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Page last updated at 14:32 GMT, Wednesday, 25 August 2010 15:32 UK
Calne collector's 15,000 Penguins

By Sarah Jones
BBC Wiltshire

Steve Hare
Steve Hare, from Calne, believes he has the World's largest collection of Penguins in private hands

It was 75 years ago, this year, that the first Penguin paperback hit the shelves.

Costing just sixpence, they weren't expected to last long or enjoy much of a shelf life.

But far from being read and recycled, the iconic Penguin paperback was kept and cherished and is now a collectors item. As Steve Hare, who's been collecting Penguins on an "industrial scale" for the last 45 years, knows.

With what he believes is the largest collection of Penguins in private hands in the World, Steve's library of 15,000 paperbacks have not only taken over his home in Calne but overflowed into a garden outhouse.

So what is it about the Penguin Paperback that has made it still desirable at 75?

"I think that Penguin thought that these things would be ephemeral," says Steve, a trustee of the Penguin Collectors Society.

"But these were the first books that people ever owned, and time and time again you come across books that they'd kept, cherished and treasured."

Number 666

With the average hardback costing the equivalent of a week's rent, in the 1930s, a good contemporary read for most was absolutely unobtainable.

That is until Penguin's founder, Allen Lane, brought out the first sixpenny paperbacks in the now iconic Penguin colours of orange for fiction, green for crime and blue for biography.

Steve hare
Steve with just 1% of his collection

Now 75 years on, and the 'throwaway' Penguin has become a collector's item, albeit not a lucrative one for its devoted collectors.

"Collecting is kind of based on filling in the numbers, and Penguin paperbacks are all numbered," admits Steve who's already got the first 2,000 Penguins published and is now working on the next 1,000.

He adds: "As a result there were great editorial fights over who would get number one and who would get number 100.

"And there are all these little Penguin jokes. Number 666, for instance, is Defy the Foul Fiend. Number 1001, of course, is The Thousand and One Nights and there's a book called Scotland Yard and its number is 1212 because Scotland Yard's phone number was 1212."

But it's Penguin's main series number 1,000 that Steve believes got a lot of people picking up Penguins.

"It's called One of Our Submarines by Edward Young," says Steve. "Edward Young had the distinction of being asked by Allen Lane to go along to London Zoo, once they'd decided they were going to be called Penguin, and draw the Penguin.

"So that was Allen Lane's way of thanking him by giving him Penguin number 1000."

Famously rare Penguin

But it's not just the significantly numbered that are sought-after. Among the most coveted Penguins, among collectors, are the crime fiction paperbacks printed during the war.

"Typically they were passed around air-raid shelters. They were sent out to troops abroad and were read to death," says Steve.

"And they were made on very poorly made paper. They would get paper from wherever they could.

Massacre by Sine
Massacre so outraged Penguin's founder he pulped it

"They had to recycle it. So they would throw straw, anything into it to eke the paper out, and in some of the wartime books you can actually see whole words from previous printings on the page."

But it's a cartoon book by French cartoonist Sine that takes the title of the most "famously rare Penguin". Published in the 60s, Massacre glories in Sine's obsessions with the Catholic church, nuns and mutilation.

Steve says: "Allen Lane took offence to it, so he sneaked into his own warehouses at night and removed every copy that hadn't been sold and either burnt, buried or composted what was left.

"So, a few of these were sold but no one knows how many."

Needless to say, Steve has already secured his rare copy of Sine along with another classic rarity Biggles Flies Again - which, according to Steve, has 99 out of 100 Penguin collectors desperately "looking for their Biggles."

For Steve, though, despite having 1970 (the date Allen Lane died) as his cut off for collectible books and despite already having a "few trees worth" of shelved Penguins - his pile of paperbacks is not only still growing but becoming a liability.

"It's more then a collection," says Steve. "This is really getting on to being museum quality. So the British Library is one option."

"And I've got three daughters, so it would be an awful millstone around their neck to suddenly give them two lorry loads of books to drag around - you know whenever they buy a house - they're going to have to buy a house with a huge extra room."

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