During my high school years, my father, an aerospace engineer, traveled frequently, often to the Space Center in Huntsville, Alabama. He enjoyed reading science fiction and science fantasy, and he would buy a few paperbacks before each trip to read on the plane. One day, while I was perusing his small but growing collection of these books, a small Ace title caught my eye. It was one of the Venus stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs, with wonderful cover art by Roy Krenkel, Jr. As often happens, it was this cover art that drew me in, and I read it at a sitting. More Venus novels followed, along with the Pellucidar and John Carter of Mars books, and I found myself hooked on reading again. But as powerful an experience as those books were, I eventually found another book on Dad's shelf that changed everything for me. It was a slim paperback with a dark, brooding cover painting by Jeff Jones called Swords in the Mist. The author, Fritz Leiber, was unknown to me then, as were the two inimitable heroes of his story: Fafhrd (say "foffered") and the Gray Mouser. This book introduced me to sights, sounds, and entire worlds that I had never imagined. It also introduced me to a new term, one that would figure prominently in my reading for years come: "sword and sorcery".
I read Swords in the Mist while camping with my family the summer after high school. That fall, I began my first year of college, and the university bookstore proved to be another source of new wonders. In fact, it was on the racks there that I first saw the Ballantine edition of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast with its beautiful Bob Pepper cover art (much more on this book on our Books & Authors page). In 1970, after my freshman year, a good friend from high school who had gone away to college returned home for the summer. He brought with him more new wonders in the form of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and with them yet another new term to add to my growing lexicon: "heroic fantasy".
By the end of that summer, with Tolkien's great works under my expanding literary belt, I was on my own quest. During my sophomore year, I began skipping classes in order to drive around town visiting the book stores I found listed in the yellow pages. When these were exhausted, I went to the library to search the phone books of surrounding cities for still more stores (this was how we did it in the days before the Internet!). But my shopping was not limited to book stores only. One of my favorite local literary haunts during this period was a local discount department store. The book and magazine racks, located near the grocery section, were ample and well stocked, especially considering that there was not the plethora of speculative fiction titles on the racks that can be seen in book stores today. In fact, much of the genre titles that I found during my travels were reprints of older books. In that "discount" book store, I found and purchased more Ace Burroughs titles, some of the Lancer Conans, the Gormenghast trilogy, the Zimiamvian tetralogy of E.R. Eddison, and the first few titles from the seminal and long-lamented Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, among others.
1970-71 continued to be watershed years for my literary education and exploration. One of the local bookshops I had discovered during my "yellow page" travels was a small store in the middle of a strip mall that was anchored at one end by a Rexall drug store and at the other by a supermarket. The bookshop, appropriately named The Book Rack, was another one of my favorite local sources. During one auspicious visit, I was regaling the proprietor with the tale of my continuing book quest. In response, he told me about a store in Hollywood that specialized in both movie memorabilia and speculative fiction literature. The very next morning, I grabbed my Thomas Map Guide and jumped on the Santa Ana freeway heading west towards Los Angeles.
I didn't know it then, but another chapter was about to begin for me. The proprietor of the Book Rack had not known the name of the store in Hollywood, only that it was located on Hollywood Boulevard, somewhere near Pickwick Books. When I arrived in Hollywood, I made my way down the street to Pickwick, and parked in the small lot behind the store. Inside, after I did a bit of shopping, I asked a clerk if he knew the book store that I was looking for. He said, "Sure, you want Bennett's, just a few doors down on the next block." I left in a rush, and walked the short distance to a bookshop where my world would change once more, a shop I would visit again and again over the next fifteen years.
I don't know how long Bennett's Book Store had occupied that location (the name was changed to Collectors Book Store a few years later), but the building in which it was housed was many decades old, a relic of the 1920's or 30's at the very least. It was large, with an old decorative tin ceiling that was a full two stories above the wooden floor. Large, dusty light fixtures hung by chains from that ceiling at intervals, and a ladder-like staircase rose near the rear of the store to an open loft that overhung an office below. Much of the front of the store was given over to movie memorabilia, with numerous tables loaded down with boxes of old movie stills, and racks of movie posters along the right wall. Posters also decorated much of the upper section of the side walls. Behind the tables, and running down the left side of the store was a long glass topped counter that contained a variety of movie props, including (at one time) a hand phaser, communicator, and tricorder from the original Star Trek TV series, among other things (of course, at the time that I saw these items in that case, the series had only been off the air for a few years).
The back half of the store was my territory. Rack upon rack of paperback books, a dozen at least, filled the center of the floor. Frank Frazetta posters decorated the left wall, the same artwork that could be seen on the covers of the Lancer editions of the Conan saga by Robert E. Howard in the racks nearby. Over the next four years, I made monthly trips into Hollywood in order to pick up the latest title in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series from these racks (see my feature on this series here in The Library). Other writers have documented the importance of this series of classic speculative fiction reprints, edited by Lin Carter, in their own lives, and yours truly is no exception. Much of my education in the various genres of speculative fiction literature came from the stories in these books, and in particular from Carter's wonderful introductions to each volume.
