Sometimes you get lucky.
One of my specialties as a bookseller is a series of books issued to American soldiers during World War II from 1943 to 1947. The series is called the Armed Services Editions (ASEs). They were issued by the Council on Books in Wartime. Some are as common as dirt. Others are elusive and in high demand, such as Superman. Still others are paperback originals, meaning they are the true first edition of that book. And these are not minor authors. Among those paperback originals are books by the likes of Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Mind you, these books can bring decent return on my money, but the treasures are minor. Still, I love this series and these books. To know that some soldier recuperating in a World War II hospital, or a GI forced to “hurry up and wait” in either the Pacific or European theater might have read the book now in my hands still gives me a thrill. Many a young soldier finished his or her education by reading these books while serving his or her country. That meaning isn’t lost on me.
ASEs also have their place in history, being part of the movement toward mass market publishing. Other publishers in this movement were Dell, Popular Library, Pocket Books, and Bantam, but ASEs have the added appeal of being part of the biggest book give-away in the history of the world with nearly 123 million books distributed free to soldiers, thanks to the cooperation of authors, their agents, and publishing houses all chipping in to do their part in the war effort.
Until recently my work with ASEs has been fallow. I just hadn’t made a good find for quite a while. But then, as usual, I got a call out of the blue from someone who had some. Usually this call comes from someone cleaning out a closet who stumbles upon Uncle Harry’s “war books.” This time the call came from someone actually connected to the ASE series. The person in question is Sandra Johnson. She was married to Dallas Johnson. He was the son of Malcolm Johnson who was a founding father of the ASE series and an executive director of the Council on Books in Wartime. Johnson was a publishing executive with Doubleday. Mrs. Johnson had the first 30 ASE books. Some of these books are not terribly exciting, other than being part of the first 30 books issued in the series, but there are also some really good titles. The books include Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck, The Ship by C. S. Forester, The Human Comedy by William Saroyan, and Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad.
Now any of these books, numbered from A-1 to A-30, are special because they were the first 30 books issued in a series important in publishing history as well as World
War II history, but the fact that they were Malcolm Johnson’s copies — well, it doesn’t get much better than that. Mrs. Johnson also had Malcolm Johnson’s copies of books about this series, A History of the Council on Books in Wartime, and his Editions for the Armed Services.
And my customers? I work with several private collectors and a few institutions. I sold seven of the ASE books within an hour. Johnson had two copies of each book about the ASE series and its Council. Three of those four books sold within an hour. And I still get to revel in having and play with several of Malcolm Johnson’s copies. I feel like a kid with a never-ending cookie jar without a parent in sight.