Pulp Faction

Hard-boiled soft-covers find a home at The Lost Dutchman

At 11:20 a fairly well-dressed booze-hound came staggering out of a bootleg-whiskey joint on Fourth Street. It was a Friday night in mid-July and the humid heat was like a wave of steaming black syrup confronting the boozehound. He walked into it and bounced off and braced himself to make another try. A moment later something hit him on the head and he sagged slowly and arrived on the pavement flat on his face.

--David Goodis, Night Squad

Pulp paperbacks took flight in 1938 with a 2,300-copy printing of The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. Now that same edition could cull up to 10 grand out of some paperback collector. The pulps' popularity soared throughout the late '40s and '50s, appealing to a mass of working-to-middle-class male readers and ex-G.I.s who had picked up a taste for inexpensive portable fiction while in uniform.

The paperbacks' stock-in-trade was an easy-to-spot visual device: hyper-real cover art depicting a world inhabited by sleazeball characters caught in a heady spiral of sex, drugs and violence. The women adorning these covers were curvy, barely dressed and portrayed in either submissive or dominant roles; the men--square-jawed and Yber-masculine--possessed a kind of desperation, be it drug-induced, sexual or criminal.

Titles like Love Hungry Doctor, Peeping Tom, Red Light Babe, Women's Barracks, Hitch-Hike Hussy and Jailbait Jungle sold the paperbacks on the strength of lurid presentation, and these days that same cover art has become trendy trinket fodder, reprinted on everything from refrigerator magnets and calendars, to postcards and candles.

The Lost Dutchman, a 16,000-square-foot homey alcove at Seventh Street and Bethany Home, is a veritable collector's orgasm of pulp paperbacks, comics and other paper collectibles. The front room is home to more than 100,000 antiquated comic books, with titles and covers blanketing the walls and staring down through the undusted air. It gives one the feeling of suspended adolescence, like the world could be just an artist's colorful interpretation of cheery childhood assurance.

In another room, rows and rows, floor to ceiling, of more than 20,000 sought-after soft-covers are categorized in pulpish genres like: JD (Juvenile Delinquent), Hippie, Beatnik, '60's Sleaze, Movie Tie-Ins, Pulp Heroes; long-gone publishing houses like Dell, Lion and Gold Medal; and popular and hot authors.

Spindly stands and glass enclosures offer more soft-cover baubles (pristine Peter Lorre and Greta Garbo cigarette cards) and books, giving off a kind of neon warmth and trashy feel of night. A Jim Thompson first edition of Roughneck bides its time next to a Mickey Spillane, a James Cain and a Jack Kerouac. One senses these guys aren't dead, they're just collecting dust in central Phoenix on some shelf belonging to a guy named Blake Shira.

Shira is an amiable Phoenix native with an at-ease nature that is as unsettling as it is comforting; he goes beyond the duty of book salesperson and into American pop-culture history teacher with slight provocation.

He is also living proof that obsessions lead to careers. He now owns the Valley's foremost paperback resale store. Shira got into collecting comics in '67, and 10 years later he discovered vintage paperbacks. And now his obsession is our gain.

"I was in a thrift store over in Maryvale," he says, "and I pulled out this one that had this Ku Klux Klan bondage whipping cover, it's called Campus Town. I've got one of 'em at home, I don't have one here. And that was it."

Original pulp paperback stories--most of the plots were less than serviceable--were very un-Hollywood and had plenty of nods to taboo subject matter like racism, Oedipal leanings, heroin addiction, juvenile delinquency, homosexuality, incest, strippers, fallen women, white trash and bondage. Scores of the protagonists were sociopathic, and many of the endings were downright downers. The genre flourished because radio, television and the media in general couldn't go near themes such as the aforementioned, and the Hollywood movie machine, though artful at times, was still a rather unsullied art form.

At first, the pulp paperbacks were merely reprints of previously released hardcovers by established authors. Small upstart imprints later began to realize that publishing original stories direct to softcover was the ticket, and the birth of a new style of contemporary fiction was born.

Though an abundance of the writers were decidedly two-bit hacks, spurting up what some academics at the time called "vulgar," some were brilliant. Hard-boiled stylists like Jim Thompson, Mickey Spillane, David Goodis, Charles Willeford, Harry Whittington and others had a literary bent to their twists of the human condition. Their reconstructive and rhythmic storytelling came armed with a sense of wit, a poetic turn of phrase and an empathy; in the end, the good writing held out. Hence, their collectibility.

Beats were no strangers to the pulp netherworld either. William Burroughs' opus Junkie--under the pseudonym William Lee--first appeared as a pulp softcover on Ace books in 1953 as a "double," backed with Narcotic Agent for a cost of 35 cents. A first-edition copy in good condition of Junkie would now fetch $750.

Pulp paperback collecting started out as a nostalgia-driven underground movement motivated not only by the style and tone of its writers but by the heavily camped cover art as well. In 1980, the first paperback price guide was published, listing many of the then-forgotten authors--some long dead--categorized by publisher and offering estimated values of each according to condition.

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