Tuesday, May 29, 2012

On Fifty Shades, Erotica, Grove Press, and Scotty Bowers.

Having had a lot of register duty in the last few weeks, I have to say the most surprising turn of events has been how many people buy the Fifty Shades of Grey and the rest of the trilogy. Honestly, I thought this would move customers to the internet even customers who would normally buy in store. But the book is such a fad that all shame is removed from the occasion. It’s sort of like that era of porn chic in the early 1970s, when couples would go to date night to see Deep Throat and The Devil in Miss Jones.

This round of erotica craziness is predominantly female--I’ve yet to ring up a man for any of the E. L. James titles. The previous fads (remember The Sexual Life of Catherine M from 2002?), on the other hand, tended to be largely women buyers as well. But the core market for this stuff in the days before internet (and I'm speaking specifically about books without pictures here), was predominantly male.

There was a time when we had erotica sections of some size at all the various Schwartz Bookshops and Dickens’ Discount Books, with the notable exception of the Whitefish Bay Book Nook. Without evening hours and having the most female-skewing traffic of all our stores, we couldn’t imagine a customer coming up without one of the booksellers knowing his or her relatives.

I was taught as a buyer to keep a steady flow of Carroll & Graf and Grove Press erotica coming into the stores. Interestingly enough, Catherine Millet’s erotic memoir (above) also came from Grove Press. And Grove made its mark testing the decency standards, publishing Lady Chatterley’s Lover and then Tropic of Cancer, both of which wound up becoming court cases. A lot of this was recounted earlier this year, when Barney Rosset, Grove’s owner for many years, died at 89.

Speaking of guys in their late eighties, I just read the strangest book called Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars, by Scotty Bowers, as told to Lionel Friedberg. Depending on his birthday, Bowers is either 88 or 89, born as he was in 1923. He documents his long life of multiple sex partners, with famous men and women, and his even more extensive career of finding sex partners, both men and women, for even more men and women. He admits to being a prostitute, but he’s not a pimp, because he never took money for arranging hookups. He started as a gas jockey, and then moved over to bartending, but in either profession, he used his social skills to arrange paid hookups.

The list of his “friends” reads like a who’s who of Hollywood—Cary Grant, Rock Hudson, William Holden, Kate Hepburn, Carol Channing, Tyrone Power, Vincent Price, George Cukor, Noël Coward, Cole Porter, Rita Hayworth, Mae West, and so forth. When the encounters with J. Edgar Hoover and Brian Epstein, Alfred and Blanche Knopf, Edward and Wallis Simpson all came up, I decided that this can’t be possibly true. It’s some sort of Zelig-like prank, where the ghostwriter linked together every rumored sexual scandal that every skidded within 50 miles of Hollywood.

I’d be embarrassed about reading this, but the whole thing, despite being compulsive reading, winds up being more sexually numbing than arousing. And with all my customers getting their S & M things on, this is more like reading Us Magazine, in comparison. The fact that he is recounting the story at 88 gives the whole thing a particularly surreal feel.

But it’s nice to know that Grove Press, which is indeed the publisher of Bowers’s memoir as well, is keeping one foot in the genre, at least.

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