Eros of Outrageous Fortune

So this year, somewhere in the Collectibles section, I will be selling a piece of Chicago bookselling history which is also a bit U.S. legal history as well as Newberry history and yea, even Book Fair history. It is a packet of postcards advertising a clearance sale by a man who gave up his walk-in bookstore in 1965. The bookseller was one Paul Romaine, and the sale was being held at 192 N. Clark St. in an unspecified year.

Paul Romaine made his big splash in history at about the same time, when an undercover cop came into his store, paid six dollars and change for Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (Fanny Hill) and arrested Mr. Romaine for selling obscene literature. He was found guilty, but appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, which finally reversed his conviction. (I note that the case included a bit of what would later be Book Fair sorting procedure by pointing out that the book had no illustrations.)

Not all of his store stock sold at this sale he was advertising with these postcards. I know this because at his death in 1986, what was left came to the Newberry. And what did not go into the collection came to a relatively young and unwary Book Fair crew.

One can hardly, as I’ve mentioned, judge a collection by what’s left of it after a couple of sales and a library selector have passed over it. But my recollection is that out of the dozens of boxes which arrived in the receiving room roughly half were political tracts, heavy on the works of Lenin. (Sometimes it feels as if it was a point of honor among Chicago troublemakers to collect Lenin. Maybe it was.) The rest were books which in the 1960s represented the new wave in erotic publishing.

Grove Press, which had published that edition of Fanny Hill that got him busted, was thoroughly represented, and what they hadn’t published, Lyle Stuart, another publisher dedicated to pushing the envelope, had. Most of what they were publishing had in fact been translated from the Danish, for this was an era when Sweden and Denmark represented the utmost in western freethinking sexual experimentation.

Now, the main problem to a young book sorter, as always, was “What category do these go into?” Could we get away with putting Love’s Picture Book, a four-volume history of erotic illustration, into Art? Did this illustrated edition of Fanny Hill belong in Literature? Would there be complaints? Would this fledgling Book Fair be trampled by a stampede of the pure-minded?

The young book sorter said, “Why don’t we just have an Erotica section?” He got about as much respect for these suggestions then as now, and Paul Romaine’s naughty books were tucked away in the Collectibles section, where buyers could be monitored. But the young book sorter, getting older, reminded everyone of the problem the following year, and the year after that. And one year, when new table signs were being made, he was given his sign for the Erotica section.

Well, I was given the pieces of it, as well as orders that I was never to put them together and raise them on a pole over a table. They’d made me the sign, as I asked, but they also made the rules, and forbade the creation of a table devoted to Erotica.

I have learned to live with this, as you will know if you read my column on why we don’t have an Erotica section. “Erotica” is a difficult term to define, especially at a Book Fair where I’m still trying to define “Biography” for the customers. I don’t know to this day what might have happened had we, in the spirit of Paul Romaine, set aside a section for the exotic and adventurous in art and literature.

But here are his postcards, anyhow, to commemorate what might have been. (By the way, they are not dirty postcards, so they’ll be right out where anybody can see them. If we get a set of Love’s Picture Book, that’ll be four tables down, to your left.)

Post New Comment