Sunday, November 13, 2011

Genuine Counterfeit Confederate Currency

It was the early days of the Civil War, March 1862. The public on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, naturally enough, was hungry for any news about this upstart, self-proclaimed Confederate States of America. It seemed that they were actually serious, having elected a Congress and President, written a constitution, adopting a flag. They’d even started printing money!

The Philadelphia Inquirer, one of the major newspapers of the day, was able to get its hands on one of the new bills that had made its way though the lines, and it printed an image of the new currency. This in itself was a rather big deal since newspapers didn’t usually contain images of any kind. You’d find them in the big weeklies out of New York—Leslie’s Illustrated and Harper’s Weekly—but the daily papers as a rule didn’t carry illustrations. Each image had to be painstakingly engraved and that was a big deal since it took both time and money (actual photographs wouldn’t begin to appear in daily papers for another 60 years or so).

So when the image of this new Confederate currency hit the streets it was a bit of a sensation from several points of view. That edition sold out almost immediately.

All this came to the notice of one of Philadelphia’s merchants/entrepreneurs. Samuel Curtis Upham (February 2, 1819-June 29, 1885) owned and ran a successful shop on Chestnut Street, selling stationery and toiletries. He produced and sold his own patent medicines (“Upham’s Pimple Banisher”) for example. And he was doing well with patriotic envelopes, too. Each of these would carry a political cartoon that would ridicule Jefferson Davis or some facet of these new Confederate States, or would be emblazoned with eagles and shields, or the likeness of Columbia.

The story about the new money got him to thinking. So he paid a call upon the editorial offices of the Inquirer and purchased the plates used to print the image of the new currency.

And he went into the counterfeiting business.

He didn’t call his paper counterfeit, of course. Counterfeiting was illegal. He added a line to the bottom of the notes: “Fac-similie (sic) Confederate Notes Sold, Wholesale and Retail. By S.C. Upham, 403 Chestnut Street, Phila.” The first batch was of a $5 note, and these were sold for a penny each. They were to be viewed as novelties; something fun. “Mementos of the Rebellion” is how Upham referred to them in his advertisements in the New York Tribune and Harper’s Weekly.

Other entrepreneurs got in on the fun. By simply clipping off the “fac-similie” bit, Upham’s notes were virtually indistinguishable from the real thing. Cotton speculators started passing them as real. And they were being accepted in the South.

Upham was onto something. He expanded his offerings to include other denominations and eventually Confederate postage stamps. By the end of the war, he had printed nearly $15-million in fake Confederate currency (equal to about 3% of the entire CSA money supply).

He produced a quality product. In fact, many of his notes were better than the authentic ones. His paper was better. And he had access to engravers more highly skilled than the ones employed by the Confederacy. There are stories of how Southrons, when confronted with both legitimate and counterfeit bills would accept the counterfeits just because they looked more real than the genuine articles.

This came to the attention of officials in Richmond. Secretary of the Treasury Christopher Memminger wrote to Vice President Alexander Stephens, in August 1862, of the growing number of counterfeit bills in circulation and “the fact that they are publicly advertised for sale at the North proves the connivance at least, and probably the complicity, of the Government.” President Jefferson Davis apparently shared this view.

In fact, there is no hard evidence to suggest that the Federal government in Washington had anything to do with the scheme. It seems that this was entirely one more example of Yankee ingenuity’s working to make a buck…as it were. Of course it must be allowed that there are ample anecdotal accounts of Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase, winking at the entire enterprise.

The great Congress of the Confederacy was not amused, and passed a law imposing a sentence of death upon convicted counterfeiters. Upham claimed that same Congress put a price of $10,000 on his head, dead or alive. After the war, he bragged "During the publication of those facsimile notes I was the 'best abused man' in the Union. Senator Foote, in a speech before the rebel Congress, at Richmond, in 1862, said I had done more to injure the Confederate cause than General McClellan and his army..."

Other printers in the North, seeing Upham’s success, also started issuing “fac-similies.” The increased supply, coupled with the collapsing Confederate economy, pretty much killed the business. The price that could be commanded for the notes fell through the floor, and there just wasn’t the demand any longer.

Now we fast-forward 150 years…to this past Friday morning, to be exact. A gentleman walked into my shop, looking to sell two pieces of what he claimed to be Confederate currency. Holding the notes in my hand, something didn’t seem quite right. I am far, far from an expert on such matters, but my “Spidey-sense” was tingling here.

