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.