The potency of cheap paperback covers

Back in my bright college days, when Old York Books was still on Church Street in downtown New Brunswick, I spotted a set of Raymond Chandler paperbacks in the display window that instantly sent me into gotta-have chandler-11mode. Not that I hadn’t read Chandler before — though The Little Sister and The High Window were gaps I immediately filled in — but because the covers were so striking. Not only were they menacing in a vaguely surrealistic way, but they didn’t go for the obvious tommy guns-and-fedoras art that usually accompanies Chandler titles.

The artist in question was Tom Adams, one of the best-known cover artists of his time, and the Chandler titles were part of a 1971 edition put out by Ballantine Books, which in the late Sixties and early Seventies was making some of the classiest-looking paperbacks ever seen in bookstores. The Chandler set has stayed with me over the years, simply because the covers look so damned cool.

As it turned out, choosing Adams for the Raymond Chandler series was simply a continuation of the genre work that had made him famous. chandler-3Adams, founder of Adams Design Associates, started out doing large-scale murals for corporate clients, then moved into book cover design in the Sixties. He made an immediate sensation with his designs for John Fowles’ novels The Magus, The Collector and The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and his paperback covers for various Agatha Christie titles. The Christie titles showcase his penchant for placing background and foreground objects in close proximity, creating a dreamlike atmosphere even though the details are intensely realistic. When he opened his Fulham Gallery in 1967, Adams became a bona fide fixture of Swinging London, and he went on to design light shows for the Jimi Hendrix Experience and The Soft Machine. Lou Reed, a fan of Adams’ work for the Christie editions, commissioned him for the cover art on his first U.K. release.

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3 thoughts on “The potency of cheap paperback covers

  1. le0pard13 says:

    Wonderful post on the work of Tom Adams, Steve. Never knew anything about him, till now. But unbeknownst to me, I had seen his work. I vividly remember the art on The French Lieutenant’s Woman and that striking Ghost Story cover.

  2. Pam says:

    Old York Books! Great place. I was there regularly in my Rutgers days 1971-75. I went to Bloomsday celebrations there – but I can’t recall the owners – or the dog’s – names.

    • etchopkins says:

      re “… can’t name the owners”…
      Old York Books, founder(-s) John Socia, in garage/basement of his home on Old York Road, shop at 62 Easton Ave., New Brunswick, rented and furbished by May Socia, his wife,
      opened 1965 (as John remembered) or before (as May thought). Customer since 1970, current owner etc Hopkins non-manages NJ shop from NH (on the internet, via ABE and alibris,
      any year now) since 1999, shop has e-mail address.
      Bloomsday observances – when possible – ongoing in New Brunswick [Christ Church Episcopal] at least every June 16th (last 2008).
      Steve Hart well remembered. Good journalist – and they are becoming as rare as “generalist” bookshops.

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