The world of vintage collectibles

Second take

The world of vintage collectibles

I heard from our Bangalore secondhand book dealers that, until recently, even old, tattered copies of Sudden paperbacks were going for as much as five hundred rupees!

Until Hachette India brought out a box set of Oliver Stranger’s Sudden series earlier this year, no other paperback title had been in such high demand in the secondhand book trade circles here. Our sidewalks were once full of hawkers selling old paperbacks.

Occasionally I’d stop, bargain, and buy one or two at ten or twenty rupees each. Today, there are fewer pavement booksellers and they now mostly flog new paperbacks, pirated bestsellers or contemporary thrillers. The paperbacks I found once upon a time here are called ‘vintage’ in the book trade. And some vintage paperbacks are collectibles.

Unfortunately, most of us didn’t know that then. In not buying as many as we could when we had the chance (and not carefully preserving them) we lost several opportunities to own scarce and collectible vintage paperbacks. What treasures we ignored, overlooked, and even threw away!

Elsewhere they are fanatically collected, with collectors falling over each other when they see a pile for sale. They have book fairs and conventions for pulp fiction, bookstores devoted only to vintage pulp, and price guides that tell you what each title is worth in the market. Flipping through price guides that reprint pictures of these paperbacks with their cover art, I recognised with shock many titles as being part of what I frequently and commonly used to come across on our sidewalks some 20 years ago. The average price for each title in the guide was listed at $30, with many rarer titles going up to $300! To think that we were buying them here for small change!

I recall coming across Tarzan paperbacks often. They are among the most collected, along with the science fiction that Edgar Rice Burroughs penned. I remember also a lot of Edgar Wallace, The Saint series, Ellery Queen, Dashiel Hammet, Raymond Chandler, Perry Mason, and a host of Western writers and series like Louis L’Amour and the Sudden books. The James Hadley Chases, of which there were plenty, are really not collectibles. Even the names of the publishers have stuck in my mind: Pocket Books, Dell, Avon, Fawcett Crest, Corgi, and numerous others. The first three, Pocket, Dell and Avon are regarded as more collectible than the others.

Here’s the key thing about why vintage paperbacks are collected: for their cover art. Not to be read — although the collector is welcome to read them — but it’s the cover art that one is really after. The work of the graphic artists on these vintage covers was often superior to the writing inside. The paperback would be trashy or mediocre but its cover art redeemed it and made it special. Vintage paperback covers were done by artists trained classically as painters.

Many of these cover artists went on to become giants in the art of illustration, and often paired off with a writer to do a whole series. Some of the best known were Robert McGuinness and his deadly femme fatales in the Carter Brown mysteries, Frank Frazetta and his bizarre covers for the Conan the Barbarian series by Robert E Howard, and the busty women of Bill Ward and James Avati’s steamy paintings. Avati is also famous for his cover art for the paperback of Catcher in the Rye showing a young boy with a suitcase, red cap worn back and a scarlet scarf around his neck. Holden Caulfield, if you remember, ‘horses around’ by wearing the cap backwards. Avati, unlike many illustrators, actually read the books before he designed the cover. 
Vintage paperbacks from 1939 to 1969 are what are specifically collected. Many of the classic hardboiled writers got their first start in paperbacks and pulp magazines like Black Mask. Jim Thompson is a classic example. The first mass market paperbacks were issued by Pocket Books in 1939. One year earlier in 1938, there had been a Pocket Books edition of The Good Earth — though not pulp, it became the first printed paperback. Later, in the UK, Allen Lane was to revolutionise reading by publishing affordable paperbacks of literary writers though the establishment of Penguin Books.

The first book to use the term ‘science fiction’ in the title was also a vintage paperback. An anthology called The Pocket Book of Science Fiction, it was edited by Donald A Wollheim (Pocket Book no 214)  in 1943. Needless to say, this is a huge collectible item, and anyone finding a copy of this edition will have struck collector’s gold. In India, vintage paperbacks are a completely ignored form of popular culture. There’s a better tradition of collecting comics here. A few exception include artists such as Mustajab Ahmed Siddiqui, known to readers as Shelle. His cover art famously adorned the kind of Hindi paperbacks you glimpse in railway station bookstalls. He began as an art teacher who was paid Rs 25 for a cover, and is now paid thousands. He uses a mixed style of oils and collage.

Typically, his cover was replete with guns surrounded by heroes, villains, heroines and vamps. Shelle is one of the last of the pulp cover painters, as paperbacks lose to Hindi serials in popularity. Apparently, since 1971, he has worked on as many as 4,000 book covers — a figure that will rival even the prolific output of legendary American vintage paperback cover artists.

The genius of vintage paperbacks is that the cover artist created these small masterpieces without intending greatness — much in the same way that some of the best pulp writers wrote without any self conscious design.

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