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Pulp Faction

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.

Some collectors try to amass anything by a certain author, or its publisher imprint, and others collect by virtue of the pulp's excessively salacious, sexist or racist blurbs, titles and cover art.

"They've gotta be Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Willeford, Hammet and Chandler," says Shira, when asked to name the current most collectible hard-boiled paperback authors.

"I think a lot of people come into this [collecting] through the Hammets and Chandlers and then they discover the Thompsons and Goodises. And they find out the Thompsons and Goodises are kind of unavailable. And they start hearing about the Willefords. And the Willefords are not all in print or all available either. Then they start hearing of all the others."

Shira gets some of his inventory from local thrift stores, estate sales and yard sales, but most of it comes from trading and buying from collectors on the Internet. Through Lost Dutchman's Web site and online bidding sites, Shira says more than half of his business is now done via the Internet, a bit different then when he opened shop in '89.

Is this an all-consuming thing for him?
"Yeah, this is what I do. It's not like some phase I'm going through or anything. You know. I have actively been buying and selling and trading books as a livelihood for 20 years without doing anything else. But I got into the buy/sell/trade aspect when I was 13 years old. Because to me that's the action."

Are most collectors in it for the thrill of the hunt?
"Early on I had to separate myself from the inventory because there was no way I could afford to just collect if I was going to try to make a living doing that. It is all about the thrill of the hunt."

What about all the refrigerator magnets, calendars and postcards emblazoned with pulp covers that seem to trivialize the era; does that bother him?

"It's a good thing. A refrigerator magnet isn't enough though. You have to feel it, hold it and smell it; turn it over, look at the back cover, leaf through all the pages. Look inside and see if there is any cryptic little notes put in there, matchbook covers from 1947 used as bookmarks. You know, it's the whole thing and there is no other way you can get that from some magnet."

Do big corporate stores like Barnes & Noble--a company that is predatory to mom-and-pop bookstores around the country--piss him off?

"What does piss me off is when Barnes & Noble says in their slogan, 'If we don't have it, nobody does.' I would say 90 percent of my inventory, they don't have. The reason for my existence is to have an alternative inventory. An inventory that is an alternative to the coffee-house bookstore type thing."

How would he sum up the hard-boiled genre?
"I think it was Fredric Brown who won a contest for the shortest mystery story ever written. I think it goes something like this: 'The last man in the world sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door.' That's the whole story.


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