That Other Hunger

The writing -- and much, much more -- is on Ryan Richardson's wall

That Other Hunger
Photo By John Anderson

We can all remember that very special book that challenged us to see the world with fresh eyes, pushed us toward our potential, and beseeched us to try something new. Austin's Ryan Richardson certainly does. For him, that pivotal book was Satan Was a Lesbian, and his inspired response involved a quirk of interior decoration. Despite his ongoing LP obsession, the 1966 paperback convinced him that he had to "get into this," while compelling him, for starters, to cover the south wall of his home office with Velcro padding. Onto the Velcro-covered wall he has gently pressed 350 plastic-covered volumes of lesbian-oriented paperbacks from the 1960s, the tip of a pulp-fiction iceberg that Richardson cautiously estimates might make him the largest owner of the genre in the country, if not the world. (Mount Saint Vincent University in Nova Scotia, which houses the largest academic collection in North America, doesn't even come close.) "My wife," he laughs, "is pretty tolerant of the whole lesbian fascination," one he nurtures with all the respect that a curator might lavish on a collection of medieval manuscripts.

"There's definitely a titillating aspect to it," says the 29-year-old. But what really grabs him is the cover art. The literature itself follows a paint-by-numbers script, although there have been some genuine artistic accomplishments to emerge from the kitsch, most notably Women's Barracks, by Tereska Torres. For the most part, though, as Richardson says, "the books themselves can't live up to the covers. I'm in it for the covers, plain and simple." His pursuit is thus a kind of strange inversion of reading Playboy just for the articles.

Richardson tends to say little about himself, preferring to let his collection do the talking. However, his Web site, www.strange sisters.com, offers this: "I am not a lesbian, though I did go to a college nicknamed 'Wesbian.' ... One of the valuable concepts I absorbed at Wesleyan concerned potential. No, not the potential of an English degree to reel in a dream job. No, no, it was a sublime idea first glimpsed on a flier in the community center: 'Every woman is a potential lesbian. Strange sisters everywhere.' A few years later, I discovered the lovely lipsticked world of Fifties and Sixties paperback lesbians. I'd never seen so much potential." He has since been fulfilling this potential through the maniacal pursuit of a fine literary niche. His impressive display of covers provides a kaleidoscopic experience of pornographic undertones and stylistic forms evoking artists from Thomas Hart Benton to Andy Warhol. Covers sporting two buxom women with bulging buttocks locked in a suggestive embrace mix with covers showing college girls entangled on a dorm-room floor, undergarments flung pell-mell. Covers with imprisoned, disrobing women hang alongside covers of leather-clad, vamp seductresses tempting staid housewives to enter the "furtive cult of strange loves and fierce passions." Every now and then you'll catch a lone man (wearing business clothes) lurking in the background and looking more confused than aroused or shocked. "We call that guy 'the befuddled chap,'" Richardson explains.

Richardson had the keen foresight to recognize the 1960s as a transitional era for lesbian pulp fiction. Prior to then, publishers couldn't afford the cultural cost of overtly addressing lesbian themes, at least not on their book covers. By the 1970s, though, they were hashing out pure raunch. "The change to more explicit covers," Richardson laments, "made it less funny," and thereby concentrated the focus of his acquisitions. The titles reflect the ephemeral aspect of his collection, while reiterating just how humorous it can be when sexual themes are dressed in obvious rhetorical disguises. A typewritten inventory on Richardson's desk, labeled with the heading "Loads of Lipstick Lesbians!," provides a pretty fair sampling: Ladder of Flesh, Three's a Crowd, Odd Neighbors, Queer for a Day, Madame Butch, That Other Hunger, Come Play With Me. You get the idea.

As I'm reviewing these titles, Richardson reaches into a desk drawer and excitedly pulls out a "gay paperback" called Donnie and Clyde. It's a book sporting the subtitle "bullets, banjoes, baskets, and buddies." He occasionally dabbles in the gay pulp genre, but generally finds it, um, harder going. "I have a lot of gay paperbacks, and they're fucking hilarious," he says. "But they're harder to find in good condition, probably because people actually read them or because so many were thrown out for fear that they would be discovered." Nonetheless, handing over a paperback titled Gay on the Range, to which the publisher added, "back when men were men, more or less," Richardson shakes his head, laughs, and says, "I've just got to have them." And so the collection grows.

In seeking out lesbian pulp fiction, Richardson balances the patience of a book scout, the shrewdness of a stock trader, and the curiosity of a detective. He's traveled to book shows and hunted down private collectors from Los Angeles to Oklahoma to New York in order to track down coveted titles. More often than not, he's forced to buy in bulk, separate the wheat from the chaff, snatch up the rarities, and sell the rest on eBay. The search brings him into the cavernous and eccentric underworld of paperback trading, a place he clearly enjoys visiting.

Recounting his journey into this subculture, he mentions Randy Ross, an Austin paperback dealer and "professional man of leisure" as a mentor who showed him the underworld's ropes. "Ryan's greatest asset is an extremely creative persistence when he finds something that he wants to collect," Ross says. "I would not want to get in the way of him and something he wanted. He's also not afraid to cold call people, make a pest of himself, and travel." He's especially indebted, though, to the "King of Sleaze," a man who lives in a tiny, rent-controlled Brooklyn apartment and makes his living dealing in all manner of printed smut. It's an especially striking accomplishment given that he has no phone, no computer, and will communicate only via post. "When I visited him I expected he'd be a creep, but he was nice," says Richardson, who insisted that I not print the king's name.

"His apartment was stacked with card catalogs and books. His fridge was wide open. It was full of books." It was there that Richardson landed his most prized title, "a classic" called Dykes on Bikes. It features a cover with two women chasing each other in a frantic circle on motorcycles. One holds a whip, the other a knife. Going for 95 cents in 1968, Dykes on Bikes is now, by Richardson's estimation, worth a couple of hundred dollars.

A plain and simple pursuit? Perhaps. "I feel no need to assign larger historical importance or deeper social relevance to these books," Richardson insists. But then, sounding like an American studies grad student, he adds that he "can think of no other body of visual art so varied, humorous, outrageous, sexy. That this art was the byproduct of an industry pandering to America's seemingly insatiable appetite for trashiness makes it all the greater in my eyes." And so his eyes, ever on the prowl, keep looking. end story

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More by James McWilliams
The Marble Falls
The Marble Falls
The Demise of One Small Town's One-Screen Theatre Comes Down to Cold Logic in a Big Business

Aug. 1, 2003

Book Reviews
The White Rock: An Exploration of the Inca Heartland
James McWilliams reviews Hugh Thomson's The White Rock.

March 14, 2003

KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Ryan Richardson, Satan Was a Lesbian, Women's Barracks, lesbian pulp fiction, Tereska Torres, Dykes on Bikes, Randy Ross, Wesleyan

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle