Sunday, September 07, 2014

The Book Club Boogie

I don't deny it - when it comes to books, I'm greedy. I want to OWN books. I want them on shelves in my house where I can re-read old favorites whenever the mood strikes. I trace this back to my childhood, when I received books as birthday gifts, and treasured the books my family owned. 

I got A.A. Milne's NOW WE ARE SIX for my sixth birthday, along with a penny charm bracelet and days-of-the-week undies. (I have a very random memory!) I've always had a special fondness for that book, especially King John's Christmas: "But, oh! Father Christmas, if you love me at all, Bring me a big, red India-rubber ball!"

I'm not sure how old I was when I got THE LITTLE SISTER DOLL by Laura Bannon. It was published in 1955, so if I got it the year it came out I was three years old. I still have my copy - well-loved, but a little worse for wear.

I don't have the Weekly Reader/Scholastic edition of the first mystery I remember reading, but I bought a used copy for my personal library. It started me on a lifetime of mysteries, so I owe quite a bit to this book.

I discovered Nancy Drew books shortly after reading THE SECRET OF THE OLD POST BOX. I read most of them at the Elk Grove Village library, which was at that time in a model house on (I think) Evergreen Street, behind the Ben Franklin store. My wonderful aunt Emily gave me a couple of Nancy Drew books in this type of edition - I thought they were AWESOME.

Right about now you're probably wondering what any of this has to do with book clubs. Consider the beginning of this post a sort of prologue. (Feel free to sneer - it's either that or backstory; I can't win.)

By the time I was in high school, I was well and truly addicted to books. Even though I went to the library a lot, I still wanted - craved - books of my own. But books were expensive and money was scarce. Book clubs were a way to get books at a discount. (More on that later.)

The first book club I belonged to was Weekly Reader. My kids got their Scholastic books at school book fairs, but I seem to remember getting mine in the mail. Somewhere around here, I still have A DOG ON BARKHAM STREET, and that's also where I got THE SECRET OF THE OLD POST BOX. I'm not sure, but I think my copy of Scott O'Dell's ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS - the first book to make me cry - might have also come from a Scholastic book club.

My grandparents gave me (not just me, but me and my brothers and sisters) a mail-order membership to SLOTTIE TOY books. These were traditional (and sometimes very strange) stories that all featured punch-out cardboard figures at the back of each book. I still have some of these, but none of the punch-out toys survived. The books had titles like THE ELEGANT ELEPHANT, COLUMBINE THE WHITE CAT, FAIR, BROWN AND TREMBLING, BEAN BLOSSOM HILL, THE LAZY LION, PAPA POMPINO and ROSALINDA. 

I got hooked on the excitement of receiving books in the mail at an early age. In high school, I worked a number of part time jobs - as a teaching assistant at Maryville Academy, as a cashier at Jake's Pizza, as a cashier at Jarosch Bakery and so on. SOME of my earnings went to clothes, records and Yardley makeup. MOST went to pay my book club invoices. 

To me, "Book club" doesn't bring to mind ladies sipping tea and chatting about the latest best-seller. "Book club" means Reader's Digest Condensed Books (where I first read Dorothy Eden (WAITING FOR WILLA) and Barbara Michaels (AMMIE, COME HOME), the Crime Club, the Mystery Guild, the Literary Guild, the History Book Club, the Science Fiction Book Club, the Quality Paperback Book Club, Doubleday Book Club and, later, the Harlequin and Silhouette Book Clubs and the Country Homes and Gardens Book Club (now owned by Book-of-the-Month Club - which I also joined). I belonged to them all. 

I was young and broke - a stickler for doing things correctly, but not above making the rules work in my favor. Most of the book clubs had deals where you got four or more books when you joined (free books, plus shipping and handling), and you had to purchase an equal number of books to fulfill the membership agreement. The shipping and handling charges sometimes cost more than the books, so it was pretty obvious where they made their money. That, and the fact that most people would join and forget about it. Not me! I would quit as soon as I fulfilled the agreement, and then join again. Just like the old shampoo slogan: shampoo, rinse, repeat. Only in my case, it was: join the book club, quit, rejoin. I got a lot of books that way - none of which have any value in the resale market, because they were published in slightly smaller editions and on cheaper paper than the books in stores, but I still got to read the books and keep them on my bookshelves. 

The added benefit was that I discovered a lot of new books and authors through those book clubs. Babs H. Deal's THE CRYSTAL MOUSE was a featured selection, along with other titles of hers. I read them all, and I would never have found her if not for the book clubs. Her books are still hard to find.

Another favorite was A THOUSAND SUMMERS by Garson Kanin, and LIVING ROOM by...well, something like Richard Stern but I don't think that's it. I lost that book somewhere along the line, but I still remember how good it was.

I could go on and on (I guess I already have) so I'll leave it with this: I'll always love book stores, but I'll never regret joining book clubs, either. I don't belong to any right now, but that could change. Maybe I'll take a look at what's out there. I can always squeeze a few more books on my shelves.

Footnote: Thinking of book clubs reminded me of a few exciting moments in my career as a garden writer. My book AT HOME IN THE GARDEN was a book club feature:

*Featured selection (“Editor’s Choice”) in the Country Homes and Gardens Book Club, April 2001
*Featured selection in the Garden Book Club
*Featured “Best Books for Christmas,” Country Homes and Gardens Book Club, November 2001

Sadly, my books are out of print. That's the way of the book world - and one more reason I like to have old favorites on my shelves.