David Cohen was an early member of the Book Collectors’ Society. Born in London, he had come to Australia in 1938 to escape the coming war, but that did not work. I knew him as a conspicuous figure in the Sydney science fiction community of the 1950s.
That was not the best of times. After Australia’s rude awakening with the war, the ineptly progressive wartime government had failed to cope with the atomic era, the tide of immigration was yet to have its liberating effect, and it was a grey, gloomy, censorridden and intellectually numb society under the monster Menzies.
Science fiction was beginning to be recognised in New York and London, but in Australia it was unknown outside our invisible handful of followers. And there was the practical difficulty that it was hard to find. Heavy-handed import restrictions, due to rigid currency control to deal with the country’s massive balance of payments problem, meant that American SF – which of course was ninety per cent of the world movement – was in effect banned in Australia from 1940 to 1959. (Technically it was not banned, only a prohibited import, but it was hard to see the distinction.)
But some did get in, one way or other, mostly from England, which was rather more open and had its own small SF presence. As for local publishing, there had been feeble gestures in the war years, a golden opportunity missed, but in the mid-fifties we did see both modest local printing of US works and poorly imitative originals. Well then, the leading motivation among those in the know was to get something to read. We shared what there was. We built up a substantial community library, and at the informal Thursday night meeting that was the continuing point of contact there was usually vigorous trading going on that developed into a weekly auction of whatever anyone had to offer.
Cohen was an omnivorous book collector with a particular interest in SF, and he set himself up as a small-scale dealer in 1953. Well, he was way ahead of his time. There just was not enough business, he worked his butt off for several years and had to give up, and that was the last I heard of him until early this year (2003) I heard from Max Amos, RSL welfare officer, who had known him and was the executor of his estate. He had disposed of most of a house full of miscellaneous books to several booksellers. But there was a massive amount of science fiction that he didn’t know what to do with, and he had been given my name as an expert. Would I look at it and advise him? Cohen had moved in the seventies to a house at Springwood. Mr Amos had moved a truckload of boxes to his own place at Blackheath for convenience in sorting and examining and that was where I went first.
Neatly stacked on trestle tables were several hundred books, several hundred paperbacks, several hundred magazines. Most of the magazines had only been sorted by size, piles of pulp size and digest issues. But, but! There was a tall pile of quarto Amazing Stories, 1926 to 1933! And sitting on top, April 1926, the first issue! The key item in science fiction collecting that I had wanted for fifty years! To be sure, not in the best condition, the lightly worn cover pasted down. But as good as you could hope for.
You see, that was where it all started. The magazine in which Hugo Gernsback announced that there existed something not hitherto noticed that he proposed to call Scientifiction. The contraction didn’t last long, it was modified to Science fiction, and readers around the world immediately knew that of course! That was what you called it! (Alas, he made a mistake with the title he chose for his magazine which soon led to even worse titles.)
Besides the Amazings up to 1933 (the most interesting period), generally good copies, there was much more. Amazing Stories Annual of 1927? Yes, it was there, worn but intact, with the first printing of “The Master Mind of Mars” by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Amazing Quarterly? All there, from the first reprinting “When the Sleeper Wakes” by H. G. Wells. Astounding, which much later was enigmatically renamed Analog – and is still running? A nice copy of the first issue, January 1930, and most of those through the thirties. The Wonder group? A lot of them. Marvel? The interesting prewar issues were there. And lots of later Amazing, Startling, Future and so forth. And digests:Analog, If, Galaxy and others.
Pulp magazines other than science fiction? There were most issues of Unknown 1939-43 with for instance L. Ron Hubbard writing long before he was a messiah; about forty Weird Tales from the thirties on, with Lovecraft, Bloch, Clark Ashton Smith and all that crowd; six assaulted and battered copies of Clayton’s excellent Strange Tales of 1931-33, some Doc Savage, a few Argosy and Blue Book.
The books were not very exciting. A mixed lot, more SF than anything else, with some weird/supernatural and detective items of all ages and conditions but with a lot of what you could barely call reading copies.
This was not the lot by any means: there was much more back at the house. It was obvious that there was a lot more than I could handle.
I really don’t care to collect a lot more books personally. But I could not let that first Amazing pass, and I could see at a glance a lot more things I would like to have. I have closed down my secondhand book business, but I knew I could easily find takers for much of what was there.
I didn’t have space to put anything like the quantity of books and magazines there was going to be for temporary handling. After some thought I rented a storage unit.
And I called in two active dealers to help, Jim Whitford and Tony Howson. Between us we took all that was worth taking of what I had seen. But there was a lot that there would be no demand for: old paperbacks aren’t much wanted, neither are most later magazines now. We left them to go for auction.
And then we looked at the house. I wouldn’t call it a ruin, but it wasn’t in good shape. Cohen lived to be 91, expiring last December: but for a long period he was mentally diminished and the place and the books hadn’t been looked after. Consequently a lot had been ruined by water damage.
What we had already seen had been in some of the more accessible of scores of boxes stacked solid to the top in a basement garage obviously subject to flooding, and just left there. Never looked at, I’d say, since he had moved to the house in the seventies. Boxes on top were unaffected. Lower down a lot of the books had clearly been damp, there was a lot of mould. Boxes on the bottom had got thoroughly wet and what was in them was unrecognisable, just so much mud.
Bit by bit we opened every box and looked at what was in it, a dusty, dirty task. Much of it above the bottom layer was not salvageable, more was in tolerable condition but not of value. Masses of paperbacks and digest magazines, and lots more generally worn books. There was the residue of Cohen’s trading stock, multiple copies of what was on sale in the fifties: the English magazines and paperbacks of the time, and I was pleased to find some Australian printed SF there: multiple copies of late issues of the dreadful magazine Thrills Incorporated, and many of the American SF and Scientific Thriller series booklets.
Overall the books were the same sort of thing as those I had seen before, and I wondered about some of the books I had expected to find. Where were the illustrated books? Special editions? Rarities? Arkham House, Fantasy Press, Gnome and other small presses of the first wave of important SF publishing in the 1950s? I would have predicted a keen and knowledgeable collector would have had lots of them.
My guess is that he did indeed have such books, but being more presentable they had been out on shelves in the living area of the house and if undamaged had been taken by the booksellers who had beaten us to it.
In one room upstairs there were about 200 books that had been left, SF, mystery and ordinary novels mostly in good condition with jackets, and stacks of as-new paperbacks. Jim and Tony divided them.
It was a sad ending, but we did rescue a lot of things for readers who will appreciate them.