Monday, July 7, 2008

The Accidental, Passive-Aggressive Redneck

Sometimes when I’m book scouting in the thrift stores I have to remind myself to give a cursory glance to the often overwhelming population of mass market paperback books, because you never know what little nuggets of gold you might find in all the dross. I was reminded of this a few weeks ago when I spied a pulp Western that would soon fetch well over $100—a 1938 copy of Jack O’Conner’s Boom Town. And had I not taken the time to look I would have missed Jack Thomas’s Turn Me On!, the story of a sixteen year old girl who “organized a pot party at Joan Henderson's house and then turned it into an orgy of sex and violence.” Usually it’s the sensational or lurid cover art that I go for on these vintage books, however in the case of a recent Erskine Caldwell find it was the first two sentences on the back cover—“She was a slut. A woman of no worth and few morals.”—that made me immediately drop the book into the buggy.

When I got to the register I was glad to see the recently hired store manager, a tall, genial black man who would often check the stock room when he saw me in the store to see if there were any recent book arrivals priced and ready to bring out. Either he hadn’t yet picked up on the fact that I was selling books online or he didn’t care; regardless, he was very friendly and we often shared a laugh.

We said our hellos and I began placing the books on the counter.

“Find anything interesting today?” he asked.

I handed him the Caldwell title. “Well, there was this.”

He looked at the photo on the front cover, that of a redhead with exposed cleavage and a come-hither look.

“Ooh, Mama,” he said, grinning and nodding his head. “She looks tight.”

“Read the back,” I said.

He turned it over.

I reached for my wallet. When I looked up his smile was gone, and his whole demeanor had changed. He set the book back down on the counter and began totaling my purchases. After he’d taken the money and put the books into a bag, he regarded me with a cold, heavy look. I wasn’t sure what to make of it.

"Thank you very much,” I said, taking the bag, but he was already turning to walk away.

When I got out to the truck I fished the Caldwell title out of the bag and read the back cover:

She was a slut. A woman of no worth and few morals. But she said she had been raped and the tradition of the land was that a Negro who laid hands upon a white woman had to die. At the hands of a lynch mob....
Oh for crying out loud, I thought.

And that was all it took. Never again would I get special treatment in that place; not from him.