Big Names in Small Books

Serves me right, I suppose, for whining about the bags people use to donate books. On Friday, I had a shopping bag arrive that measured six inches by three inches by four, with all its handles still attached. I never thought to whine about that kind of bag.

AND there were sixteen books in it. There could not have been a better way to donate a collection of the Little Leather Library. Measuring 3 x 4, these were books running to about 90 pages each, with what was, in 1915, a genuine leather cover (suede, actually.) volumes from the Little Leather Library are a mainstay of the used book world.

The books were generally classics of literature, particularly nineteenth century literature: poetry, drama, and short stories. You could have the Bible as a 30-book boxed set, and there were a few non-fiction titles which are a wee bit rarer. Everybody really wanted the pocket-sized ready-reference classics.

The books could be bought at Woolworth’s, but the publishers also convinced Whitman to include them in boxes of chocolates, and the Biltmore Hotel used them as gifts for guests. The price of leather made them less profitable, so the volumes you see from the 1920s are bound in “leatherette”, a substance which by now is frequently brittle. When the founders of the Little Leather Library sold out to a man named Robert Haas, he changed the name to the Little Luxart Library, so the word “leather” wouldn’t be misleading. He kept the series going through the Twenties, in competition with Haldemann-Julius’s paper-covered series of miniature literature, making Kipling, Shakespeare, Stevenson, Dickens, Wilde, and other Great Authors available to the general public.

Much has been claimed for the Little Leather Library in the history of American publishing. One of the founders of the series, Albert Boni, went on to found the Modern Library, publishing Great Books in a somewhat larger but still convenient size. The other founders, Harry Scherman and Max Sackheim, took a different tack, founding the Book-of-the-Month Club. And the leatherette volumes played their part, along with the Five Foot Shelf and similar enterprises, in the whole theory and practice of the Great Books phenomenon of the twentieth century.

Generally priced around ten cents, the Little Leather Library sold millions of copies of hundreds of different titles. Having read this blog so faithfully, you no doubt realize what happens when millions of copies of something are sold. The volumes of the Little Leather Library are without a doubt collectible (“What cute little books!”) but they are not valuable. These will therefore be found in our Collectibles section at just $1 apiece. Our miniature books sit in a central spot there so we can keep an eye on them. But you’ll have to be quick. When the customers see books they can carry sixteen to the bag and then put the bag in their pocket, the display doesn’t stay up long. 

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