Rack Job

Note the price: sixty cents! (1965)

The only bookstore I ever had was the paperback rack at the drugstore.

Larry McMurtry

I’ve never known what level my brow is. To use the standard definitions, I’ve been all three, and remain a sort of tossed salad. There’s lowbrow, relating to or suitable for a person with little taste or intellectual interest. There’s highbrow, related to things that are sophisticated, elite or high culture. And perhaps worst of all is middlebrow: easily accessible art and literature, and the people who use the arts to acquire culture and social prestige.

Bingo! Filled the card!

The only hardcover books that ever came into our home were a) the World Book Encyclopedia of 1963, b) my school books, and c) the Readers’ Digest Condensed Books, one bound edition containing anywhere from four to six mildly abridged full novels, released four times a year. (THERE’s a self-publishing idea…)

My house was filled with books, though, like the Avon paperbacks shown above. They were tiny books: an Etsy listing for one of these (Avon S216) shows it as 4.25″ x 7″, half an inch thick, at 224 pages. That thickness was only due to the crap paper they printed on (hence “pulp” fiction), but really, for sixty cents, you could have a full novel that would fit in your back pocket.

I love that. I love everything about it. I love that it was cheap. I love that it was small. I love that it was unobtrusive. I love that there weren’t author photos, or the words “A Novel” on the front. I love that they fell apart, that they weren’t precious, that no one thought of them as collectibles.

I don’t have many left myself. But they were real books, anywhere from 60,000 to 80,000 words, with small text and small margins and single spacing. One of the reasons modern books cost more is that the text is more generous, the spacing more open, the typefaces carefully chosen. The graphic arts departments are doing more beautiful, elegant covers, the page layout designs are equally elegant, and the marketing group is busy harvesting reviews and blurbs and commendations. By contrast, the pulp guys didn’t pay anybody much in the production world, and the “marketing department” was a loose array of rack jobbers, wholesalers who paid a small amount to put wire racks of paperbacks and comics and eight-tracks and greeting cards into drugstores and neighborhood groceries.

The rack jobbers were in a symbiotic relationship with their host stores: they paid for space and inventory, and usually a small percentage of sales; they bore all the risk of shoplifting and wear; and they kept whatever they sold after that. They’d drop by once or twice a month, see what had sold, and re-fill the racks with either high-demand or new titles. I love that too. The word “job” is derived from gob, or a pile of work. So a jobber is a merchant who sells piles of work, always with a ruthless eye toward what is and isn’t selling.

And let’s be honest. That’s what the highbrows do, too.

It’s a dirty story of a dirty man, and his clinging wife doesn’t understand
His son is working for the Daily Mail
It’s a steady job, but he wants to be a paperback writer