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.