2 cents a day / 10 cents a week:

Rental Libraries, back in the day.... 


NOTE: This is a relatively new page that I just "thunk up" while I was scanning my book collection for new additions to the Bookseller's Labels page (which see). So it's just a-borning, so to speak, which is meant to explain why there's not (yet) much to see. Nor have I given any real thought to just what I want to say, but it'll probably go something like this.....

In modern times, when we take for granted (although we shouldn't!) the presence of public libraries all over the place, it may come as a surprise to some that, back in the so-called good old days, there were a tremendous number of "rental libraries," which name implied exactly what you might think it would: books for rent, by the day or week. The amounts involved -- nickels and pennies, essentially -- look absurdly small to our eyes today, but especially during the Great Depression, when you could get a good square meal (including pie) at a restaurant or automat for 15 or 20 cents, this kind of money was not insignificant for many people. The rental libraries tended to carry a wide range of popular fiction, often including books with "racy" themes (abortion, common-law marriage, adoption, artificial insemination, etc etc.) that rendered them more or less off-limits for regular public libraries, which were supported by public money and thus (like today) a ready target for the various cranks and crusaders who were/are always up in arms about "indecent" literature and so forth. Essentially, a lot of the novels carried by the rental libraries were out-and-out trash, or at the very least were marketed as such, with lurid jacket illustrations and catchy, tantalizing titles (Strange Bedmates; Burn, Baby Burn!; Unmarried Wife; Strange Brother) ["Strange" was a much-used descriptor for this type of lit]. In the Depression-Era heyday of the rental libraries -- it was estimated that in 1935 there were 50,000 in the U.S. alone (five times the number of free public libraries!), several publishers (most notably The Macaulay Company and Phoenix Press) were kept busy churning out books that were directly targeted at this market.







a typical "rules and regs" label, this from a 1932 book

It was essentially the establishment and growth of the paperback book industry that rang the death knell for the rental libraries. It was just as cheap to own a paperback book as it was to rent a hardcover (the first Dell and Pocket Book titles issued had a 10-cent cover price), and they were easier to carry around. They were just as "unrespectable" as the trashy hardcover books -- and actually, the fact that they could also be hidden (inside a purse or pocket) might also have made them more desirable to their readers (who oughta been ashamed of themselves, anyway!). At any rate, by the end of World War II the rental-library industry was on its way out.




Lending-Library Books: The Collector's Dilemma

The first thing to say about rental-library books is that they're still "out there," all over the place, on the shelves of used-book shops across the land. The second thing is that they present a kind of collecting paradox -- e.g., although many of the books themselves are "collectible" (either because of the authors, or the subject matter, or the cool and colorful dust jackets), the rental library copies themselves are, almost by definition, never in collectible condition. It's just that they're "ex-library" books (the mere thought of which causes most serious book collectors to throw up their arms in horror), they are ex-library with a vengeance. This is easy to explain: as rental items, their revenue-generating potential was in direct proportion to their longevity, so it was in the interests of their owners to protect them against the ravages of (a) lots of reading, by (b) people who might not have necessarily given them the most delicate handling. This led to all manner of "protective" adaptations of the books -- usually involving some sort of lamination or encapsulation or reinforcement or gluing-down of the dust jackets -- in order to gird them against abuse and overuse, and to keep them in circulation for as long as possible. 

example of a typical "date-due" tracking system, in all its glorious crudeness.










(I've got some more notes on this topic....have temporarily misplaced them! To be continued......)