At first blush, they appeared right. They "felt" old, and didn't appear to be modern reproductions. But. They were printed on very good paper; better stock than I had seen before with Confederate money. Next, the engraving was highly detailed and of a better quality than on other pieces I had had. And finally, when examined under a magnifying glass, it appeared that the signatures had been printed, rather than hand-signed (as was the practice at the time). Ditto, the serial numbers. These just weren't passing my initial smell test.

Out of curiosity, I asked how he had gotten them and he told me a story about getting them earlier in the week “from some guy in a bar.” Obviously not a lot of provenance there.

With his permission, I held onto the bills to do a little research. After a couple of hours poking around various websites, I had an answer. It turns out that these were Upham bills. Genuine counterfeit Confederate currency.

They are worthless in terms of legal tender, of course. But that was never Mr. Upham's stated intent. He was looking to produce “mementos of the Rebellion.” And as such, they hold up rather nicely.

To collectors they actually have just a little more value than authentic Confederate currency.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Heros among us.

He had a life. He had a wife. Most of that is gone now. But, by God, he still has that piece of shrapnel.

The call came late last week: an estate here in York. The gentleman was getting ready to downsize his housekeeping. He thought it was about time. He is 91 now; his bride of 63 years passed in January. The house is much more than he needs; he’s planning on an assisted living facility. Would I be interested in his books, and perhaps some of his stuff? The appointment was made, and I turned up on time and ready to go yesterday morning.

Some books in the living room; more in the attic.

I followed him up the stairs. It was hard watching him. He has a leg brace these days and he’s obviously lost a step or two from his prime.

When we got to the attic, he mentioned that he had a locker of clothing. I wasn’t too interested, but I took a look to be polite.

It wasn’t just clothing. It was full of uniforms. His uniforms. From World War II. He had been of the 4th Marine Division.

The 4th Marines took Roi-Namur, Saipan, Tinian and Iwo Jima. By the end of the war, they had also taken an almost incredible number of casualties: 2,774 killed in action; 524 died of wounds sustained in battle; 14,424 wounded. This out of a peak strength of 19,709. Do the math; that's a 89.5% casualty rate. These were some of the guys who won World War II.

He was one of the guys who won World War II.

He landed on Iwo Jima in the third wave. That island, one of the bloodiest in the Pacific, was little more than a big pile of volcanic ash. You’d sink up to your boot laces with each step. The tanks were bogged down on the “beach” because even their treads couldn’t negotiate the stuff. It was hard slogging. The Japanese were dug in and cut off, so they had nothing to lose and everything to gain by dying for their Emperor.

The locker contained several uniforms, including his dress blues. There were belts and ties. His ribbons. Cover (that’s Marine lingo for “hats”) of several descriptions. And several boxes of papers and mementos. Everything was in pristine condition. Those uniforms had been dry cleaned before being carefully put away. If you didn’t know better, you’d think that these pieces of history could have been issued to a raw recruit yesterday.

In one envelope was a notice of his promotion to Staff Sergeant, along with his discharge papers.

“I’ll just throw that out,” he said.

“No sir,” I replied. “I don’t think so.”

One box contained souvenirs: a piece of a downed Japanese Zero, Japanese currency and coins, captured books and personal effects (photographs, a toothbrush, postcards from the Japanese homeland). A banner of the Japanese Marines.

I took it all.

Later, after the car had been loaded, we sat over a cup of coffee in his kitchen and he told me stories.

One of the worst parts of the battle, he said, came each evening just at sundown. The Japanese would shell the 4th Marines with antipersonnel bombs. These were nasty things that were primed to explode right over your head and spit shrapnel--jagged pieces of metal,glowing red hot, and moving faster than the eye could follow. If you happened to get in the way and were hit you in the wrong place, you’d be dead instantly.

The guys in his outfit would dig a shallow hole in the ash, jump in and cover it over with just a piece of canvas for protection. You couldn’t dig too deep because if you did you wouldn't be able to breathe with the sulfur coming up out of the ground.

On this one particular night, a shell burst overhead. It killed a man standing next to his hole. But our guy managed to get under what passed for cover in time. Even so, shrapnel pierced his canvas and hit him in the foot. It didn’t pierce his boot, but it left one hell of a bruise.

