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.