Adventures in vintage drug paperbacks

Early this summer, a friend gave me a framed poster she found at a garage sale. It’s an uncut sheet featuring six rows of 36 vintage paperback covers from a box set of cards. At first, the books seemed to be random pulp fiction titles but then, it dawned on me, they were all about drugs: Marijuana Girl by N.R. de Mexico, The Pusher by Ed McBain, Black Opium by Claude Farrere and Acid Party by Anthony Yewker, to name a few. 

I got it in my head to try to find these vintage books, realizing some might be beyond my budget because I recognized #17 on the poster, Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict by William Lee. Lee is a pseudonym for William Burroughs, author of Naked Lunch and famous Beat Generation drug addict. The first edition price of this 1953 confessional paperback tends to head north of $1,000. It’s Burroughs’ first book.

Undaunted and unknowing of what I might be getting into with this decision to acquire the books, I headed to Pulpfest 2011 in Columbus to see what I could find among the 36. As is typical of most book shows, dealers are in a large room with their books spread over tables and in display cases. For the first-timer to any show, it can be overwhelming. All I could see upon entering the room was a sea of paperbacks on and under tables and in boxes. Also, I realized, to ferret out my books, I would have to ask, “Does someone here deal with books on drugs?” It sounded comical and naïve.

I approached the booth for Hooked On Books where the owners Wayne, a retired reference librarian, and Deb, a retired CPA, took a look at my list and began educating me about which ones were hard to find (expensive) and easy to find (less expensive) and also, which ones were pornography (ok, good to know).  Then I talked with Scott Edwards of Dearly Departed Books in Alliance, Ohio, because displayed on his table was a beautiful copy of #16 on my poster, Marihuana by William Irish. Scott explained why the book was the narrative size of a short story — it was sold in 1941, along with other similar-sized books, in vending machines for 10 cents.  William Irish, I learned, is a pseudonym for noir crime novelist Cornell Woolrich. The Alfred Hitchcock movie “Rear Window” is based on Woolrich’s short story “It Had to Be Murder.”

The vending machines explained the stories I found by such classic authors as William Somerset Maugham in those small-sized, 10-cent books. As written on the back of Maugham’s 64-page paperback The Beachcomber: “Now for the first time you get famous stories by famous authors that first appeared in higher-priced books or publications, attractively produced in a pocket-sized book at a price of 10 cents each.”

Authors listed thereafter on this Dell paperback under current and forthcoming titles include Wallace Stegner, Pearl S. Buck, Edna Ferber, John O’Hara and Fannie Hurst. BTW, the original title of Maugham’s 1931 short story is “The Vessel of Wrath.” It became a movie under “The Beachcomber” title.

I came away from Pulpfest much wiser and with an affordable purchase for my poster collection — I Made My Bed published in 1958, written by Celia Hye. It happens to be the first book of the 36 on my poster and has all the dramatic blurbs written on it that you could want of this vintage literary art form: “A blazing novel of delinquency — intimately … frankly … shockingly revealed by a teenage addict.” To balance the tawdriness, I’ll add that I also came away with not only the classic Maugham (above left) but also a 1965 first printing Ballantine paperback of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, which, on the back, has a blurb by the aforementioned William Burroughs.

5 thoughts on “Adventures in vintage drug paperbacks

  1. Hmmm…..getting a book buying “fix” with vintage paperbacks that have a drug theme…..gotta love it!


  2. I want vending machines with books! Our country would be the better for it!!! Let’s start a business! Book vending machines in all the schools, rec centers, churches, offices, etc. We’d be healthier and smarter, all at the same time!


  3. I can’t believe I missed you at Pulpfest. I was there buying Doc Savage paperbacks. OK, not as noir as drug culture books, but fun nonetheless. If I could only find Doc’s “Fortress of Solitude” maybe I could finally read all the books I seem to accumulate. Book vending machines would not help me at all. ATMs are bad enough!!
    Good luck finding Junkie.


  4. It would have been great to comb through the paperbacks with you. Next year we’ll have to coordinate our timing. BTW, while I was chatting with one of the vendors, a man standing beside me said, “Why don’t you just give them your list and they can just send you all the books on it?” I looked at him like he was crazy — what fun would that be?? Clearly, he doesn’t get the joy of the search! And, you know, you’re right about book vending machines. That’s all we need, eh? One more stop for a book fix and this one 24 x 7 with immediate gratification.


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