“I kept that piece of shrapnel as a souvenir; kind of a good luck piece,” he told me. “It was about the size of a half-dollar. I wish I knew whatever became of it.”

When I returned to the shop late in the day, I began to explore the various pieces and to paw through the boxes. More papers; more photographs. More artifacts.

And, in the last box, a piece of shrapnel.

I called him this morning. He hasn’t yet left for his new home. I made another appointment to visit him again tonight.

He had a life. He had a wife. Most of that is gone now. But tonight, by God, he will have that shrapnel.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The York Book and Paper Fair

The Spring ’11 York Book and Paper Fair takes place next weekend and I’m looking forward to poking around a bit. I always seem to find interesting things there.

Our book fair here in York started in the fall of 1984, and has been running continually—twice each year—since then. That makes this the 55th edition. It also makes it one of the longest running book fairs in this part of the country.

Now, it isn’t the largest fair, to the sure. Nor is it star-studded, with lots of big name authors and special presentations from publishers. We don’t have the First Lady involved, like they do in Washington, DC. We don’t give out awards for best novels or for lifetime achievements. There are no roped-off areas or V.I.P. passes required to get into the “special” rooms.

(Although, to be candid, we did try to get Nora Roberts to attend since she doesn’t live too far away. After a number of invites, her people got back to us and told us that Ms. Roberts was aware of our little fair and really liked the idea of it and, if she were ever going to do one, ours would be the one she would do. But. She’s never going to do another one. So that makes us THE Number One Thing That Nora Roberts Is Never Going To Do. And that’s a distinction of sorts, I guess. But, I digress…)

We don’t go in for all that highfalutin celebrity and off-limits stuff here. All that is fine in its place, of course. If they want to do that in New York we invite them to go right ahead. But this isn’t the place; this isn’t New York. This is York. And this is the YORK Book and Paper Fair. It is just us, doing what we like to do: books.

We like to talk about them. We like to discover new authors or forgotten works by favorite authors. We like to sift through the older tomes, admiring bindings and layouts and typographic styles. We like to compare editions and dust jackets. We like the ephemera; the colors and the artwork.

We like to rub shoulders with other bibliophiles as we walk the aisles. We want to see what they’re reading, and we want to admire the treasures they’ve discovered this day; to share their enthusiasm for a new quest. And, frankly, we want to brag and show off a bit with the things we’ve managed to uncover.

We like to talk to the dealers, since they’re the ones who really know. What are they seeing at other fairs? What are the trends? What news from the front lines of the book world? (Not the hype and PR and stuff we get in the papers and online journals, but the real story.) Are e-books really taking over? Will there still be room for us luddites, who prefer reading paper to electrons?

And…what have you got hidden under the table? Anything special for me?

And we like the haggling. (“Well, on a good day and in the right place, that book probably is worth $75. But I’ve got fifty dollars cash money in my hand right now…”)

But most of all, we like the books. We like walking into the dealer display rooms and just standing there for a minute looking around at all the dealers, all the displays. The colors; the embossings; the foxings.

The books! All the books! Hundreds…thousands of them! Some are old friends. Some are new and unknown to us; perhaps destined to be new friends.

And every one of them, it seems, is calling to us.

Leather-bound, from the 18th and 19th centuries. Signed, 1st editions (“Really? Richard Nixon?”). Vintage paperbacks (“How many ways could they show a naked woman without really showing a naked woman?”). Pulp magazines with first appearances of a favorite author’s short stories (“That one’s got H.P. Lovecraft in it!”). Collected works. Obscure works (“Tarzan and the Ant Men! With a dust jacket!”). Limited editions. Spoken word (“Jack Kerouac doing a live reading?”).

Is that a real Steinbeck autograph? Did Erle Stanley Gardner really write that letter? That Jimmi Hendrix record, the first-pressing from Germany, is still in the shrink-wrap! Did you see that neat, old set of bookends down there…must be from the 50s!

Yeah…this is the York Book and Paper Fair. I’ve got my coupon. I can’t wait!

There are a couple of tables that I am looking forward to looking under.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

A Flappers' Dictionary

Hidden deep within a box of materials that came into the shop this week was a short stack of old magazines. I’d never seen this title before, but I knew what it was just as soon as I saw it: Flapper. “Not for Old Fogies” said the masthead, but I took a look anyway. These were in beautiful condition (“Near Mint” is the technical term) and were just a lot of fun to page through.