Occupying the right side of the back half of the store was a section devoted to hardcover titles, most of which were limited editions from small specialty publishers such as Arkham House and Donald M. Grant. Many of these books, which were arranged in shelves on the wall and on a few tables, would become the next revelation in my continuing literary adventure. Needless to say, I had never heard of any of these publishers until I discovered them there, nor did I know most of the books themselves. However, although I perused these books on many of my visits to the shop, I was only in the market for paperbacks at first. But, after a year or so of buying and reading, and making new discoveries in the process (thanks in large part to Mr. Carter), I had learned more about the authors, stories, and publishers that occupied that special section of the shop.
By this time (1972), I was no longer making my trips into Hollywood alone. In 1971 I had met my future wife, and she, not surprisingly, had begun to visit Bennett's with me. On one such trip in late '72 or early '73, I pulled a small, lovely Donald M. Grant book down from the shelf. I was by this time a fan of Robert E. Howard, and had read many of his stories, including the entire Conan saga, the Bran Mak Morn stories, Almuric, and many other titles. The book I now held in my hands was another Howard story called Marchers of Valhalla (I also loved all things Norse, and the cover art featuring a number of Viking warriors had caught my eye). This time though, something was different. The look, the feel, even the smell of this book was magical. I loved my paperbacks, but I had discovered the true joy of a beautiful, illustrated hard bound book. I had been bitten by the hardcover bug, specifically the collectible hardcover bug (and what I didn't know at the time was that there could be no turning back). In any case, I knew I had to have this book, and I showed it to my wife. We did not have a lot of money in those days, and there were times that even buying a few paperbacks could tax our budget, and this book was priced at $4.50! That's not a lot of money, you may be thinking, but in a time when paperbacks sold for anywhere from 50¢ to 95¢, this represented something of an investment, and perhaps more importantly, a dangerous trend! In the end, we threw caution to the wind and bought the book, and in the process my world changed yet again. Today, that first edition of Marchers of Valhalla still occupies a special place in our library.
Over the next few years, I bought more books from Donald M. Grant and my first few Arkham House titles. I eventually wrote to Arkham House for a catalog and I began buying their books by mail order, which I still do to this day (more on AH later). One day in the mid 1970's, a clerk at Bennett's asked me if I had ever been to A Change of Hobbit, a speculative fiction book store located in Westwood near UCLA (not to be confused with the original C.o.H. in Berkeley, California). I hadn't, so of course I had to go! I drove to Westwood that same day after I left Bennett's, about 30 minutes away via the Santa Monica freeway. C.o.H. was a small but wonderful bookshop run by a woman named Sherry Gottlieb. I was captivated from the moment I stepped inside the door and was greeted by the most amazing collection of books, posters, sculpture, jewelry, and music, all with a science fiction, fantasy, or horror theme. I immediately added C.o.H. to my regular "L.A." book shopping itinerary, and on my frequent repeat visits I discovered more new authors and titles as well as many new (to me) specialty publishers, including Phantasia Press, Owlswick Press, Underwood-Miller, Oswald Train, and others. Sherry moved the store to a new, larger location in Santa Monica a few years later, and C.o.H. just got better. Incidentally, you Harlan Ellison fans will most likely know both of these locations by reputation, even if you have never actually had the pleasure of visiting them, because Harlan would, on occasion, set up shop in the store's front window and bang out short stories on his typewriter.
Most significantly, I discovered something completely new (or should I say old?) on the shelves of C.o.H. While perusing the latest new and recent titles one day, I caught sight of a short, narrow, brightly colored book spine that bore the Arkham House imprint. I had been buying books from AH for a while by this time (late 70's - early 80's), and I either knew of or owned everything that they had in print. But I did not know this book, with its dust jacket protected by a clear acetate cover. It was The Horror From the Hills, by Frank Belknap Long, published in 1963 at a price of $3.00. I did not know the book because it had been out of print for many years, and so did not appear in the In-Print listing in the AH catalog. Up until then, I had paid no attention to the Out-of-Print listing in the back of the AH catalog, assuming, I suppose, that such books were gone, vanished into the mists of time. Yet here it was, albeit at a price of $25.00! I bought it without hesitation, and that day my ongoing book quest took yet another turn. I had been a book lover and reader for many years, and a book buyer of course. But now, I became a book collector in the true sense of the term. Thereafter, though I continued to buy and read new titles from my favorite authors and publishers, I spent most of my time - and book budget - searching for and acquiring out-of-print titles from Arkham House. I have visited many rare book shops in many cities, and have frequented several over the years. This has not been without its dangers, however. The day that I took a large personal loan from my credit union in order to buy two particularly desirable AH titles - without discussing it with my wife, I should add - I knew that I was addicted to book collecting! Nothing in my now long and fulfilling literary journey has given me more pleasure over the years than the hunt for these often rare and special books, with the possible exception of reading them.And so, the journey continues. I still love to read and to collect. These days, the book racks at the chain book stores are overflowing with new science fiction, fantasy, and horror titles. Unfortunately, much of it is less than satisfactory. Still, there are terrific new authors working in the field, while many old favorites are still writing. What's more, many of the classics are being reprinted again. New specialty publishers continue to appear, and some of the old ones remain (see a listing on the Other Resources page here on this site). We are pleased to offer a number of titles from many of these publishers in our catalog here at Nightfall Books.