Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Lynn Munroe: The bare•bones interview

by Peter Enfantino

John Scoleri and I have known Lynn Munroe for years as one of the regular dealers at Tom Lesser's annual Paperback Collector's Show in Mission Hills, CA every Spring. Lynn always has an amazing selection of incredibly rare books and magazines, and walking by his table is always a treat. You'll find rare Donald Westlakes (Lynn was incredibly gracious last year and gifted me with a copy of Westlake's uber-scarce Comfort Station (Signet, 1973), a parody of Arthur Hailey's novel, Hotel, published under the psuedonym of J. Morgan Cunningham. One of the "holy grails" of contemporary paperback collecting, it now holds a very special place on my bookshelf. When I decided to do a "sleaze week" at bare•bones, the first man I thought of was Lynn. As bad as that sounds, it's actually a compliment. I don't think there are many other dealers who know so much about the softcore paperback than Lynn Munroe. The following interview backs up my assumption pretty well, I think.

PE: When did you first become a rare book dealer?

LM: I come from a family of readers. There have always been book scouts, and in the 1980s I was one of them in Los Angeles. One day I found a first edition, no dust jacket, of The Instant Enemy by Ross Macdonald at a thrift store for $2. I owned a banged-up ex-library copy with a nice looking jacket, so I married that jacket to the thrift store copy. I sold it to a bookstore in Westwood for $25. I was feeling pretty good about the $23 profit, but by chance I happened to stop in at that bookstore a couple days later, and when I walked in they were selling that Instant Enemy for $250. That's when I decided to eliminate the middle man and become a bookseller. I used the book business to underwrite my reading. I'd buy a book, read it, sell it and use the money to buy something else I wanted to read. I did mail order catalogs and book shows. My specialty was hardboiled mystery. I was collecting James M. Cain and read that three of his first editions were paperback originals. I couldn't find them at the local bookstores, but I heard about an annual Paperback Show in Burbank so I went, and I walked in, and I was hooked. I met the guys running the show, Tom Lesser and Paul Payne, and I became a vintage paperback dealer. I started selling books at that show every year, and met other die-hard collectors and dealers.

PE: When did you start getting serious about sleaze novels?

LM: A lot of the mystery writers I liked, such as Lawrence Block and Donald E. Westlake, got their start writing what we now call "vintage sleaze," so I began to chase after those books and that then became a part of what I deal in. There were plenty of mail order mystery booksellers in those pre-internet days, and I wanted to have some way to stand out from the pack, so I created catalogs from a collector's viewpoint instead of a general store viewpoint. I would take one subject and do a whole catalog on just that. For example, one of my early catalogs was on Lion Books. But after the success of early catalogs on Westlake and James M. Cain, I started to concentrate more and more on individual authors with each checklist. I would attempt to collect as much as I could find by that list's subject, showcase the different editions of their books, and create a bibliography. My college major was History, not teaching history but library research. I never used that training in my day job, but I used it every day as a bibliographer. My catalogs were a success, but printing and mailing costs were prohibitive. When the internet boomed, 98% of the mail order book dealers went online. The other 2% went out of business.

PE: You uncovered quite a few mysteries in your time, How do you do it?

LM: It was a combination of luck, applying my college training to the book research, and knowing who to talk to. It is a collaborative effort. When I started there were a number of men already doing that kind of detective work. One of the greatest is a University librarian named Victor Berch. He was a tremendous help to me and many others, and he showed me how to obtain copyright records from the Library of Congress.

PE: Would other collectors tip you off?

LM: I got many tips and names to look for from other book dealers interested in the same thing. I was just the guy who wrote everything down, but I couldn't have done it without a network of help. Collectors provided a wealth of information too, not just dealers.

PE: How did you recognize an author's work?

LM: Concentrating on one author at a time allowed me to become familiar with each author's sense of style. We began to look for clues. A group of us began to notice in-jokes and clues in Lawrence Block's pen name books as Andrew Shaw (he was contracted to provide a book each month), so we assumed Block was the author. We quickly learned that he was instructing his ghost writers to put the jokes into their manuscripts too, to amuse his buddies. Publishers and agents have always used ghost writers, but Block, Westlake & company enlisted friends to write their pseudonym books for the monthly quota. Since these were friendly ghosts and not strangers, I suggested calling them "Caspers," but that idea did not stick. So yes, usually I was tipped off.

PE: You made a lot of these discoveries long before the internet. Has that made it too easy to discover who's really who?

LM: The internet has changed us into a global community. It's faster and easier to share information and theories now. It's not too easy, just more fun.

PE: Did you contact the various authors once you discovered their pseudonyms?

LM: If the author was deceased, I tried to contact family members. So when I did the Clyde Allison checklist (now available online), I talked to his wife. When they were still living, I would try to get their side of the story.

PE: Did they welcome you with open arms and give all the information freely or was there a sense that you were visiting a place they didn't want you to go?