During the Roaring 20s of the last century, young ladies took on a new, and for the time radical, lifestyle. These were the years following World War I and prior to The Great Depression. It was the jazz age and the ladies were taking full advantage in daring new ways. Illegal bootleg hooch was all the rage, with hide-away flasks an important fashion accessory. Smoking cigarettes became a statement of liberation. Hemlines were going up and, according to some, morals were going down.

It was all a reaction to what women perceived as stifling control placed over them by the male of the species. This magazine catered to the movement.

The July 1922 edition of Flapper contained “A Flappers’ Dictionary.” According to the uncredited author, “A Flapper is one with a jitney body and a limousine mind. The Shifter is a new species who flaunts as his banner, “Something for nothing and then very little.”

“The flapper movement is not a craze, but something that will stay,” the author maintained. “Many of the phrases now employed by members of this order will eventually find a way into common usage and be accepted as good English.”

The dictionary went into some detail, listing the group’s slang and providing definitions. In the process, it also provided an insight: through the slang we can begin to discern attitudes and priorities and the mindset of the adherents. And the adherents, after all, were our grandmothers and great-grandmothers. Who knew?

My P,LSB*, ready and eager to join the movement, was amused by the term “Father Time” and couldn’t help but notice that it applied to one of us at the dinner table. And that was fine, until I pointed out that “Rock of Ages” might also have a present application.

So, whether you be airedale or biscuit, put down your dincher and pretend your munitions are fine for the moment. The whangdoodle is on in the background and you’re more weed than crepe hanger. This ain’t static; this is pure Di Mi. So pay attention; we don't want no klucks. And you may be edisoned later.

Absent Treatment—Dancing with a bashful partner.

Airedale—A homely man.

Alarm Clock—Chaperone.

Anchor—Box of flowers.

Apple Knocker—A hick; a hay-shaker.

Apple Sauce--Flattery; bunk.

Barlow—A girl, a flapper, a chicken.

Bank’s Closed—No petting allowed; no kisses.


Bee’s Knees—See “Cat’s Pajamas”

Bell Polisher—A young man addicted to lingering in vestibules at 1 a.m.

Bean Picker—One who patches up trouble and picks up spilled beans.

Berry Patch—A man’s particular interest in a girl.


Biscuit—A pettable flapper.

Big Timer—(n. masc.)—A charmer able to convince his sweetie that a jollier thing would be to get a snack in an armchair lunchroom; a romantic.

Billboard—Flashy man or woman.

Blushing Violet—A publicity hound.

Blouse—To go.

Blow—Wild party.

Blaah—No good.

Boob Tickler—Girl who entertains father’s out-of-town customers.

Brush Ape—Anyone from the sticks; a country Jake.

Brooksy—Classy dresser

Bust—A man who makes his living in the prize ring, a pugilist.

Bun Duster—See “Cake Eater”.

Bush Hounds—Rustics and others outside of the Flapper pale.

Cancelled Stamp—A wallflower.

Cake Basket—A limousine.

Cake Eater—See “Crumb Gobbler”

Cat’s Particulars—The acme of perfection; anything that’s good

Cat’s Pajamas—Anything that’s good

Cellar Smeller—A young man who always turns up where liquor is to be had without cost.

Clothesline—One who tells neighborhood secrets.

Corn Shredder—Young man who dances on a girl’s feet.

Crepe Hanger—Reformer.

Crumb Gobbler—Slightly sissy tea hound.

Crasher—Anyone who comes to parties uninvited.

Crashing Party—Party where several young men in a group go uninvited.

Cuddle Cootie—Young man who takes a girl for a ride on a bus, gas wagon or automobile.

Cuddler—One who likes petting.

Dapper—A flapper’s father.

Dewdropper—Young man who does not work, and sleeps all day.

Dincher—A half-smoked cigarette.

Dingle Dangler—One who insists on telephoning.

Dipe Ducat—A subway ticket.

Dimbox—A taxicab.

Di Mi—Goodness.


Dog Kennels—Pair of shoes.

Dropping the Pilot—Getting a divorce.

Dumbdora—Stupid girl.

Duck’s Quack—The best thing ever.

Ducky—General term of approbation.


Dudding Up—Dressing.

