Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
The Burroughs collector finds himself faced with several stoppers in his quest for a complete collection. Some items while not particularly rare are prohibitively expensive such as the Ace Junkie, Olympia Press Naked Lunch or the many beautifully constructed limited editions of Burroughs’ later collaborations like the Seven Deadly Sins. Then there are those items that are legendary rarities never seen on the modern literature market. The offprint of the “Letter from a Master Addict of Dangerous Drugs” is one example. Issue Number 24 of Floating Bear magazine is yet another.
Possibly the most notorious Burroughs rarity is the Digit edition of Junkie published in Great Britain in 1957. This rarer offspring of the Ace paperback of 1953 was the first separate printing of Junkie. Collectors of pulp fiction, drug literature, first novels, Beat literature, modern highspots and of course Burroughs collectors might seek this slim volume for a lifetime. The reason for this rarity proves quite interesting. Junkie was published in Britain in 1957 as one of many examples of drug store pulp popular in the 1950’s. Like its Ace predecessor, the wrappers of the Digit Junkie possessed lurid cover art depicting a man and a woman struggling over a syringe. But unlike the Ace Junkie which was published dos-Ã -dos with a novel by Maurice Helbrant about a narcotics agent, the rear wrapper of the Digit Junkie depicted a risqué picture of a woman raising her skirt and injecting heroin into her exposed thigh. As in the United States, British censorship authorities at the time were investigating and regulating the pornographic qualities of pulp fiction cover art. The rear wrapper of Junkie was just too graphic and British authorities demanded the book never hit the stands and in fact demanded that the entire print run be pulped. The result was a legendary collectible much like pulp counterpart Reform School Girl, or the previously discussed Dot recording of Jack Kerouac.
The Digit Junkie proves to be so rare that some collectors are willing to purchase it in almost any condition. Case in point is a copy that recently appeared on eBay. The text block of the book was completely detached from the wrappers. A few pages separated from the text block as well. Yet all the pages were present and the wrappers were fairly bright and clean. Generally, condition of this type would make the book completely undesirable even as a reading copy. This copy sold quite handsomely at roughly $2700 to a dealer who promptly sold it to a customer. The book comes to the market that rarely. Unless there are boxes of Digit Junkies wasting away in a warehouse waiting to be discovered, this book will continue to be the holy grail of Burroughs, pulp, drug culture collectors for years to come. The recent re-discovery and marketing of a Bill Graham warehouse of rock memorabilia proves that anything is possible.
How rare is it? The Zinnato collection possessed a beautiful copy. Zinnato attempted to sell his entire collection in 2002 or so through Dailey Rare Books. One of the booksellers who catalogued the collection stated that copies come on the market every ten years. In an article on the profitability of pulp fiction, the Guardian UK specifically pointed out the Digit Junkie as a true rarity. I have never seen a number associated with existing copies but recently I asked several dealers which were more unusual the British Journal of Addiction offprint at a rumored 50 copies or the Digit. All dealers agreed that the Digit was the trickier item to locate.
This assertion is somewhat proven by my experience. I have been diligently collecting Burroughs items since 1993. Believe me both items are rare and I can remember seeing the offprint once or twice in ten years in catalogs and at auction. I dimly recall a Digit at the Nelson Lyon sale in 1999 but no other. Granted I did not actively search for these items until the last 1-2 years for financial reasons. In the past two years or so, I have come across more Digits that offprints. BeatBooks in London offered at least two that I know of. Skyline Books sold a signed Digit (the only signed copy James Musser or myself had ever heard of). The eBay copy is another. The Offprint seemed harder to come by although a search on the internet reveals that two British booksellers have offered copies recently. In any case, the Digit Junkie is truly a find for any collector.
Price: The Guardian UK article claims that Junkie sells for as much as 7,000 pounds a copy unsigned. This seems sensationalistic. The general consensus agrees that $5,000 is the going rate for a suitable copy, i.e very good to very good plus with the usual fading and creasing to spine and wrappers. One dealer told me fine copies just don’t exist. A signed copy can range from $9000-$15,000. BeatBooks had a copy at 650 pounds in a recent catalog. That surely must have been a misprint.