But the real fun is on the back page, nestled among the classified advertisements for foreign-language lessons, summer cottages, and three-room apartments for $75 in Greenwich Village.2
It was there that I spotted this advertisement for the Esoterika Biblion Society:
"THE BOOKS YOU CAN'T GET ELSEWHERE may be rented for a nominal fee. Members throughout the United States have access to a large collection of rare, scarce, out-of-print, strange and curious books; limited, privately-printed editions, unabridged translations and extraordinary new books. Please state occupation or profession when writing for information and lists. Esoterika Biblion Society."Sounds pretty neat, huh? A great opportunity for intellectuals, bibliophiles and even the common folk to check out some books they might otherwise never have access to. A chance for that knowledge to be available to the masses. A chance for furthering higher education. A chance for....
Nope. None of that. Turns out this was simply a veiled opportunity for folks to get their hands on 1930's versions of "Fifty Shades of Grey."
In his wonderfully titled 1999 book "Bookleggers and Smuthounds: The Trade in Erotica, 1920-1940," author Jay A. Gertzman describes exactly what was going on with this 1930 classified advertisement in The New Republic:
"Below are classified advertisements for two New York concerns as they appeared in the February 1935 Sunday book supplement of the New York Herald Tribune. Note such code words for 'erotica' as 'esoterika,' 'anthropological' (having to do with naked, libidinous natives and their curious customs), 'privately printed,' and 'rare.' ...So there you have it. Tucked away among the advertisements for Camp Aladdin, real Harris Tweed and Miss Louise Holmquist's for-rent artist's studio (with skylight) in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, you had the Esoterika Biblion Society catering to everyone's prurient interests.
"READ RARE BOOKS. Members read without buying, rare, scarce, out-of-print books, limited, privately printed editions, unabridged translations. Write for information, giving age and occupation. ESOTERIKA BIBLION SOCIETY, Dept. 33, 15 E. 45th St.
"ANTHROPOLOGICAL LIBRARY, 41 Union Sq. Limited and out of print editions, obtained on rental basis. Particulars furnished on request.
Lady Chatterley's Lover, Tropic of Cancer, or My Life, might have been made available to discreet borrowers."
The New Republic on Wikipedia, I tumbled down the rabbit hole and found myself reading successive entries for:
- Learned Hand
- Masses Publishing Co. v. Patten
- Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
- Charles Evans Hughes
- New Deal
- Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937
- Judiciary Act of 1789
2. Here's another classified advertisement that caught my eye: "POSITION WANTED. YOUNG MAN, exceptional personality, liberal education, whose eyes have recently failed, would like to take charge of a group of exceptional youths next winter. Creative methods in general. Conversational French. Address, Box 496, The New Republic."
3. Five dollars to borrow a racy book in 1930? That's the equivalent of more than $60 today! You had to be rich to borrow these books from Esoterika. I suppose the poor folks settled (happily enough) for their Tijuana bibles.