15 Ways of Buying a Book, Part 1

A few weeks ago I reminisced about Growing Up with Books, the books in my childhood house provided by my parents for us children, or that they had kept from their own childhood. (My parents were not readers themselves, as adults, but they were conscientious about providing books for their children.) Now I’ll reflect on how I acquired books of my own, beginning around age 10, and the many ways the methodology of acquiring books (and magazines) changed over subsequent years and decades.

Way #1:

The first books of my own, that I bought with my own money and at my own selection, were purchased through a classroom Scholastic Books catalog, in the 6th grade, that is, in 1966-1967. My family lived in Reseda, California, and I attended Vanalden Elementary School, a few blocks from our home. The school was a set of bungalows, separate structures holding two classrooms each, raised off the ground with a crawl-space below and a short set of steps up to the classroom door. A few times a year, pamphlet catalogs were passed out to all the students, listing a selection of titles and prices. We would take the catalogs home, consult with our parents, then return order forms to class with appropriate payment. The books cost 35 or 50 cents each. They were typically special Scholastic editions, short little paperbacks the size of old Ace Doubles, or larger thinner paperbacks for nonfiction. Everyone’s orders would be consolidated into a single order for the classroom, mailed in, and three or four weeks later, a big box would arrive in class and the selections eagerly distributed. (You can imagine: the box would have three copies of this book; five of these; one of this…)

Always being rather obsessive about keeping lists, I have maintained detailed purchase (and reading) records since I was 15 years old (on sheets of paper, later copied to logbooks, later copied to databases), and at some point reconstructed such lists from before that age. So I know exactly which books I bought when.

The three I remember from this 6th grade classroom source, and still have, are Martin Gardner’s Science Puzzlers, Isaac Asimov’s Environments Out There, and Howard Pease’ Mystery at Thunderbolt House. The Gardner likely reflected my interest in puzzles from that Things to Make and Things to Do volume I’ve described in that earlier post; the Asimov, a thin book about the solar system, from my recently discovered interest in astronomy. (My first interest in astronomy was seeing a stack of textbooks, called A Dipper Full of Stars, in a cabinet in my 6th grade classroom, and asking to borrow one. I’ve alluded to this in previous posts.)

I don’t know what attracted me to the Pease, but it became an enduring favorite, a novel I still reread every decade or so, a nominally YA mystery novel about San Francisco, book collecting, and the 1906 earthquake. What’s not to like?

There were a couple others: a thin YA science fiction novel, called The Forgotten Door, by Alexander Key, a story about a mysterious boy who falls to Earth from another dimension. And more significantly, a Bantam paperback edition of Fantastic Voyage, Isaac Asimov’s novelization of the film. (This wasn’t a special Scholastic edition, but the actual Bantam edition, though specially printed without a price.) I suppose I chose that for the Asimov connection (to his astronomical book), since I hadn’t read any of his fiction before, or indeed any proper SF novel before, not counting Alexander Key.

Yet the Asimov was a curious choice because I hadn’t seen the movie. Why would I pick a book based on a movie I hadn’t seen, instead of whatever independent titles may have been available? Just because it was by an author I already knew, I think. Ironically the next few SF books I acquired – that is, among the very first SF books I acquired – also had some kind of TV or film connection. I say ironically, not just because they were sometimes books based on shows I hadn’t seen, but because I quickly moved to strictly literary books by numerous prominent SF authors, and never developed a taste for tie-in books of any kind, i.e. novelizations or spin-off books set in the Star Trek or any other universe. (The sole exception was that I followed all the James Blish Star Trek collections until their end, but that was principally because, at that time, there was no other way to capture documentation of the Trek episodes, which I was obsessed with for several years in my teens and early 20s.)

(Aside: how did I buy anything with my own money? Because I got an ‘allowance’, a weekly payment from my father for doing chores around the house, mowing the lawn, setting the dinner table, taking out the trash. I don’t remember what it was — 50 cents a week, perhaps, at first, gradually increasing to the heady sum of $1 a week?)

Way #2:

In seventh grade, 1967-1968, now at a Junior High School (Sequoia, in Reseda), the process was different. This time the school held a ‘book fair’ once or twice a semester, in the school gymnasium, which doubled as a cafeteria, with tables that folded into the walls. For the book fair the tables would be pulled down, and stacks of paperbacks would be set out, and students allowed in to browse. We would make our selections and pay for them on the spot, no need to wait weeks for an order to be filled. I bought at least three books at one such fair – the first Star Trek collection, by James Blish; The Time Tunnel, by Murray Leinster; and Flying Saucers—Serious Business, by Frank Edwards. These were actual publishers’ editions, not specially printed, and cost from $.50 to $.75.

