Book Find of the Day #1 - Little Leather Library
Every time I’m in a thrift or antique store, I always seem to stumble upon a book that has a unique history. One of my favorite pastimes is to browse the used book sections, opening covers and reading little notes left by people, smelling the pages, and looking up the publisher’s page to see what year the book was printed. As usual, the older, the better.
To pass some time one day last week, the Viking and I meandered through an antique store. I told him before we entered: unless it’s something I really need, don’t let me buy anything.
I was doing well, until we went to the little corner with the books.
It was a mistake. And a blessing.
A box was full of small, leather-bound pocket-sized books. Seeing one that read “SHORT STORIES” on the front, I picked it up and gave it a whiff. I couldn’t resist; I just love that organic, musty scent. I delicately opened the book, with the intention of simply glancing through it and then putting it back before I could convince myself that I had to have it.
The title of one of the stories caught my eye, though: “THE NECKLACE”
“I know this story,” I thought. At least, it sounded familiar. I had a flashback to high school (or was it middle school?) of reading the story in a literature textbook.
The story was about a beautiful young woman who wanted to go to a party, so her poor husband pooled his resources to get her an invite to one. She then borrowed an expensive necklace from a well-to-do friend and off to the party she went. During the course of the night, however, she unknowingly lost the necklace. No matter how much her husband and she searched, they couldn’t find it. The woman decided to buy a replacement necklace to give to her friend, rather than tell her she lost it. After that, she labored for years to pay it back, losing her beauty along the way. She ran into the same friend some time later and finally admitted her mistake and the truth about the necklace. Her shocked friend then tells her that the original necklace she had borrowed was a cheap knock-off, with fake stones, and had cost very little.
That was a sum of what I remembered, anyway. The story always stayed with me because of the twist ending.
As I skimmed the fades pages of the little leather-bound book, I read that it was, in fact, the same story I remembered from high school/middle school.
With that, I had to have it. I caved on my don’t-buy-anything-promise, but the Viking found a loophole; he bought the book for me.
At home, I investigated the book further: on the title page, it reads: “SHORT STORIES by Guy de Maupassant”. Along with, “The Necklace,” this book also includes, “The Wreck,” “The Piece of String,” “A Coward,” and, “The Beggar”.
And, because I became curious and I like falling down rabbit holes like this, I thought I’d share a little bit about the history behind this cute little book with short stories in it.
Guy de Maupassant
“The Necklace” is a short story written by the French writer Guy de Maupassant and first published in 1884. De Maupassant is known mostly for his short stories, although he did write a few novels, and dabbled in travel writing and poetry as well.
I read (on Wikipedia) that when his parents married in 1846, that his mother insisted to his father that they obtain the right to use “de Maupassant” as opposed to “Maupassant” because “de Maupassant” apparently indicated a noble birth. (I think his inspiration for his story, “The Necklace” came from his mother.) So, when he was born in 1850, Guy received the surname de Maupassant. His parents eventually separated, and he was raised primarily by his mother in his youth.
He met French novelist Gustave Flaubert—again, at the insistence of his mother—and the author took Guy under his wing. With Gustave’s guidance, Guy found his way into the literary world.
In 1881, he published his first masterpiece, “Boule de Suif”—or “Ball of Fat” in English—which is about a young prostitute traveling with French, high-society passengers on a coach after the Franco-Prussian War, who do not extend the same courtesy to her that she extends to them. After they are detained by a Prussian officer, the other passengers convince the prostitute—who goes by the name Boule de Suif, though her real name is Elizabeth Rousset—that the only way they will be allowed to travel on is if she sleeps with the officer. She finally does so and it works; they can continue their journey. However, even though it was their idea, the passengers treat Elizabeth with distain.
Guy wrote successfully until 1891, but as he grew older, he became a bit of an agitated recluse. He feared death and persecution because of syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease he had had since he was young. He attempted suicide by cutting his throat in 1892 and was sent to the Esprit Blanche asylum outside of Paris. He died there on July 6 in 1893.
Little Leather Library
The Little Leather Library Corporation was founded around 1914 by two Jewish brothers Charles and Albert Boni in New York City. After showing a prototype of a miniature copy of Shakespeare’s classic Romeo and Juliet to advertisers Maxwell Sackheim and Harry Scherman, they went into business officially in 1916.
Until around 1925, they printed and sold millions of copies of the Little Leather Library books, particularly at Woolworth’s, who were pioneers of the five-and-dime stores, and the small books cost around 10 cents each.
In 1917, the Boni brothers sold out to Harry and Maxwell, and pursued other publishing opportunities; Albert, for example, after being involved in a variety of publishing businesses, eventually founded the Readest Microprint Corporation in 1939, a microfilm publisher of reference materials.
Robert K. Haas bought out Maxwell and Harry in 1922 and renamed the company to Little Luxart Company, as published under Robert K. Haas, Inc.
The Little Leather Library Corporation books were marketed in a variety of clever ways. During World War One, their volumes were marketed as good gifts to send to soldiers and sailors off fighting. Another time, thirty volume sets were offered to be sent for free for new subscribers of “The Literary Digest” magazine, published by Funk & Wagnalls publishing house. They contracted 250,000 thirty-volume sets from Robert K. Haas, Inc., to do so.
I liked this little tidbit that summed up the Little Leather Libraries Corporation marketing strategies on the Wikipedia page:
“Although its heyday was brief, the company’s successful marketing strategies meant that the market was flooded with millions of copies of the volumes. It is easy to find copies on the market; many families have incomplete or full sets passed down through the generations. A boxed set of 30 volumes might sell from $500 to $1000, or $25 to $50 a volume, depending on the book.”
Well, I got my Little Leather book of short stories by Guy de Maupassant for $7. Not bad, I guess.
Anyway, now you have way too much knowledge about a dead French author and short-lived publishing company of pocket-sized leather-bound books. You’re welcome.
Along with tips on writing and the publishing industry, as well as book reviews, I may start doing occasional posts like this on the history of old books I find in antique stores because, well, that stuff interests me.