Tag Archives: Old York Books

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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Since some of my favorite places in the world are bookstores, particularly used bookstores, over the years I had formed a picture of a used bookstore proprietor as a tweedy, amiable type who was in it for love. Whether it was the proprietor of (long-departed) Old York Books in New Brunswick or current fave the Montclair Book Center (which mixes new and used), the people I knew who ran used bookstores seemed like low key types who just liked being around books and had found a way to make it pay, even if just barely. 

Larry McMurtry, author of The Last Picture Show and my beloved Lonesome Dove, has pretty much abandoned fiction to become an antiquarian bookseller. He writes about his new life, and his life as a reader, in Books: A Memoir. This review from my favorite literary magazine uses McMurtry’s memoir to paint a picture of bookselling red in tooth and claw:

People commonly imagine that “bookmen” are shy, harmless folk, absentminded, with thick glasses, sporting tweeds and smoking briar pipes. Not scouts. Go to any big, well-advertised charity or antiquarian book fair just before it opens. If you wander to the front of the immensely long line—full of people with sturdy L.L. Bean canvas bags and carts of various kinds— you will notice men with lean and hungry looks. In buckskin, they might pass for gunslingers out of McMurtry’s own Lonesome Dove. A few might also be built like fullbacks or rugby players, and probably answer to the name Tiny. These are book scouts, men—and they are virtually all men—who roam the world’s estate sales and church bazaars, thrift stores, antique shops, and auction houses, who check out the books for sale in libraries and even those used as accent pieces in furniture departments. They live by their knowledge and their wits and their persistence. It’s as hardscrabble a life as any in a Texas cowtown.

In many cases, scouts will have traveled hundreds of miles for a big sale and then camped out overnight so as to be among the first people in line. When the doors open, they will run, not walk, to the categories where the high-end collectibles might lurk, to the tables marked “Rare,” “Modern Firsts,” “Art and Photography,” “Vintage.” Being at the front of the line may give them only a few seconds’ advantage, but that’s all a professional often needs. Sometimes, though, things can get tense, or even ugly. I once saw a serious fistfight break out over the Olympia Press first edition of Lolita.

At my last yard sale, I became acquainted with this breed of book-pest:

Nowadays at fairs, you see fewer of the old-style scouts, the men with the steel-trap memories for a rare modern high spot, who can tell you—as McMurtry can—that the true first printing of The Sun Also Rises has the word “stoppped,” with that extra p, on page 81, line 26. Instead, you will now notice amateurs and hobbyists typing titles or scanning ISBN numbers into little hand-held computers. Within seconds, they know what any particular book is selling for on the Internet. If it’s underpriced, they buy it for resale. Many of them actually don’t know or care anything about the books themselves. Who needs connoisseurship, who needs the experience of handling and studying and remembering details about thousands of books? Instead of the risk-taking world of scouting, so full of raffish glamor and romance, we now have data-entry.

Doesn’t sound much like 84 Charing Cross Road, now, does it?

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