May 3, 2009

Paperback Nostalgia


Not too long ago, my friend John was reading an old horror novel he’d picked up in the eighties. Back in the late seventies and early eighties, in an effort to cash in on the insane popularity of Stephen King, there was an explosion in new horror titles. They were everywhere—sometimes it felt like horror and romance novels were the only things being released.

            I remember those days well.

            There were a few things you could always count on with these horror novels. With very few exceptions (Peter Straub, Dean Koontz and the like), they were inevitably released as mass market paperbacks. You don’t see many mass market paperbacks around these days, I don’t know why that is. Trade paperbacks became the norm, but mass markets were just so darn convenient—you could slip them right in your pocket!

            Another given, as John pointed out, was that these books always had the best covers. A lot of them had textured covers, with raised letters or pictures. Most of them used foil in the design somehow. And I always found the art work deeply (if vaguely) disturbing. Lots of broken baby dolls, lots of people without eyes. And the covers—also inevitably—were much, much better than the books themselves.

            The final given about those horror novels was that they could most easily be found in free standing paperback carousels.

            There was a time when you could count on finding a paperback carousel near the checkout of every drug store and supermarket in the country. You never saw people buying paperbacks at the grocery store, but the carousels were always there. They were always full, and there were never any duplicates. If you could fit four books in one of the wire pockets, you’d find four different titles (and the best ones were always hidden in the back).

            John’s nostalgia for paperback carousels triggered my own—which made it all the stranger that just two days later, another friend named John would post a little piece online that also dealt with paperback carousel nostalgia. He was talking about the fifties and sixties, and how a copy of Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums plucked from a drugstore carousel changed his life.

            My own formative encounters with a paperback carousel took place in the mid-seventies. Whenever my mom took me to the drugstore or supermarket, she knew enough to just park me next to the revolving tower of books while she got what she needed. But there was one carousel in particular that snagged me. The Snyder Drugs on Webster Avenue in Green Bay kept their carousel next to the comic book carousel, which was in turn next to the magazine rack. It reached the point where I no longer needed my mom to be running errands—I’d walk up there myself on summer afternoons just to check out the paperbacks. Hang out there for hours at a time. Sometimes I’d save up my allowance and buy a copy of something—Sink the Bismarck and From Outer Space are two titles I remember picking up there.

            Mostly, though, I just stood there and read.

            My parents were very happy that I read a lot, and were happy to provide me with almost any book I wanted. Almost.

            There were two books they would not allow into the house. The first was Helter Skelter, and the second was Jaws.

            Even at age nine, I was familiar enough with the Manson case to become a little obsessed. I wanted to know all I could about it, and at the time Helter Skelter was considered the definitive sourcebook. Best of all, it had crime scene pictures (even if the bodies were whited out). For some reason, though, my parents found this interest in the case unhealthy. Books with war atrocity photos were fine, but somehow hippies with knives were just too over the top.

            The problem with Jaws was that my mom was convinced that apart from the obvious violence, it would also be full of dirty parts (her euphemism for these was “beach scenes”—something I never heard anyone else use before or since). She hadn’t read it, but when you have a naked girl right there on the cover, well, you can draw a few conclusions.

            In the end, while there were a few sex scenes in Jaws, they were pretty disappointing, at least when compared with some of the novels I had in my room.

            As with everything else in life, an attempt to forbid or ban something accomplishes nothing other than an increased desire to obtain the banned object. Being told that I couldn’t bring the books into the house became only a minor setback. At first I considered buying the books and stashing them at a friend’s house. But then there might be some question of the whereabouts of my allowance.

            Instead, I simply began reading them at the drugstore. Every day I’d make the twenty minute walk up the hill, across the field, through the playground and down the street to Snyder’s. Then I’d stand there next to the carousel for an hour or so, where I would read one chapter of either Jaws or Helter Skelter. Then I would put the book back in its wire pocket and walk home, only to return the next day.

            No employee ever said anything to me, and no one ever stopped to look at the other paperbacks. That nobody else seemed interested in the books was especially good news, as it meant that I didn’t have to worry about anyone actually buying the books while I was trying to read them.

            Yes, it was a good summer, full of gore and violence and cursing and clunky sex.

            When I was in my twenties, long after the statute of limitations on my parents’ ban had expired, I finally picked up new copies of both Helter Skelter and Jaws, and both books are still currently on my shelf.

            Until recently, I could still find paperback carousels in my neighborhood. Whenever I encountered one, I always stopped to check out the offerings. There was a thrift store not far away that kept one out on the sidewalk, and it was always well-stocked with used mass markets for fifty cents apiece. Found some real gems in there. Pulp novels, novelizations, and long out of print titles worth much more than what was being asked. But one day the carousel was gone, and the thrift store soon followed.

            The last one I ever saw was in my old regular grocery store just a block away. It was a new-fangled fancy plastic design and was stocked exclusively with diet books and popular thrillers, neither of which interested me. It didn’t matter—I always stopped and looked, in the hope that I might find something worthwhile.

            I never did, but I was still saddened when the grocery store closed down a few years ago, taking the last paperback carousel with it.


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