmed round form over an inverted heart sitting atop a goblet, whose shape clearly suggests head and neck above full breasts atop full hips. The paper used was high quality and acid-free, the typography excellent; no cheesy offset photo-reprinting of the original source edition. Grove Press' name appeared along the spine below the Venus logo and as copyright holder. The overall look was of reserved class.

Among Venus' early releases were the only open editions of the obscure American original erotic novels, M. Fontaine's Establishment and John Kruge, and a very nicely produced edition of La Tarantula, another American original, from 1934. La Tarantula was the second title in Venus' catalogue, and provided an inauspicious omen of things to come: two editions of La Tarantula had already been published by others in the prior year, 1968. And, too, it was late 1969 and the market for quality pulp-erotica was giving way to the demand for raunchier material with overtly sexual wrapper designs.

And so, by its twentieth release Venus Library had evolved. That twentieth title was Corporal Punishment by "Dr. Gerda Mundinger," a S/M-themed "case history" sexumentary. Gone was the understated elegance of the original wrapper design; now, though still very nicely designed the covers were photo-illustrated to grab the fickle porn-public's attention.

That they did. The photo-cover for Dr. Mundinger's pseudo-study depicts the back of a nude woman from knees to shoulders, a man's forearm entering the frame from the right, his hand wielding a whip. The quality of the paper had declined to the typically low industry standard. The vintage material was now photo-offset from the source editions. The whole affair must certainly have been an embarrassment to Rosset and sales were not the B-12 shot Grove so desperately needed. Additionally, and of primary significance, Grove owed Kable a fortune: According to Fred Jordan, who was then working as an editor at Grove, Kable News had been, as was customary for distributors with all their contract publishers, advancing money to Grove/Venus to cover printing costs but Grove/Venus had been collecting these advances far in excess of the number of books they were actually delivering to Kable. It was so bad that Rosset was forced to cede Venus Library to Kable to cover what he owed the distributor. This method of Kable News, to "help" out and allow  publishers to get in way over their heads then seize the imprint or magazine, was not exclusive to them; periodicals distributors (who controlled the paperback book business) were (and remain) a tough lot using many legal if ethically questionable strategies to advance their business interests.

Venus Library may not have been the financial savior to Grove that Rosset hoped it would be but its sales were still respectable enough for Kable News to want to keep the imprint in its distribution mix. Hayes, according to those who knew him a very likable salesman in the best sense, apparently, needed and wanted a "prestige" imprint to distribute - they had a way of lending respectability to a distributor and providing convenient "cover" for the less respectable material. Kable News had been distributing Maurice Girodias' Olympia Press - New York catalogue as its "prestige" line but Girodias was sinking and Hayes may have felt the need to hedge his bet if Girodias went under. Apparently part of the deal with Rosset was that Grove Press would continue to advertise Venus Library at the rear of copies from its Zebra line of paperbacks, an ad for Venus appearing at the rear of its sixth printing dated December, 1972 of Pierre Loüys Trois Filles et leur Mere, Mother's Three Daughters.

And so, in early 1972, Venus Library became the property of Kable News. The books looked exactly as they did under Grove's ownership, the only difference being that the name Grove Press was no longer to be found anywhere on the wrapper, and the copyrights were now under Venus Library with no location site provided. But based on appearances, it was quite reasonable to assume that Grove still owned Venus Library.

It remains unknown who ran and edited Venus Library for Kable News but the line  went into overdrive, releasing well over one hundred titles in 1972. At some point during 1972, though, Venus Library became Venus Books, it lost the imprint's original, distinctive logo, and its mail-order was handled by Irval Distributors in Long Island City, Queens, New York City, which appears to have been connected to Al Druss' G.I. Distribution, a shady operation. The imprint was sinking, financially as well as editorially.