Dumbbell-Wall flower with little brains.

Dumkuff—General term for being “nutty” or “batty”.

Edisoned—Being asked a lot of questions.

Egg Harbor—Free dance.

Embalmer—A bootlegger.

Eye Opener—A marriage.

Father Time—Any man over 30 years of age.

Face Stretcher—Old maid who tries to look younger.

Feathers—Light conversation.

Fire Extinguisher—A chaperone.

Finale Hopper—Young man who arrives after everything is paid for.

Fire Alarm—Divorced woman.

Fire Bell—Married woman.


Flat Shoes—Fight between a Flapper and her Goof

Fluky—Funny, odd, peculiar; different.

Flatwheeler—Slat shy of money; takes girls to free affairs.

Floorflusher—Inveterate dance hound.

Flour Lover—Girl who powders too freely.

Forty-Niner—Man who is prospecting for a rich wife.

Frog’s Eyebrows—Nice, fine.

Gander—Process of duding up.

Green Glorious—Money and checks.

Gimlet—A chronic bore.

Given the Air—When a girl or fellow is thrown down on a date.

Give Your Knee—Cheek-to-cheek or toe-to-toe dancing.

Goofy—To be in love with, or attracted to. Example: “I’m goofy about Jack.”

Goat’s Whiskers—See “Cat’s Particulars”


Grummy—In the dumps, shades or blue.

Grubber—One who always borrows cigarettes.

Handcuff—Engagement ring.

Hen Coop—A beauty parlor.

His Blue Serge—His sweetheart.

Highjohn—Young man friend; sweetie, cutey, highboy.


Houdini—To be on time for a date.

Horse Prancer—See “Corn Shredder”.

Hush Money—Allowance from father.

Jane—A girl who meets you on the stoop.

Johnnie Walker—Guy who never hires a cab.

Kitten’s Ankles—See “Cat’s Particulars”.

Kluck—Dumb, but happy.


Lallygagger—A young man addicted to attempts at hallway spooning.

Lens Louise—A person given to monopolizing conversation.

Lemon Squeezer—An elevator.

Low Lid—The opposite of highbrow.

Mad Money—Carfare home if she has a fight with her escort.


Monkey’s Eyebrows—See “Cat’s Particulars”.

Monog—A young person of either sex who is goofy about only one person at a time.

Monologist—Young man who hates to talk about himself.

Mustard Plaster—Unwelcome guy who sticks around.

Munitions—Face powder and rouge.

Mug—To osculate or kiss.

Necker—A petter who puts her arms around a boy’s neck.

Noodle Juice—Tea.


Nut Cracker—Policeman’s nightstick.

Obituary Notice—Dunning letter.

Oilcan—An imposter.

Orchid—Anything that is expensive.

Out on Parole—A person who has been divorced.

Petting Pantry—Movie.

Petting Party—A party devoted to hugging.

Petter—A loveable person; one who enjoys to caress.

Pillow Case—Young man who is full of feathers.

Police Dog—Young man to whom one is engaged.

Potato—A young man shy of brains.

Ritzy Burg—Not classy.


Rock of Ages—Any woman over 30 years of age.

Rug Hopper—Young man who never takes a girl out. A parlor hound.

Sap—A Flapper term for floorflusher.

Scandal—A short term for Scandal Walk.

Scandaler—A dance floor fullback. The interior of a dreadnaught hat, Piccadilly shoes with open plumbing, size 13.

Seetie—Anybody a flapper hates.

Sharpshooter—One who spends much and dances well.

Shifter—Another species of flapper.

Show Case—Rich man’s wife with jewels.

Sip—Flapper term for female Hopper.

Slat—See “Highjohn”; “Goof”.

Slimp—Cheapskate or “one way guy”.

Smith Brothers—Guys who never cough up.

Smoke Eater—A girl cigarette user.

Smooth—Guy who does not keep his word.

Snake—To call a victim with vampire arms.

Snuggleup—A man fond of petting and petting parties.

Sod Buster—An undertaker.


Stander—Victim of a female grafter.

Static—Conversations that mean nothing.

Strike Breaker—A young woman who goes with her friend’s “Steady” while there is a coolness.

Swan—Glide gracefully.

Tomato—A young woman shy of brains.

Trotzky (sic)—Old lady with a moustache and chin whiskers.

Umbrella—young man any girl can borrow for the evening.

