by Jesse Marinoff Reyes ( Jesse Marinoff Reyes Design, Maplewood, N.J.)
All in The Racket
Charles Boni Paper Books, 1930
Illustration/Design: Vera Bock (b. 1905)
One of the earliest efforts at establishing a paperback publishing line (when such a concept was anathema to publishers—much like ebooks had been just a few short years ago) was the effort by Charles and Albert Boni to attempt a mail-order book line in paperback of literature, and not the trashy and disposable writing associated with the “pulps.” The Boni Brothers, who had established the Modern Library (and to a degree, Random House—as one of their salesmen, Bennett Cerf, bought the line and hoped to expand it by developing new literature and not just repackaging the classics), launched Charles Boni Paper Books as a mail-order book club. All prior attempts at selling paperbacks relied heavily on mail-order with varying degrees of success and with none of the prior experiments taking off as a mainstream success. However, the nation had changed, the farmer was no longer as isolated from cities as he had been in the 19th century. Join the club for $5 a year, and receive periodic mailings of “high quality” literature in paperback. To lend a touch of class, each book’s cover was illustrated by a renowned artist, notably Rockwell Kent—who lent his talents to the overall packaging—in other words, they looked to art and design as a way to separate their product from the perception that pulp was just for trash (although the Bonis hedged their bet and offered a cloth bound option to subscribers as well). The crash of Wall Street the very year they started ultimately doomed their effort. After struggling a few years without turning a profit, they ended the line and moved on. What remains however, when you stumble across them eighty-odd years on, are beautiful, understated examples of high art and design of the art deco 1930s.
Vera Bock was a Russian emigré (coming to the United States at the onset of the Russian Revolution with her Russian-born concert pianist mother, and American banker father). Her art education included trips to Europe, where she studied drawing and painting, and a year’s stay in England during which she learned printing, photoengraving, manuscript illuminating, and wood engraving) who began work as a book illustrator in 1922, to much acclaim for over 30 years. She was also a noted poster designer—her distinctive woodblock-like images reflected a German graphic influence—with many works associated with the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration.
I have a precious handful of these—this is maybe the most well-worn, but I don’t run across these too often. Maybe because they were “mail-order” books, the press runs may not have been so large, unlike say, the mass-market paperbacks of the war and post-war eras. But each of the copies I have are incredibly tasteful.