It reprinted at least thirty of hack pornmeister Paul Hugo Little's "A. Granamour" flagellation fiestas, most of which had already been released by Greenleaf Classics, the era's leading publisher of pulp erotica; and a few retitled and reauthored Olympia Press - Paris titles. It had, in the main, become  a publisher of S/M-themed material that was generally not very well-written, though a few notable exceptions managed to be issued. Fanchon's Book by "Zane Pella" (the pseudonymous author of many above average soft-porn novels during the '60s under the name "Dallas Mayo;" the copyright for Fanchon's Book held by Gilbert Fox, the true author - why use a pseudonym when you out yourself on the copyright?), is a fine little contemporary original novel of lesbian dominance and submission. It published the only open edition of The Mistress & The Slave, a reprint of the Athens [London], Erotica Biblion Society [Leonard Smithers and/or H.S. Nichols], 1905  English translation of the French clandestine original, La Maitresse et L'Esclave  issued in Paris, ca. 1903, the story of the systematic sexual subjugation of an older man by a young girl reminiscent of The Blue Angel, an uncommonly sensitive and perceptive view of a man's dark fall into eros. Venus Library also issued the only reprints of two  novels by the infamous "Aime Van Rod" (a house pseudonym for Parisian publisher Roberts et Darallion's erotica imprints Editions artistique and Editions Parisiennes) - Our Fair Flagellants by Jeremy Hornell, an early translation of Nos Belle Flagellantes originally issued in 1907; and The Coming of Age of Françoise Cocteau,  the original edition in French and source translation yet to be identified - who in the first two decades of the twentieth century was responsible for over thirty-five fiercely sadistic novels noteworthy for their often complete lack of overt sexual behavior, that subject being too indecent for the modest female protagonist/victims to narrate, the scenes of viciously ferocious, unrelenting corporal punishment, however, just fine, thank you.  The best books in the Venus Library catalogue are 60s activist and key counterculture figure David Danziger's Hard Life, his memoir of sex and sensibility from St. Marks Place in New York's Greenwich Village to San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury, and poet John Glassco's Fetish Girl by Sylvia Bayer. How and why these little treasures wound up in Venus' line is a mystery but one we should be thankful for. The simplest explanation is that these two titles were likely leftovers from when Grove Press owned the imprint; they have the aroma of quality.


By the end of 1972, beginning of 1973, Venus was in disarray and Kable News' John Hayes was looking to unload the imprint. Perhaps the editorial was to blame. Perhaps the recession of the early 70s had negatively impacted sales, as it had for so many others: Venus' print runs appear to have fallen into the 7K-10K range; just a few years earlier, the average print run for a pulp erotica title had been upwards of fifty thousand copies. Perhaps Kable News' John Hayes, a distributor and not a publisher, couldn't provide the leadership necessary. But the most likely reason Hayes was seeking to rid himself of ownership, according to Kent Carroll, who worked as an editor at Grove and though not directly involved knew of the Grove-Kable deal for Venus Library, is that "he [Hayes] lost about a million on the arrangement." Rosset found a sucker in Hayes; now it was Hayes' turn.

Enter Maurice Girodias.

                                                                                                        to be continued...

I am thankful to Barney Rosset, Kent Carroll, Fred Jordan, and Gilbert Fox who were kind to share their memories with me during of series of telephone, snail-, and e-mail interviews conducted between 2000 and 2002.

Originally appeared in Fine Books & Collections on this date.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Our Man in the Attic

Those of us based downstairs in the United States often neglect our upstairs neighbors in Canada who take a lot of ribbing from us for being from, well, Canada. The land of maple leaves has, however, produced some great literature, in addition to being a fertile breeding ground for comedians (think SCTV and the initial cast for Saturday Night Live).

We do not, alas, hear enough about the Canadian literary scene. Brian Busby is doing something about it.

"A writer, ghostwriter, écrivain public and bibliophile, I'm the author of Character Parts: Who's Really Who in Canadian Literature (2003), and editor of In Flanders Fields and Other Poems of the First World War (2005) and Great Canadian Speeches (2008). There are several other odds and ends, some of which I dare not speak."
"The odds and ends, some of which [Brian] dare not speak"  refer to his interest in the far and curious shores of Canadian literature. Brian's blog, The Dusty Bookcase: A Very Casual Exploration of the Dominion's Suppressed, Ignored and Forgotten, is not the place to go to find information about Robertson Davies, unless Robertson Davies has a hidden, heretofore unidentified, pseudonymously written pulp novel in his past, or - I shudder at the thought! - wrote anonymous porn. (In truth, Brian wrote a fine post regarding Davies' essay on fellow Canadian, Stephen Leacock)

Brian is also the author of a new, exhaustively researched and soon to be published biography of Canadian poet, novelist, eccentric, con man, and literary provocateur, John Glassco. This biography, to which I contributed a few tidbits of info, is a must read - Glassco is one of the most colorful characters you'll ever meet, an author incubated in high culture and weaned on the low brow, much like Busby himself (full disclosure: Brian Busby and I were separated and cast out of the asylum for warped neonates soon after transitioning from mother's milk to Kool-Aid). Glassco wrote, amongst other novels, the classic Olympia Press volume, The English Governess by Miles Underwood (1959), and Fetish Girl by Sylvia Bayer (Venus Library,1972. Venus Library evolved from Girodias's Olympia Press - New York imprint), the first edition of which the analgesic Ms. Bayer dedicates to John Glassco  !

But Glassco was also a practical joker, one who perpetrated more than one delightful literary hoax. As I promised Brian not to spill the beans until the book is released, I must keep these a secret.

It's no secret, however, that if you want to stay on top of the wonderful and often weird past and present world of Canadian literature, Brian, our man in the attic, is the go-to guy.

Originally appeared in Fine Books & Collections on this date.
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