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Noir Trek

Kevin Johnson's Impromptu Career in Rare Books Has Turned Out a Lovely Crime-Fiction Tome≫

Sam Holden

By Bret McCabe | Posted 2/27/2008

"I have a lot of fun selling books for a living, but it's a job," says Kevin Johnson,

the owner of Royal Books. It's a funny statement to come out of a man who looks happy sitting on a stool in a room on the second floor of his Charles Village rare- and used-book store, where floor-to-ceiling bookshelves encircle you as if a comforting security blanket. Royal Books isn't merely the workplace of a man who likes books; it's the inviting lair of a human being who loves them as much as they deserve to be.

A trim, congenial, and omnivorously bright 46-year-old, Johnson isn't a tweedy, mad-scientist-haired rare-book dealer. Clad in sharp slacks and an oxford shirt under a pullover crew-neck sweater, he comes across the sort of easygoing guy who would be at home wherever you plopped him, from Texas honky-tonk to Lower East Side dive, able to chat about any old thing. He's also the sort of guy who has a thing for really functional books.

"I'm kind of a freak for reference books," he says. "I get so excited when I look at reference books published 40 or 50 years ago, thinking, This is so useful. Thank God this guy published this book. You know, because no one would know about this stuff otherwise. Books like that thrill me, and I'm thrilled to have written one that I hope will be that kind of book for someone later."

The Dark Page, published December 2007, is Johnson's first contribution to the reference desk. With a forward from filmmaker Paul Schrader and subtitled Books That Inspired American Film Noir 1940-1949, it's a gorgeous compendium of 160 book titles and their film adaptations--accompanied by brief bibliographic information--paired with photos of the books' first-edition publication, on the opposite page. For example, James M. Cain's 1943 Three of a Kind appears with a précis of the novel's background, and some publishing details--"Orange cloth with gilt titles, design and rule at the spine, maroon topstain."--appears in the top half of the page. Beneath it is printed basic information about its movie adaptation, Billy Wilder's 1944 Double Indemnity. And on the opposite page is a full-color photo of the book's original cover design. It may sound nerdy, but if you ask any fan of crime fiction, film noir, and graphic design, The Dark Page is flat-out, hard-core luxury porn.

It's a market with which Johnson is intimately familiar. "In any business, there are things that you buy that keep you open," Johnson says. "It may not be my favorite thing--like [Ayn Rand's] Atlas Shrugged isn't my favorite thing, but every time I get a copy I sell it. It's just one of those things. So I managed to build up a stock of that sort of thing that kept everything running. And I started having more time to worry about, what's out there that's really, really cool and almost unique? Because that's what you're always working toward, finding something where there's only one. Like Clifford Odets wrote the play called The Big Knife, and I once had a copy that belonged to Robert Aldrich, who made the film, and it had his name in pencil in the back. And that kind of thing is what I die for and what I'm willing to travel for."

Johnson's investigative streak makes perfect sense to anybody who has ever harbored a collecting impulse. One of Johnson's little niches is what he calls "books into film." "For me the best kind of books into film is a situation where a film that's really highly regarded is made from a book that everybody's forgotten," he says. "That's what I really like. And if the book is really scarce, it's even better. Some examples of that in film noir are Detour by Martin Goldsmith, Criss Cross by Don Tracy. These are books that we call `excessively rare,' where one copy will come onto the market maybe every five years. And often it'll be the same copy as before--it's been in one collection, and then somebody will sell it. It's, like, radioactive."

Johnson isn't showing off his professional expertise. He speaks about the writers, titles, and movies with the agile passion of somebody who sincerely appreciates the art forms, and it's that infectious joy in the details that makes The Dark Page more than a mere reference book. It's an encyclopedically informative treat for the total die-hard fan--the poshest fanzine ever.

"My favorite kind of bookseller is someone whose whole business is predicated on whatever he loves," Johnson says. "That's definitely the way it is here. This whole thing is like a hobby that went completely out of control."

