New York: Charles Boni, 1929-1931. Fifty-three paperback volumes, measuring 7.25 x 5 inches each: various paginations. Original pictorial card wrappers, many with pictorial endpapers, a few volumes housed in publisher’s slipcases (not issued on most titles). Original publisher’s wooden display shelf, painted in black and silver with “50¢ BONIBOOKS” lettered in white, with angled slot to display a single volume facing out. Offered with A Checklist of the Bonibooks and the Boni Paper Books (Stephens, 1994). Most books in very good to near fine condition; a few with light soiling or shelfwear, some with early ownership signatures or stamps. Light wear to wooden shelf.
A complete run of Boni Paper Books and Bonibooks, American publisher Charles Boni’s short-lived quality paperback series, offering literary titles at low prices for a mass readership. Inspired by Bernhard Tauchnitz’s success in Europe, Boni hoped to elevate the status of the humble paperback in the United States: “Cultured Europe showed the way. The fine works of European writers are not published in expensive bindings. They are put out in neat, sensible volumes, paper bound, and hence within the reach of every reader.” The series began in 1929 as Boni Paper Books, a mail-order book club offering subscribers an “important” new paperback title each month for $5.00 a year. Boni reprinted Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey in the new Paper Books format to send to prospective club members as a bonus; that prototype, present here, would not appear in later publisher’s lists for the series. Designed by Rockwell Kent, the first Paper Books had uniform designs on the wrappers and endpapers, differing only in color, and subscribers could have their paperbacks rebound in a uniform cloth binding, also designed by Kent, for an additional fee. Soon, Boni made all the Paper Books titles available in cloth for $1.00 each, and expanded his pool of designers, providing original cover art for each new paperback title. Each volume included the Paper Books mission statement: “to place good books, well designed and carefully made, within the reach of any reader.” The book club experiment faltered within the first year: American readers hesitated to buy “important” books in paperback, few of the chosen titles were modern classics, and the Depression hurt book sales across the board. Boni responded by digging into his backlist, reprinting proven titles in the new paperback format, and rebranding the Boni Paper Books as Bonibooks, to be sold in bookstores. An additional 37 paperbacks were issued under the Bonibooks imprint in 1930 and 1931, including works in translation (Flaubert, Colette, Gorky, Huysmans), modern British literature (Wells, Lawrence, Wilde, Russell), and the first paperback edition of Melville’s Moby-Dick, with woodcuts by Howard Simon. The Bonibooks line also included titles more in line with the popular paperback tradition: The Hard-Boiled Virgin, Our Changing Morality, What Is Wrong with Marriage, Cannibal Nights, The Brooklyn Murders. But by the end of 1931, Boni would abandon the paperback format altogether. This collection includes paperback issues of all 53 titles in the Paper Books and Bonibooks series, including the Wilder prototype. All but seven are first printings. The books are accompanied by the publisher’s promotional Bonibooks display shelf, designed for use in a bookshop window. While short-lived, Charles Boni’s series was prescient. The 1930s would see the launch of Albatross Books in Germany and Penguin Books in England, both dedicated to the democratic ideal of a quality paperback championed by Boni. A compelling piece of American publishing history.