The Iconic, Legendary Designs Of Black Sparrow Press Books

The Iconic, Legendary Designs Of Black Sparrow Press Books

A great book is a treasure because of the story told by the words between the covers, but some can impart that same kind of thrill before you even flip to the title page. Black Sparrow Press, the small and remarkable 1960s publishing house that gave us Bukowski, did both beautifully with distinctive colours, graphics and type.

Black Sparrow Press was founded in 1966 by John Martin, who together with his wife Barbara who designed almost all of the iconic book covers and spines, mastered the craft of turning a brilliant story into an equally brilliant artefact. The design choices they made half a century ago made the books they published beloved by readers and collectors, then and now.

It begins with Bukowski

The legacy of Black Sparrow Press will always be intrinsically tied to Charles Bukowski, literary laureate of the down-and-out. In 1966, he was a 46-year-old post office employee regularly writing poems for underground publications. Martin discovered his work and got in touch, first as a fan, and then with a proposal: He would offer Bukowski $US100 a month — for life — if he quit his job to write full-time. Martin had enough faith in the man’s talent that he decided to start an entire business based around his words.

It began with Bukowski broadsides, but Martin had bigger plans that would require an investment that went far beyond a mimeo machine. For the next 36 years, he published and promoted a roster of authors who not only helped define that heady era of experimental prose and poetry, but also reintroduced older authors to a whole new audience (please please please, everyone go read something by John Fante! Ask the Dust is fantastic).

My first Black Sparrow Press book was also my first Bukowski: the thinly veiled autobiography Ham on Rye, bought from the (now-defunct) Borders at the (now-defunct) Atrium Mall in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts.

I was catching an early morning flight back to California after my sophomore year of college and wanted something to keep me busy on the journey. I picked it up because it caught my eye, and after scanning the first page I liked how it read, too. I didn’t get any further before I bought it and I didn’t have to because somehow it already made me happy.

Thus began my love affair; I started to learn more about Black Sparrow Press, and now, like other Black Sparrow collectors, can’t pass up a copy — any copy — when I find one at a used bookshop. Because I know I will like what’s inside. And the books themselves — wrapped in matte, slightly textured paper that feels good in the hand and looks good on the shelf — well, they are freaking wonders of print.

Last year I spoke with Martin on the phone for a short piece I wrote in an upcoming book called The Who, the What, and the When, briefly covering his relationship with Bukowski for an illustrated collection of “the secret sidekicks of history”. But I wanted to hear more about his design vision. After we spoke, he sent me an envelope of covers, which I’ve photographed and included here, along with some of the favourites from my own collection.

More than words

Martin knew he wanted his books to stand out on the shelves — a kind of visual shorthand between he and the reader that immediately communicated a level of trust. As he told David Wilk in a WritersCast interview, he saw Black Sparrow as a kind of spiritual successor to New Directions, a publishing company that had the same effect on Martin growing up.

He accomplished this in a few different ways, and was willing to take certain design risks to see his visions through. Rather than stick with the traditional 5 x 8 inches for paperbacks, he opted to increase the dimensions to 6 x 9 inches, now considered a standard size for “literary” works but uncommon at the time.

“All the racks that held the paperbacks in bookstores were built for this smaller format,” he told me. “My sales reps said if I went up it would be the end of Black Sparrow. And I told them: ‘Well, they’re just going to have to build new racks.'”

He also changed how his titles would feel in the hand and look on the shelf. “I hated that slick, coated cover-stock that was generally used on paperbacks. As soon as you opened them the cover would curl away vertically from the book towards the spine. I mean, I understood the reason the publishers did it — it made the covers much less vulnerable. But since we weren’t printing big editions for the mass market, I figured the people who would buy our books would take care of them,” he said. “So we used white or light-coloured stock that we colour-printed in both letterpress, and later a combination of both letterpress and offset. Everything just looked so much brighter.”

This choice of cover-to-cover letterpress was a monumental undertaking — eventually he switched to offset for the pages, but kept the covers in all their gorgeous matte glory. In addition to the paperbacks, Martin was also bringing a fine press sensibility to the market with concurrent runs of limited edition hardcovers of each release — an unusual practice then, and now.

An artist emerges

If the combo of Martin’s sensibilities and Bukowski’s skills were the basis for the company, it was actually Martin’s wife Barbara — whom he met on a blind date and married three months later — whose creative work turned the Black Sparrow collection into icons. She provided an integral ingredient in that alchemy that made them special.

Barbara didn’t have a graphic design background. “She’d never even taken an art course of any kind,” Martin says. She was 22 years old, and had worked for a few months at a department store where they laid out newspaper advertising. She had picked up a little information about type, and how to arrange it, and all that — just very commercial stuff. But she had a vision far beyond that, and she expressed it.”

The first three or four Black Sparrow projects — “just pamphlets, really” — were designed by the printer (“Who was a good designer!” Martin said). But one day, during the little-over-an-hour drive from LA to Santa Barbara, Barbara decided to start sketching. “I had the manuscripts all ready to go,” Martin said. “She looked at them and said: ‘I could do better than that.’ I said: “Lemme see.” So she sat with her sketchpad and designed all five books.”

And thus began her role as cover artist. “She normally didn’t read the manuscripts,” Martin said. “I would tell her who wrote the book — what they were like, personally — and more or less what the manuscript contained. Then she would take that all in and do a half a dozen sketches. We’d talk about them, she’d do two or three more, we’d look at them, and then she’d finish them off.”

“She did most of it on her own. In those days there were no computers; all of the covers were done by hand with pressed type. Each cover, was an original little work of art with the type pasted on it.”

Post script

Martin was the sole proprietor of Black Sparrow Books until he sold the company in 2002. When he began, he was selling to over a thousand independent booksellers; in the end, that number had shrunk to 50, with the majority of sales going to three big retailers — a sign of the changing times that only went to show Bukowski, Fante, and a few others can be found by the Harper Collins imprint Ecco, with the rest of the backlist available here.

I’d recommend a trip to your local shop to track down a well-loved copy of your choosing, to have and to hold.