By this time Star Trek must have been on a year, and was into its second season. Since I had never been to any bookstore, I was unaware of this book by Blish until seeing it at this fair. What I have is not the first printing, but the 5th printing, of a book originally released in January 1967, which must have been eight or nine months before. It was the first of a dozen collections of adaptations of Star Trek scripts into short stories, and as far as I know was unprecedented, in that other books related to TV series were ‘ties’ or ‘tie-ins’, that is, original stories written in the context of the series, but not directly adapted from scripts. These include the Murray Leinster Time Tunnel novel that (again) I think I bought before ever seeing the series, and a Lost in Space novel from the same period that I didn’t look at until much later (and never did read). Blish, then a serious writer in his own right for a couple decades already, was never given much credit for his Star Trek adaptations, which everyone assumed were written simply for the money, yet which I came to appreciate as relatively sophisticated in the earliest couple three books. But that’s a subject I’ll take up another time.

I don’t know why I bought a book about flying saucers, but it was the first I read of several on a subject that preoccupied me for a year or two in my middle teenage years, until the protocols of credulity, and Isaac Asimov, set in. Another subject for later.

Way #3

The third phase began with the family move to Illinois, in early 1968, where we initially landed in a small, Bradburyesque town called Cambridge, where both my parents had grown up. (This wasn’t coincidence; my father procured a job near Chicago so he could be near his dying mother, in Cambridge, a two or three hours’ drive west of the city. The family stayed in Cambridge, at my grandfather’s house, until the school year finished out, while my father went ahead to suburban Chicago for his job, and to look for a house.)

I didn’t perceive any resemblance to Bradbury until later; when we arrived in Cambridge I hadn’t read him. Cambridge was a small town, population 2000, that was nevertheless a county seat, and so it had a town square with a white courthouse in the middle, along with picturesque streets lined with family homes and churches, and a town library, full of ancient National Geographics. A railroad cut through town at an angle, and late at night freight trains would chug slowly through, shaking my grandfather’s house at the northwest corner of town, which stood barely 100 feet from the tracks.

Cambridge had (has, I daresay) one shopping street with one market, Wayne’s (where my Uncle Stanley was the butcher), and one drug store, Swan’s, that had a soda fountain counter in the middle. Both stores had wire racks displaying paperbacks, the kind of four-sided racks that spin. Such things I had never seen before. It was at Wayne’s, in April 1968, that I discovered the second Star Trek collection by Blish, and a substantial nonfiction book, The Making of Star Trek, by Stephen Whitfield. I read and reread the latter book obsessively. Also, a couple more books by Frank Edwards, and Arthur C. Clarke’s novel 2001: A Space Odyssey – which again, to carry on the irony, was a novel version of a film I hadn’t seen. (This first edition of Whitfield, September 1968, cost a full $.95.)

Way #4

We settled that summer in Glen Ellyn, a suburb of Chicago near my father’s job. That fall I attended 8th grade at Glen Crest Junior High School. In this school we had ‘home rooms’, which in my case doubled with my English class. Once a month or so a large book cart was wheeled into the room during home room, filled with stacks of paperbacks from which we could browse and purchase. Here I bought my first couple Ray Bradbury books, a couple collections of Twilight Zone stories by Rod Serling (again—a show I hadn’t seen at that time), and a number of other books, nonfiction and plays mostly, whose unifying theme was that they were all Bantam Pathfinder editions, with semi-uniform designs that included a framed front cover layout. (See this post, and scroll down, too see an image of the Bantam Pathfinder edition of Inherit the Wind, that I acquired later, in 1970, as a school text.)