LM: Most of them were reluctant to talk about that era, just like a movie star not wanting to talk about some softcore porn movie they made when they were young and starving. There were exceptions—Robert Silverberg would always answer every question. Don Westlake surprised me with his open candor. Some, like Hal Dresner, would begrudgingly answer up to a point. Lawrence Block was initially closed about it, he has changed over the years and is now reprinting the best of his early work under his real name. John Jakes refused to reply. I sent him a box of J.X. Williams books and I never saw them again. Jack Pearl refused to talk about it, then he passed away and his widow refused to talk about it. There are different levels of refusal to discuss pseudonyms—Dean Koontz will have his lawyers threaten to sue you. Evan Hunter denied everything. I asked him if he was Dean Hudson and he got this look on his face and said, "Never heard of him." Then I asked him if he was John Abbott and he got the exact same look on his face and said, "Never heard of him" completely the same way. This was back in the early 90s, before John Abbott was added to his long list of pen names.

PE: As a dealer, how is it, with ebay and abebooks, that you are still able to find new stock?

LM: eBay and abe have only widened the places to find stock. When I started out a book might be scarce locally and available somewhere else, but we might never know about it. The internet made it immediately available anywhere.

PE: Are there really pockets of premium books still out there waiting to be found?

LM: Those pockets of undiscovered stock grow smaller each year. Those of us who still look have hope that there are still books out there somewhere. But they are definitely few and far between.

PE: Can you give us a snapshot, a sense of what paperback fandom was like in the "old days" of the 70s and 80s when there were only a few of you guys out there and had to travel from show to show or depend on a mail order catalog for business?

LM: It was more of a hobby then, less a business. Each region had a at least one guy who hit all the local used bookshops. The paperback shows were a great place to see rare books, and meet other people who shared your obsessions. In those days there were printed fanzines, and lots of mail order dealers, and many more little independent old bookstores than there are today. It was fun, but it was more about collecting, and in that way not too different from other collectors who do shows and meet for whatever their hobby might be—stamps, Star Trek, or whatever. Perhaps the biggest difference is that there were countless bookstores selling vintage paperbacks then, often for pennies. That part of it has disappeared.

PE: Can the market be sustained? I don't get the sense that new collectors of this kind of material are entering the market at the saem rate they're leaving (RIP).

LM: I remember hearing the theory that we were all old men and it was going to die out in the early 90s. It's been twenty years now and vintage paperback collecting is still happening.

But indications are you're right, it will inevitably, eventually die away as the collectors do. It appears to be true that there aren't that many new collectors joining up. Part of this is built into the lifespan of the era that started with the first Pocket Book in 1939 and the men and women who collected those books. But another part of it is much broader, related to sweeping changes in society itself. We have watched record albums and then record stores disappear. We are watching printed newspapers disappear. And slowly now, printed books are beginning to diminish. The ebooks are on the threshold of announcing their one billionth reader. So I don't think they are printing as many paperbacks today that people will want to collect in the years ahead. Hard Case Crime is an exception, although the last rumor I heard about them was they were looking for a new publishing company because the old one wasn't going to be doing printed books anymore.

PE: So the collectible books of today are the landfill of tomorrow?

LM: I don't think the vintage books that manage to survive will end up in a landfill. There are libraries that appreciate their worth, and there will always be a band of reader/collectors who will cherish the very idea of books, like the people we meet at the end of Fahrenheit 451 and The Book of Eli. I believe the books will continue to circulate after you and I are gone, and vintage paperbacks and vintage sleaze books are one chapter of that story.

I mentioned Earl Kemp's e-zine eI in my column yesterday, but I should reiterate its glory. You will lose yourself for hours in Earl's world. Lynn Munroe has had several pieces "published" on eI. His groundbreaking look at Ed McBain/Evan Hunter as Dean Hudson is here.

And here is Lynn's website. His catalogs are something to behold. Tons of fascinating information about collectible paperbacks and their authors.

Tomorrow: In the third part of our look at the world of sleaze paperbacks, Lynn Monroe gives you 20 titles you may not have heard of but might want to read.


Walker Martin said...

Great interview and I'm looking forward to more. Lynn Munroe mentions that back in the 1970's and 1980's there were second hand used bookstores that would sell vintage paperbacks for pennies. That's is certainly what I found out in NJ. I had a job that kept me on the road and I would always check out the used bookstores for paperbacks.

I know it's hard to believe but back then there were not alot of vintage paperback collectors. I remember more than once finding a store where I bought every vintage pb for a dime each, and the owners were so happy to get rid of them. They also looked at me like I was crazy because no one had ever shown any interest in the stuff.

For 30 years I looked for vintage paperback racks which you used to see in stores crammed full of pbs. Finally a few years ago I found 6 of them in Chicago. Tom Lesser took one and I bought the other five.

However, except for key titles, I've seen a big drop in prices for Gold Medal, Dell, Signet, etc(I'm talking East Coast). I think we are way past the paperback boom, if there ever was such a thing.

Anonymous said...

Marvellously entertaining read, the era came vividly alive, thank you.

bobby J. said...

Marvellously entertaining read, the era came vividly alive, thank you.