Urban Set—Her new gown.

Walk In—Young man who goes to a party without being invited.

Weasel—Girl stealer.

Weed—Flapper who takes risks.

Weeping Willow—See “Crepe Hanger”

Whangdoodle—Jazz-band music.

Whiskbroom—Any man who wears whiskers.

Wind Sucker—Any person given to boasting.

Wurp—Killjoy or drawback.

*P,LSB = Poor, Long-Suffering Bride

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Tijuana Bibles

One guy I know found a stack of them, when he was cleaning out his father’s estate, locked up in a case with the hunting rifles. They’ve also been known to inhabit old, nondescript cardboard boxes behind the oil cans on the top shelf in the back of the garage. Or in a far, dusty corner of the attic under a stack of grandpa’s high school papers or hidden between the pages of his text books.

They were naughty. They were graphic and gloriously unsophisticated. And they certainly weren’t subtle; nothing was left to the imagination.

They were the “Tijuana Bibles.” Dirty…really dirty…little comic books, often featuring movie stars (The Marx Brothers, WC Fields, Greta Garbo, William Powell, Cary Grant) or characters from the daily comic strips (Moon Mullins, Mutt & Jeff, Mickey Mouse, Blondie and Dagwood) and placing them in, shall we say, compromising positions and mouthing dialog that would make a sailor proud. If clothing was depicted, pants would be around the ankles and dresses would be flapping in the breeze.

The subject was sex. And we’re not talking about sly innuendo here. The Kama Sutra would have been a good guide for the artists.

They were totally unauthorized of course. Copyrights and good taste were violated left and right. And there was nothing about them that was remotely legal.

Sometimes called “8 pagers”, each was roughly 4” wide by 3” high, with a single staple near the left spine holding it all together. They contained crudely drawn black and white line art, printed (often poorly) one panel per page, on cheap white paper. The covers were heavier weight, colored paper, usually displaying an illustration and suggestive title.

The art wasn’t very good. The spelling was atrocious. The printing was haphazard; nothing was quite square and the ink coverage was spotty. But none of that mattered since these weren’t the kind of publications you’d use as decorating pieces on the living room coffee table. If you were interested in reading one, you could figure out what was going on.

The jokes (more along the lines of wise cracks than fully-developed gags) were pretty lame. And they were chock full of racist stereotypes and now-dated cultural references.

In an earlier day and age, long before there was an internet or even before Playboy took hold, they were about as smutty as it got. They were the stuff of snickering adolescent boys, handed around in the schoolyard or in locker rooms. And they were a pretty big deal in their day.

They were sold under the counter. Or, perhaps, in barber shops and bars. Out of the trunks of cars or from deep pockets near the entrance to a back alley. (“Pssst. Hey buddy, you want some…”) Cost ranged from 25¢ to a buck or two, depending upon what the traffic would bear.

There isn’t a lot of good historical information about them. For obvious reasons, the publishers, artists and writers were anonymous (hiding behind absolutely outrageous monikers like “Payne N. Theass” and “Aiken Forett”) and if careful records were kept (doubtful) no one knows what happened to the data.

So, we don’t know who or how many publishers there were. We’re not exactly sure how many titles were published (somewhere around 800 have been catalogued), nor what the print runs were for each.

The first 8-pagers seem to have appeared sometime in the late 1920s, and they hit their stride in the 30s and 40s. New titles continued to appear during the 50s and even into the early 1960s, but the run was pretty much over by that time.

There is some anecdotal evidence to suggest they were a product of organized crime, compiled as an "after hours" project in otherwise legitimate print shops. It was the Great Depression after all, and anything to keep the printing presses moving…

What we do know is that they were some of the earliest comic books produced for mass distribution.

The first comic books were compilations of previously published material. A group of strips that had already run in the daily papers would be gathered together and published as stand-alone books. The Tijuana Bibles appeared shortly thereafter, and were probably the first examples of original comic material created for publication.

As such, they are worthy of at least a footnote in publishing history. No, they don’t rank with the Gutenberg Bible as a cultural milestone. But they are an important piece of Americana; a snapshot of mid-century gutter sensibilities.

From that point of view at least, they make for interesting reading (although small, measured doses are best). They do provide a glimpse into a different world. All in the name of sociological and historical research, of course.

I happen to have a pile of them in the shop, and I am not quite sure how to market them since I keep them under the counter.

