Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Selling Pulps and Other Collectibles in Today's Economy

I've been trying to get back into the habit of looking on eBay for various things I collect, like old soda bottles, antique linens, and things that strike my domesticated fancy. I used to check on pulp fiction magazines to see how many are for sale and how much they are going for. Then I got out of the habit when I got out of the market. But I decided to check the other day for what was going on in the pulp fiction magazine world. And I about "dropped a chop," as my friend Timna says.

I couldn't believe how many are for sale, and some good titles. Pages and pages and pages. The prices range - most start at about $9.99. But there is very active bidding going on. I checked on a Top Notch from 1929 that sold last night. The winning bid was over $100. I only saw one Wild West Weekly, which makes me wonder if now might be a good time to put up for auction all of the extras that I've been meaning to sell.

So maybe because of the economy, people are starting to sell their collections. But then, people are buying them too, which means that at least the economy in the pulp world is thriving. On that point, here's an article on how more people are trying to sell their collectibles but are finding that the market has sunk, just like everything else. I could have told them that a year and a half ago when I got out of the used and rare book business.

Back to pulp mags on eBay. I've been trying to rein in the spending, so I don't know how much I'm going to indulge and buy any. But chances are I'll weaken at some point and buy one. I know I've got some money stashed in my PayPal account....

Check it out, if you're interested in buying pulps. Run a search on "pulp magazines". Do yourself a favor and avoid running a search just on "pulp fiction," because then you'll get all of the paraphanelia from the movie Pulp Fiction, and probably a lot of listings for lesbian paperbacks from the 1950s. Unless you want to check those out. To each his (or her!) own.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Presidents (and a Gangster) and the Pulps

Sooner or later, if you're reading any history on pulp fiction magazines you'll come across someone mentioning famous people who read pulp stories. Included are always a U.S. President or two. It's pretty well known that Dwight D. Eisenhower was a big pulp Western fan. But I didn't know of any others until recently.

I was recently reading The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope, by Jonathan Alter. I have not finished it for reasons I won't go into in this post. But something struck my fancy at the beginning of one of the chapters entitled "The Brain Trust." Alter writes:

"The origins of the 'Brain Trust' lie, strangely enough, in dime-store detective novels. In 1928, before becoming governor, Roosevelt was appointed to the National Crime Commission. His staff person, the one who did the actual work, was once again Louis Howe. Both men liked to read detective stories (later, as president, Roosevelt even launched a writing contest for a detective magazine)."

I've asked many people, including my online group full of experts, which magazine Roosevelt liked to read and no one seems to know. FDR was a hobbyist, we all know, who loved to build model ships, collect stamps, and even wrote some fiction. He was a man of many interests. In fact, he showed up on the cover of Hobbyist Magazine here.But whether he loved to read something like Detective Story is still a mystery. I love the idea of FDR sneaking a copy of Black Mask into his White House bedroom at night and reading it under the covers, like so many youngsters did during the Depression.

One of the pulp magazine experts did tell me that Harry Truman was a diehard Adventure fan. In the book Dear Bess, which is a compilation of letters Truman wrote to his wife, Truman mentions Adventure often and with great affection. Walker Martin wrote me and gave me the following info:

"The magazine was evidently a favorite and Truman mentions it for the first time in 1911 and it is still mentioned 30 years later in 1941. In one 1911 letter he says "Adventure is the only magazine printed on cheap paper that I can read." In 1912 he mentions how his mother got scared reading a story in the magazine. In another letter he complains about serials in ADVENTURE and how he hates waiting 30 days for the next installment.

In 1913 Truman relates "I bought an Adventure last night and entertained myself with bloodcurdling stories on the train so I'd feel nice and comfortable..." More than once he mentions how a story in another magazine was good enough to appear in ADVENTURE.

Truman's love for the magazine only backs up the editors often mentioned fact that ADVENTURE was read by a wide spectrum of professional people including doctors, businessmen, lawyers, and government workers. Not to mention military men and typical tropical tramps (or as Adventure termed them TTT)."

Thanks, Walker, for the info.

During all these posts, the reading habits of Al Capone came up. I had heard somewhere along the road that Capone loved to read gangster pulps. And there is the oft-told story, apparently true, of the banning of gangster pulp magazines from cities like Chicago in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The story goes this way: city leaders had grown concerned over the plethora of gangster pulps and the glorification of the criminal lifestyle that they portrayed, and subsequently they banned the sale of gangster pulps at stores in their jurisdiction. Shopkeepers, afraid to offend Capone by not selling pulps that featured him and his exploits, continued to sell the pulps - under the counter.

But now I find out that apparently Capone didn't read Gangster Stories. He read Westerns.

Of course, it's important to know that all of this is hearsay. Unless there's someone out there who can testify that he or she personally saw Al Capone read Western Story. But something tells me that Scarface wasn't a Western Story fan. He sounds more like a .44 Western or Ace-High reader. Texas Rangers? Doubtful. Or...maybe he read Wild West Weekly! Maybe he loved Sonny Tabor! I wonder what my grandfather would have thought about that.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Changes on Charing Cross Road

Here's a great article in the Guardian about the changes that Charing Cross Road has gone through due to the closures of bookshops and the encroachment of other neighborhoods. It comes with two interactive maps: one depicting the location of stores on Charing Cross roughly 40 years ago (the map doesn't say exactly what year they are depicting) and one depicting today. If you click on the colored boxes, you'll get great historical photos. You could buy books by the pound back then. Note: don't click your Back button to get back to the map, because it'll send you all the way back to the very beginning; click on the Return arrow at the bottom of the photo. It takes a little time to load, too.

I love the movie 84 Charing Cross Road. It's a combination of the things I cherish: bookstores, history, England, Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins. When I first learned about the movie and the book it was based on (by Helene Hanff), I was amazed that they were able to make an interesting movie about nothing but correspondence between two people. (The book, by the way, is nothing but the letters, nothing else. No narration at all). Of course, the book and movie are so much more. If you're a lover of independent bookstores, you know what I'm talking about.

My grandfather worked in a few bookstores in the Oakland and Berkeley area in the 1950s and 1960s. The last one that I know of was on Telegraph, almost directly across from Moe's Books. This is a photo of Mary, Grandpa's wife, at what may be that store. It's now (or at least a few years ago, the last time I was there) a kind of 'bath and body' soap store. Grandpa would probably roll over in his grave knowing that his beloved books - covering such robust and gritty subjects as Westerns, American History, politics, and authors such as Jack London - have been replaced by rejuvinating shower gel and salt scrub.

Getting back to bookstores in England, there was some discussion recently in one of my online groups about how bookstores in England don't have some of the amenities that the chain stores here in the U.S. have: namely the big soft chairs, the built-in coffee shops and the opportunity to just buy a latte and sit in one of those huge pillowy chairs and fall asleep (pretending to be reading a book that you're going to buy, of course). Apparently they don't have that in England and some of the online members were lamenting over it. Don't get me wrong, I think the idea of having the chairs and Starbucks in the stores is a good thing -- if it keeps people coming to bookstores and staying in them. But personally, I'd rather have an independent store where I can buy a book and then be able to wander down the block to a local cafe or coffee shop where I can read my newly purchased guilty pleasure. Maybe the bookstores on Charing Cross should install coffee machines and/or tea kettles and a few wingback chairs. It's no guarantee that it will rejuvinate their business, but it couldn't hurt. I'm being facetious, of course - we all know it's not as easy as all that. I hear that amazon.com had an amazing quarter last year, and I'm not surprised.

Special thanks to Andrew Porter for the tip on the Charing Cross article.