Monday, November 9, 2020

For the Love of Book Covers

I’m a huge fan of vintage paperback covers, so I was delighted to find the multitalented Robin Agnew’s Instagram feed featuring cover art from her expansive collection. I asked her to talk a bit about her favorite covers and her time running the beloved bookstore, Aunt Agatha’s. You can see more on her social media links (below). Enjoy! – Shari Randall

By Robin Agnew

For 26 years, my husband and I ran a mystery bookstore, Aunt Agatha’s, which was absolutely stuffed to the brim with mass market paperbacks, far and away my favorite of all book formats. They’re cheap, they’re easy to carry in a purse or a pocket, and you can take them into the bathtub or onto the beach. I never leave the house without one. One of my very favorite customers had been a fighter pilot during WWII. When I knew him, he was an incredibly charming older man who loved all things golden age, and we spent many hours discussing, for example, Agatha Christie vs. Ngaio Marsh. He told me he started reading Christie during the war – he could stick a book in his pocket (hence “Pocket” books).

When we closed our store in 2018, we had massive boat loads of paperbacks left. We reduced our prices and sold many, gave away many, and skimmed the cream off the top to sell online, which is an ongoing process. Our collection before we closed was around 25,000. Getting to a number like that takes literally decades.

When we first opened, we’d accept boxes of books from almost anyone. One memorable old guy pulled his Gremlin into our driveway with a hatchback full of Nick Carter books. As time went by, we had a rotating collection on display, and people would often buy them for the covers. I personally love covers from the 40’s and 50’s, especially before printing processes were more sophisticated. Something about the use of those basic primary colors in combination has always held a fantastic appeal to me.  


I love this old Perry Mason/Erle Stanley Gardner cover for The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat (1941). It’s a beautiful and mysterious graphic of the cat, and the lettering is unusual and slightly sinister. It sets a tone. Gardner in fact had many, many great covers through the years. I also love these slightly later photo covers, especially The Case of the Careless Kitten (1950) and The Case of the Curious Bride (1956). The 50’s brought the modern innovation of photography, but these now look pretty vintage. They are also striking and make you look twice, which is the goal of any book cover.

Another favorite--book and cover--is Ngaio Marsh’s Death in a White Tie (1942), again a striking, simple image, with a use of color which would now be considered primitive. But doesn’t it get the point across?  I have always loved this book (and had many conversations about it with fellow fans) because I love both the victim and the killer. What a trick.

Sightly later (1962) is the cover for Spencer Dean’s Murder After a Fashion, with a cover that has the feel of a graphic fashion illustration. By the 60’s, illustration had evolved to be more sketchy and “arty,” and this cover certainly smacks of the 60’s. I don’t know anything about the story, but I love the cover.

And finally, there’s Anne Rowe’s The Little Dog Barked (1943), which for some reason languished in our garage before I rescued it. I love the image of the dog; I love the font used for the title; and I even love the kind of swirly thingy above the dog--what is it?  I think I love the older covers because the artists weren’t afraid to let their freak flags fly, and it made for some really unusual and memorable work.

This collection is a result of decades of owning a store, of customers bringing books left to them by departed parents, aunts or uncles, or people who wanted to sell or trade them. These are some of the surviving jewels. They keep the flame of book love alive for me!


Robin Agnew and her husband, Jamie, ran Aunt Agatha’s in downtown Ann Arbor, Michigan, together for 26 fabulous years. Robin now writes the cozy column for Mystery Scene Magazine and maintains a review blog under the Aunt Agatha’s banner, at Meeting writers at the store, often at the beginning of their careers, remains one of her favorite things, as does continuing to read many, many of the wonderful and spectacular mysteries published every year. 

Facebook - @auntagathas 

Twitter - @AgnewRobin

Follow the covers on Instagram @RobinAgnew

Readers, what do you think? Do you have a favorite book cover? And apologies if this doesn't display correctly on your device - Blogger is a bear with graphics.




Margaret S. Hamilton said...

After I graduated from Nancy Drew, I devoured my grandfather's mystery paperbacks. Lots of Earle Stanley Gardner. The book covers prompt lots of memories.

E. B. Davis said...

I have to admit, as an electronic reader, I miss those covers. They now lack the impact of paperbacks.

Susan said...

Book covers are like the history of the industry. Love seeing what they used to be like. Thanks, Shari and Robin.

Carolyn said...

The covers are wonderful - and they are eye-catching. It truly does make you want to read them. Thanks for the interesting and fun article!

Carole Nelson Douglas said...

Vintage covers capture their eras so well. It's fun to see Erle Stanley Gardner used cats twice in his iconic titles, perhaps more, although one was just a kitten. I've saved all my old paperbacks, from "A Handmaid's Tale" to Georgette Heyer's mysteries, from Dorothy Sayers to my favorite,Josephine Tey.

Jennifer J. Chow said...

So interesting, Shari. Thanks for sharing, Robin! I really like the bright pop of color in The Case of the Curious Bride.

Kathleen Marple Kalb said...

Wonderful post -- I love your social media feed, Robin, but I didn't know all of the backstory. Awesome!