Still, I don’t think they will be hanging around too long. I have a pretty good idea of who my customers are. And I think there may be a few who would be interested.

I may just have to saddle up next to one, over by the coffee pot: “Pssst! Hey, buddy…”

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

When the genie is out of the bottle...

Shortly after having moved to York and assuming operations of The York Emporium, I was back in DC having lunch with an old client. The conversation was taking a variety of paths, as such things do, when we turned to plans for the shop.

He wanted to know if there was a list of some sort that detailed which titles we weren’t allowed to stock.

I was confused by the question. A “list”? “Allowed to stock”?

This gentleman is a very intelligent man. Russian by birth, he had been a member of the Diplomatic Corps of the former Soviet Union. He was now a permanent resident of the United States and was making his way through our society. But he was still looking at books through the prism of a controlled society.

I assured him that there was no such “list”, and that I would stock all manner of titles...pretty much anything I damned well pleased.

He was absolutely incredulous. And I don’t know which of us was more astonished: he, when he learned that, yes, we would stock things like Hitler’s Mein Kampf and The Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung, Mao’s little red book; or me, to think that I would not be “allowed” to have such works on my shelves.

“This is America,” I remember telling him. “We don’t tell each other what we’re allowed to read here.” That was an oversimplification of course, but I was attempting to make a point.

He shook his head in wonder.

Two incidents in recent days have brought this conversation back to mind.

The first is the publication of a new edition of Huckleberry Finn. A nice way of characterizing it would be to call it revised. A not-so-nice way would be to call it sanitized.

NewSouth Books, this month, is publishing this modified edition of the Twain classic. Heavily-charged words (“injun”, “nigger” and “half-breed”), have been eliminated and less-offensive-to-our-eyes words (“Indian”, “slave” and “half-blood”), have been substituted in their place.

Predictably, there has been a furor over this, with charges of censorship and political correctness and a defense of the sanctity of the artist’s original work.

Just as predictably, there has been a defense of the publisher’s rationale: Huckleberry Finn is one of the most heavily banned books by school boards and libraries because it includes these words. If the objectionable words are eliminated, it stands to reason that the book will be more widely read. And that, after all, is the goal.

There are valid points on both sides of the question. And I suspect that strong arguments will be put forward to support the relative positions. But what I find most significant is that we are having the debate at all.

There is no government entity that is telling us that we must, or must not, read Huckleberry Finn in either its original or modified editions. Or that the publisher must, or must not, publish the book in its original form. Or that, as a book peddler, I must, or must not, put the book (in any form) on my shelves.

And to my way of thinking, that is the most important bit.

Which brings me to the second incident that reminded me of my luncheon conversation.

Freedom seems to be breaking out in Africa and the Middle East. Political revolutions, violent and non-violent, have been taking place in Tunisia, Bahrain, Libya, Egypt and Yemen. It is a heady and rather frightening time. People are dying. Governments are falling. Societies are in upheaval. Issues are far from decided as this is being written.

But one result of the changes in Egypt, at least, is particularly significant and, I think, under-reported: books that had been banned by the former regime are back in the shops.

Thousands of titles had been banned from distribution by the Egyptian government under President Hosni Mubarak. But now that government is gone and one of the immediate results is that the books are back.

And they are selling! According to Al Arabiya, Egyptians are flocking to the bookstores in search of titles that were not previously available. Frankly, it makes no difference to me whether the books are good or not, or whether there were justifications for their banning or not. What is important is that they are now available.

The genie is out of the bottle and there is no easy way to coax him back in.

When we make our daily trek to the post office to ship books that had been ordered on-line, we are routinely asked if our packages contain anything hazardous. My standard reply is that the packages contain ideas, and those are often very dangerous. This usually elicits a smile from the clerk (who is probably thinking that I’m some sort of wise guy). But I am dead serious with that reply.

And I am proud to report that we sold two copies of Mein Kampf in the shop last week.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


On the phone she sounded like a nice, older lady. Would we be interested, she wanted to know, in coming and taking a look at a collection of books she had. Seems they belonged to her husband, who was in a nursing home now. They were taking up space and it was time for them to find a new hone.

I told her that of course we’d be happy to take a look. I explained what we typically pay for paperbacks and hard covered books with dust jackets. She said that was fine.