My predilection for Bantam Pathfinder editions was an early indicator of a more general personality quirk of mine—a sort of brand loyalty, or a preference for regularities and known providers—a quirk which, much later in my life, I can’t help but see as an indication of some very mild autistic component in my personality. (I’ll explore this subject later, but later manifestations would include my propensity for compiling lists, including sfadb.com.) I don’t recall if some of those books bought in 8th grade might have been teacher recommendations, by my rather stern 8th grade home room/English teacher, or if I bought so many Bantam Pathfinders because the selection was limited to certain publishers… or more likely, once having a couple, I was attracted to other books with matching formats. Thus: Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, Asimov’s Pebble in the Sky, Forester’s Sink the Bismarck!, Gibson’s play The Miracle Worker, John Hersey’s Hiroshima, the play The Sound of Music, Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember (about the Titanic), two Rod Serling Twilight Zone collections, Steinbeck’s The Pearl, Wibberly’s The Mouse that Roared, Wells’ The Time Machine – all Bantam Pathfinder editions (and all paperbacks that were very slender, compared to anything you would buy today; they all ran $.50 or $.60). My early discovery of Bradbury may be due as much to one of his books being in a Bantam Pathfinder edition, as anything else.

Way #5

Stage five was the discovery of actual bookstores, if quirky bookstores. Our home in Glen Ellyn, a suburb west and well outside of Chicago, was an area of towns and subdivisions interspersed with woods, parks, and undeveloped areas. Just two or three miles east of us, on Butterfield Road, was a shopping mall called Yorktown. (It’s still there: http://www.yorktowncenter.com/.) It wasn’t my first experience of a shopping mall; Topanga Plaza had opened in 1964 a few miles west of our home in Reseda in California, but I have no records of buying any books there. Yorktown had three bookstores: Walden’s, Printer’s Ink, and Yorktown News. The distinguishing, quirky feature of the second and third of those is that they sold only paperbacks. (And perhaps magazines, but I wasn’t paying attention to magazines at that time. Likely they did, and so were in effect, glorified indoor newsstands.) Moreover, Printer’s Ink, upstairs, was arranged *by publisher*, while Yorktown News, downstairs, was arranged by genre. Thus my nascent predilection for particular publishers or imprints was reinforced by Printer’s Ink, where I would check out the Bantam and Ballantine sections first, or exclusively.

At Printer’s Ink I bought Ballantine’s set of 5 books by Arthur C. Clarke, in March 1969—Childhood’s End, Earthlight, Expedition to Earth, Reach for Tomorrow, and Tales from the White Hart—with matching white covers of illustrations of various spacecraft obviously derived from the spaceships in 2001. (The Childhood’s End cover is shown in this post.) My Clarke anchor had been 2001, and my interest in space in general was prominent enough by that time that I’d been given a 1st-edition hardcover copy of his nonfiction book The Promise of Space (probably for Christmas 1968); and so the availability of five of his other books (in matching covers!) was my link to Ballantine. The Clarke books from Ballantine cost a uniform $.75 each.

And at Walden’s, also in March 1969, after having read Dandelion Wine and The Martian Chronicles (the latter in a Bantam, though not Pathfinder, edition), I bought every other Ray Bradbury book I could find at Printer’s Ink and Walden’s: The Golden Apples of the Sun, The Illustrated Man, The Machineries of Joy, A Medicine for Melancholy, R Is for Rocket (this one *was* a Bantam Pathfinder edition), Something Wicked This Way Comes, and anthology Timeless Stories for Today and Tomorrow (the one of these I confess I’ve never completely read, and wonder if it wasn’t ghost-edited). These were all $.60 or $.75 each.

Three months later, in June: Ballantine editions of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and The October Country.

There was a second, more upscale mall, an open-air mall called Oakbrook, farther east than Yorktown, that had one bookstore, which may have been a Brentano’s; it’s long gone. We didn’t visit that mall very often, but I did buy the October 1969 Ballantine first edition of Pohl’s The Age of the Pussyfoot there.

And, meanwhile, via occasional weekend trips to Cambridge, and those wire racks at Wayne’s Super Value: a Ballantine paperback by Robert Silverberg, called Dimension 13; my first Silverberg.

Way #6

Next, the Science Fiction Book Club. I don’t recall how I first heard of it; ads for it were common in the SF magazines, but I hadn’t seen or bought any of the magazines at that time. (Possibly there was an ad for SFBC in Boy’s Life, the boy scouting magazine I got at the time.) I had bought the first Asimov Foundation novel, in an (alien!) Avon edition (but with a cool, geometric cover), and perhaps I was allured by the offer by SFBC of three free books for joining, one of which that I chose was the one-volume edition of Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy.

I also chose Clarke’s 2001, even though I already had a paperback copy, and Fred Hoyle’s October the First is Too Late, likely because another recent gift had been his big 1962 hardcover tome Astronomy.