Johnson's path to The Dark Page started about half a decade ago, shortly after Royal Books became his full-time gig. Johnson opened Royal Books in 1996, after working for the federal government in Washington and doing rare-book dealing out of his house. "I didn't really find out about first editions, that people actually collected books, until about 1995," Johnson says. "And then all it took was turning that switch and just taking everything that I knew about all this stuff and channeling it into this idea of, well, object fetishism."

He moved the books out of his house and into Hampden's Fox Industries building on 25th Street, and later bought his current building from Don and Teresa Johanson, then-owners of the Kelmscott Bookshop, at the end of 2001. Johnson learned the rare-book trade on the job, meeting with and talking to older dealers at book fairs. It's a small community.

"When you get into rare books, really rare books, literally there are fewer than--in the book world--500 dealers," Johnson says. "That's not very many, so knowing how to do it and how to get started and where to find things, the tradition and knowledge is all oral. You have to go to the book fairs and meet the dealers and find out about these guys who are older than you are, and find out how they found things and what they know, because there's no way you can study it any other way."

Johnson's crash course in crime-fiction books came with his first big purchase of two collections. "Like 10,000 books apiece," he says. "One of the collections was very contemporary stuff, like since 1970. And the other collection was most of the stuff from 1950 and before, so that was a lot of vintage authors, like people like [British writer] Anthony Berkeley. And in the process of doing that I learned a lot about crime fiction--because I was cataloging the books and selling them and learning what sells and what doesn't."

While doing his own cataloging, he realized that while certain writers and titles of classic America crime fiction are well-known, respected, and written about, not much verifiable information exists about the books themselves. "A lot of these books were published by really small publishers, and people read them and then threw them away," he says. "I wanted to do a bibliography about these kinds of books because there's such a strong interest in them. But there weren't really any guides. People were always calling me going, `What's good? Have you found any new kinds of things?'"

Johnson didn't want to do a mere bibliographic list, though--the kind of thing "where only a book collector would care," he says. "So I thought what if we made a book that had the bibliographical information as part of it but also had a big beautiful picture of the book, because people really loved those covers--a lot of times people just collect the booksellers' catalogs because they can't afford the books. But I kind of realized that that would be really hard."

Since these books are often rare and because they were popular, they might not be in good condition, or they might be missing the dust jacket, or they might have only an incomplete dust jacket--or they might be in New Zealand. "I would say about 75 percent of the books [in The Dark Page] have come through the store at some point and I grabbed a picture while I could so it was in the archive," Johnson says. "The rest of them we had to travel to private collections, to libraries, private holdings, various kinds of places where the only known copies of this book existed.

"Sometimes the only copy we found was really awful. There was only one book that we found in a public library, in New Zealand. One of the last books I found, where it was the only known jacketed copy . . . there were big pieces of the jacket missing. So we got a scan of what they had and we had to kind of guess at what the rest of it looked like." (The title, Ernst Lothar's The Mills of God, is included in its own appendix: "Reconstructed Book Sources.")

Now, after about two years of research and three years of compiling photos and writing, Johnson has created a user-friendly collection and tribute to American noir's classic era. "It's kind of pleasant because there's nothing in this book about prices or how rare this is--it's not spoken," he says. "That's what I have to do every day, and all that stuff changes every day. I wanted it to be a book where people who didn't care at all about book collecting but loved the jacket design would consider this a cool book."

And it is: a book by a well-informed fan for the fan who wants to be more informed. Johnson is already on tap for Dark Page's follow-up, to focus on noir from 1950 to '65, and he hopes to turn out similar books on Western European noir and, ideally, screwball comedies. And it's impossible to flip through the book without coming away with something you want to check out soon--much like talking with Johnson himself.

"The rule that I made for myself was that the book had to be published as an entertainment before the film came out," he says of the books in The Dark Page. "It couldn't be a novelization that was done later and it couldn't be an actors edition, because the actors editions weren't published as entertainments. They were published for people to learn their lines. The introduction covers all this in nauseating detail. I wanted it to be about something that was turned into something else. And there are a lot of plays in here as well. Gas Light by Patrick Hamilton was a play. But then Patrick Hamilton wrote Hangover Square, which was a novel, and that was also a film noir. It just came out on DVD--awesome."

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