You Think You Love Vintage Paperback Books? These People Love Vintage Paperback Books

Book collectors search for pulp gems at Los Angeles Vintage Paperback Collectors Show.
Book collectors search for pulp gems at Los Angeles Vintage Paperback Collectors Show.
Liz Ohanesian

The books outnumbered the people on Sunday afternoon at the Glendale Civic Auditorium. Sure, the Los Angeles Vintage Paperback Collectors Show, which has been going on for 35 years, drew a good crowd. There were lines of folks waiting for autographs from a number of authors, including Harlan Ellison. Still more were browsing the aisles. They, however, were no match for the sheer amount of books here. Paperbacks small enough to fit into a pocket or handbag were carefully kept in plastic bags were displayed on tables and shelves. Thousands more filled bins. Vendors organized titles into handy categories. There were the "hardboiled" books, crime novels starring detectives who think they've seen it all. The "sleaze" catchall was perhaps self-explanatory. One booth even had a section of "vintage nurse" titles.

A lot of the names in the bins rang familiar. Plenty of pulp stars stand amongst the literary giants of the 20th Century. Philip K. Dick, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Ray Bradbury and H.P. Lovecraft turn up repeatedly here. Their stories may be different, but their roots are similar. They wrote for the masses. Now, those dimestore novels and magazines fetch much higher prices. Twenty dollars seems about average for books that cost less than $2 upon first purchase. Prices can soar for paperbacks that are essentially first editions, or for titles that are now considered rare. There were plenty here marked for well over $100. William Burroughs classic Junkie, released under the name William Lee, came out as as part of an ACE "Two books in one" set for 35 cents. Now, it's $300.

The price hike in this case makes sense, even to those who are oblivious to the paperback collection world. Junkie was the first release from an author who went on to greatness. That the book came out as part of a bargain set makes it a curious cultural artifact. But collectors can head much deeper into this world. Sometimes, it's the less obvious titles that are the most collectible.

A selection of retro mysteries, including noteworthy books like The Postman Always Rings Twice.
A selection of retro mysteries, including noteworthy books like The Postman Always Rings Twice.
Liz Ohanesian

Bruce Edwards, a collector who sells paperbacks on eBay, clued me in on the nuances of this type of collection. He tends to focus on the noir detective stories that were popular in the 1940s and '50s and his table was filled with classics from the genre. There are copies of James M. Cain books, like The Postman Always Rings Twice, here, as well as titles from Raymond Chandler and William Irish. Edwards has been collecting for about 30 years. He gravitated towards these old mystery novels back in college, when a friend turned him on to Mickey Spillane books. Sometime later, he met Tom Lesser, who puts on this show, and delved into collecting.

It's not necessarily the noir mysteries or sci-fi tales or any other sort of novel that can catch a pretty penny here. Edwards picks up a small book titled Puzzles for Everybody. It's marked at $195. Yes, someone might spend close to $200 for crossword puzzles.

Edwards explains that there's a certain segment of collectors known as "completists." These are folks who want to get a full run of paperbacks from a specific publisher, like Avon. The puzzle book in his hand is Avon #295. It's one of three hard-to-find pocketbooks from this run, he notes. The reason for the scarcity of puzzle books is simple. "People used them and then they tossed them," says Edwards. The disposable nature of the small paperbacks now makes them collectible.

In truth, this is something that goes beyond the crossword puzzles. Paperback books are disposable culture. They weren't made to be collected. Instead, they were inexpensive and easy to carry on your person. They show wear from multiple readings. They fall apart. They go missing or end up in a donation pile. However, these 20th century testaments to convenience have become collector's items. Sometimes, it's because the authors eventually became well known. The same could be said for the cover artists. Other times, it's simply because the subject matter piques curiosity.

Frank Mils is slinging books for Kayo, a San Francisco shop known for its ample collection of pulp titles. Mils is a witty, talkative guy. He cracks jokes about some of the tawdry elements of the pulp scene. He notices that I've been checking out the books about drugs and other purported habits of juvenile delinquents.

"Juvenile delinquency, it's been the bane of American society since it's founding in 1776. If teenagers just had their act together, everything in America would be perfect," he says with a generous dose of sarcasm. "When they don't, that means that there's this vast, valuable niche available entrepreneurs everywhere to make clamorous stories with usually salacious pictures or art talking about how wicked and wrong-headed American teenagers are." 

An early incarnation of the William Burroughs classic.
An early incarnation of the William Burroughs classic.
Liz Ohanesian

I tell Mils that I read Go Ask Alice, the anti-drug book presented as the diary of a young addict, as a kid, but had no idea that there was a wealth of similar tales going back for decades. Drugs, he says, have been popular subject matter since the advent of the paperback. "There has always been that concern of what the kids are doing when they aren't being supervised by responsible adults," he says.

According to Mils, if there were people willing to buy the books, there were companies ready to sell one similar title after the next. That's the nature of exploitation, he says, a genre that can cover anything from drugs to car crashes. Of course, sex is part of that too.

There are stories here that might have been originally purchased in a brown paper bag. Those are tales of illicit affairs that touch on whatever may fancy the reader. There are books for both straight and gay and lesbian audiences. Some of the novels hint at a variety of kinks. "There was a specific section that was kind of adult-only or mature themed," says Mils of the stores who sold these items. "You picked up the book and slide it out of its brown paper sleeve or they were covered up pretty much the same way that a lot of adult oriented material is today."

But, it's more than the subject matter that makes this books interesting. It's the sheer amount of them and the thought of writers pumping out a succession of novels. Mils talks about the writers who became more than names attached to pulp works. He points to the books that became movies, shares anecdotes about the writers who were, essentially, just trying to pay the rent. There's something noble about the books here, about the need to work trumping any desire for critical acclaim or high-brow acceptance. Of course, many of the authors got that later on in their careers, but it doesn't change the simple fact that writing was their job. Some just did it very well. 

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