“Just one thing,” she said. “They are erotica.”


As a category, “erotica” covers a lot of ground. And not everyone shares the same definition. I wasn’t at all sure that my definition matched what this nice, grandmotherly-type lady was thinking.

She might be talking about some of the early “girlie” magazines of the 20s and 30s, for example. Those typically had lush cover illustrations showing lots of leg, or ladies in skirts that were split up to here with bust lines that went down to there. I could see how she would call these pulp magazines “erotica.”

Or maybe she was talking about some of those World War II-era pin-up babes. Most of those were fairly tame by today’s standards. Girls in bathing suits lounging by a pool, or dealing with a gust of wind while attempting to change a flat tire while wearing a too-tight outfit and heels. Yank Magazine stuff.

Either of those options would have been fine with me, for both are highly collectible… particularly if they are in good shape.

As I hesitated a second, trying to find a delicate way to frame my next question, and she said, “Playboys.”

Ah. Well. That made it easier, at least.

I explained how the only real value in that title was in the editions dating from the 50s, and maybe the early 60s. You might find something of a little higher value here and there with a special issue, but that generally, I’d only pay, at most, no more than 50¢ per magazine for dates from the mid-60s through the mid- to late-70s, and that, honestly, I wasn’t even interested in any dates later than 1980 or so. Unless, again, it was a special 40th Anniversary issue or something of the kind.

That was fine, she said. They were all boxed and out in the garage. The dates started around 1967 and she was sure there were issues that I’d take. So…sure, I’d visit her and we could made a deal.

Honestly, I felt a little more comfortable now. Playboys. Not horrible. We were both adults, after all. A sly smile, perhaps, and a “boys will be boys” shrug. At least I wasn’t going to have to go into a deep, philosophic discussion of reading habits and censorship and relative levels of depravity and such with someone who was, if not old enough to be my grandmother, then certainly older than my parents. I could do this.

“Three boxes of books, too.”

Not a problem at all. Here, I was thinking Book-of-the-Month Club editions of popular novels; after all, that’s what I usually encounter on missions of this kind. We made the appointment and I went to visit her early in the week.

We went straight to the garage and I confirmed immediately that her definition of erotica and mine were, indeed, different. There were the Playboys, as advertised. Hundreds of them, actually. Pretty much every issue from 1967 through 2005; almost 40 years. And they were pristine. The later years looked like they’d never been out of the plastic mailing sleeves. A few other titles, too, but nothing too outrageous.

But she wasn’t talking about the magazines when she told me of erotica. She was talking about the books. And those didn’t quite fit my idea of erotica. In fact, they were pretty darn close to my idea of straight-out, no-holds-barred (literally) porn.

Mass market paperbacks, with and without pictures. Trade paperbacks, with and (primarily) without text. Hardcover books in dust jackets and plain, brown wrappers. The kind of stuff that, in an earlier day and age, would have drawn jail time if they were sent through the mails.


Publishing restrictions had tightened up quite a bit during the 1960s. The Supreme Court was wrestling with their own definitions of obscenity. “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.” Nebulous lines in the sand regarding local standards. And statements of “redeeming social value.” Obviously, no one wanted to go to jail for publishing this stuff.

Still, there was a market. So titles were presented as pseudo-sociological and pseudo-psychological treatises, and were invariably written by people who could string “M.A.” or “Ph.D.” after their nom de plumes in an attempt to give the material the stamp of respectability. And if it turned out that folks were reviewing the literature with aims other than pure scientific curiosity, well, that certainly was beyond the control of the publishers.

So, Oral Sex and the Law, and The SwappersThe Sexually Aggressive Male, along with others of their ilk, came into general circulation. All were emblazoned with “EDUCATIONAL MATERIAL FOR ADULTS ONLY• Sale to minors prohibited”, or words to that effect, on the covers. Perhaps that was a sop to the censors. Or perhaps that was a bit of added promotion, for those who just didn’t get it. Maybe a little of both.

In any case, I now had three boxes of it. Along with about 15 years of Playboys.

After I had finished loading it all into the car, I returned to the garage to finish the transaction. I wrote out the receipt, thanked her and said all the nice things.

But as I was driving away, it occurred to me that this “erotica” hadn’t necessarily belonged to her husband. I’m not quite sure how I got the idea that at least some of these books were actually hers.

Maybe it was because she winked at me.