The way the book club, all book clubs, worked, and perhaps still work, is by approval. SFBC would send you a pamphlet once a month describing their two main selections for the month upcoming. There was a card for you to fill out and return if you didn’t want either or both books; otherwise, they would send you both books. (There were also several alternate selections you could order instead of, or in addition to, the two default main selections.) I’m sure there must have been occasions when I neglected to fill out the card, and so got books I hadn’t necessarily wanted, but at this remove I don’t remember which they might have been. Books I got in the fall of 1969 from SFBC: Asimov’s I, Robot; PKD’s UBIK, Wollheim & Carr’s World Best Science Fiction 1969, Silverberg’s The Time Hoppers. Others, in 1970: Bradbury’s I Sing the Body Electric (then a brand new book, unlike the other Bradbury books I’d bought paperback editions of), Silverberg’s Downward to the Earth, Spinrad’s The Last Hurrah of the Golden Horde, and Edmund Cooper’s Sea Horse in the Sky.

It’s important to understand that the SFBC editions were not the publishers’ editions sold at a discount for being in the club; they were separately printed, cheaply produced editions, on cheaper paper and with lighter hardcover boards, and printed at a uniform size. There was no price printed in the upper corner of the front dust jacket flap, as on a publisher’s first edition, but instead the words “Book Club Edition” in the lower corner of that flap. (You still see club books in used bookstores with that lower corner flap cut off, as if the seller is pretending they are a legitimate first editions.) The cost of a typical book when I joined in August 1969 was $1.49, with some larger books more (e.g. Dangerous Visions, $2.49).

Thus book club editions cost less than the publishers’ first editions (which in those days ran $4.95 or $5.95), but more than paperbacks (still running $.75 or $.95). Also, a book club edition would be available near-simultaneously with the publisher’s first edition, while the eventual paperback reprint of a hardcover wouldn’t be available, typically, for a year. So book club editions were a good compromise of quality, price, and availability, as long as you weren’t so collector-minded to care about having actual first editions (as eventually I came to be).

On the other hand, SFBC offered occasional collector value, in two ways. They would regularly publish omnibus editions of two or three titles, not available in any other edition under one cover (as with Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy); and once in a while they would publish a club hardcover of a book whose first edition was a paperback, so that the only available hardcover was the club edition. (Examples that come to mind are Robert Silverberg’s Downward to the Earth, and several volumes of Wollheim & Carr’s, and later Wollheim’s solo, Year’s Best Science Fiction annual anthologies.) There was a way to tell which club editions were based on paperback originals: the title page of the club edition would say “Nelson Doubleday, Inc.”, whereas a club edition of a title published in hardcover by Doubleday itself would say “Doubleday & Company, Inc.” (because, you see, the SFBC was owned by Doubleday). And once in a while, an example being the Silverberg title just mentioned, the club edition would *precede* the original publisher’s own paperback edition, so that the club edition would be in fact the true first edition.

I kept up membership in the SFBC for well over a decade, long past the point where I had sufficient funds to buy first edition hardcovers, as I began doing in 1973, just for those two collector issues.

Book club prices rose, of course, over the years. From $1.49 in 1969, by 1975 the standard price was $1.98, in 1978 $2.49, in 1982 $3.98. I still have the stack of pamphlets from SFBC, beginning in August 1969, and running through March 1985.

Way #7

Stage seven (which parallels stages five and six, of course) would be the pharmacies and markets where I saw the SF magazines, and started buying them in the Fall of 1970, while still living in Illinois. The first SF magazine issue I bought was the September 1970 issue of Analog. I bought the October issues of both Analog and F&SF the next month. The third major magazine at that time, Galaxy, I started buying with its May/June 1971 issue. Magazine issues in this era were $.60 or $.75 each.

What strikes me about discovering these magazines is that they were for sale in drug stores (pharmacies), markets, and perhaps liquor stores that had newsracks, but I don’t recall seeing them or buying them in those Yorktown mall bookstores. The venues were thus separate for those two types of publications: the book shops for books, the stores with newsracks for the magazines.

The one drug store I recall in particular was a Jewel, in a shopping center at Roosevelt Rd and Park Blvd, north of us in Glen Ellyn proper. I was 15 years old, not yet driving, riding a school bus to school on weekdays; and so to visit any of these bookstores or drug stores, I’d have to arrange to accompany my mother on her weekend errands. (The family had just one car, which my father of course drove to work on weekdays, so my mother did all the grocery shopping and other errands on weekends.)

This stage lasted only six or eight months, because early in the summer of 1971, the family moved back to California.

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