Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Grocery Bag Book Covers

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Do you remember covering school text books with grocery store bags? When we were in school, textbooks were hard bound and had to last several school years. You were issued books at the beginning of the year with notes on the condition of the cover, binding, and pages and you were expected to turn it back in the following spring only a little worse for the wear of a year’s use. Your family could be charged for badly damaged or lost books, and then, as now, they were expensive.

So one of the requirements was to cover your books. You could buy book covers at your school (usually with the school colors and logo), or find fancy bookcovers with superheroes, hot rods, rock bands–you name it. Many of our families were on tight budgets, and so why not use what was readily available for free–grocery bags. They held up just as well, and you could do your own decorating–just make sure your magic marker didn’t bleed through onto the book! Of course you wrote your name, and the subject.

Not only that, if you knew how to use scissors, it was super simple to do. I covered the book above in just five minutes. Here were the steps:

  1. Collect your materials. Book, scissors, brown paper grocery bag
  2. Cut the bag apart. Cut the bag from top to bottom, ideally on the seam. Then cut the bottom of the bag off.
  3. Figure out the cover length. Center the book on the paper, fold the left side over the front cover, closing the cover so it will be tight when closed. Then cut off excess, leaving the flap about an inch from the binding on the inside. Do the same with the back cover. Remember to put the print side of the grocery bag inside, unless you want to advertise where you shop!
  4. Fold the top and bottom along the top and bottom edge of the book. You could mark it or make a beginning fold on top and bottom, take the book off and make a tight fold.
  5. Then slide paper cover over the front and back covers so that the cover is inside the top and bottom folds of your paper cover.
  6. Decorate to taste!

I discovered in writing this that what we did out of necessity and simply using what is available has become “a thing.” Just search “grocery bag book cover” on the internet and you will see! Stores are returning to paper as an alternative to the non-biodegradable plastic. Some people want to protect the dust jackets on their books. Others like that uniform brown bag look on their shelves rather than a riot of conflicting colors.

Then there are the crafters, who love to draw clever designs on the paper, or even use special papers, (a thick wrapping paper is about the same weight as a paper bag or the store bought covers we used to buy).

But don’t do this for your kids, if they still have books they need to cover–they will not forgive you. It’s easy for them to do–and half the fun is letting them decorate, apply stickers, whatever. That’s how we recycled, stretched the budget, and fostered creativity at the same time!

5 thoughts on “Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Grocery Bag Book Covers

  1. What fun! I remember making those paper book covers — it was part of the back-to-school ritual. But two things in this post surprised me: 1) “When we were in school, textbooks were hard bound and had to last several school years.” That isn’t the case nowadays? I’m almost afraid to ask what schools use for textbooks today; and 2) The fact that people are covering books in their home libraries with grocery-bag covers, in a time when paper grocery bags are no longer ubiquitous.

    Thanks for this post, Bob. It provided me with an enjoyable little walk down memory lane and also contributed to my education.

  2. Thank you for this endearing and nostalgic piece. Such is akin to the “broken windows” theory regarding neighborhood safety and preservation. Pay attention to the “little” things! Teach responsibility and accountability!

  3. I forgot about those. In Junior High, they sold colorful book covers at the supplies store. I thought those were more user-friendly than grocery bags, probably because those covers were really big. I just remember that when I tried to cover my books with grocery bags, it was a bit tight.

  4. Thanks for a great post from the past! A&P bags were sturdy.
    Back in YTown for Boardman Octoberfest.

    Michelle Humans White

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