Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Grocery Bag Book Covers


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!

Book Covers

A secular age

Over the weekend, I found a used, hardbound copy of Charles Taylor’s The Secular Age for twenty percent of its retail price. Needless to say I was pleased. I did encounter an interesting anomaly, though. The dust jacket is designed to cover the bottom three quarters of the book leaving the top, on which Charles Taylor’s name is embossed, uncovered on the front and spine. Needless to say, it further piqued my curiosity about a book that has long been on my “want” list.

It has been said that “you can’t judge a book by its cover,” which is quite true. I’ve read truly important books with prosaic covers and dull or unsubstantial books with attractive ones. But one thing can be said about book cover design–it is meant to get the reader to pick up the book and at least consider buying it (or read an online preview). I think one of the delights of a physical bookstore is the visual delight we gain just browsing the covers of books.

My wife and I are fans of the British comedy, As Time Goes By. The leading male character, Lionel Hardcastle, is an aspiring author who manages to get his memoir, My Life in Kenya, published. He is alarmed when he becomes the subject of a photo shoot for the cover dressed in khakis and bush hat with a rifle in arm and a scantily clad woman clinging to his leg. His publisher, Alistair, tells him that all this has one object–to visually say “pick me up and buy me.”

That worked like a charm for me as an young teenager picking up copies of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. Yes, you guessed it–Bond in some exotic setting surrounded with buxom women in bikinis. At least it worked until my dad found my stash of Bond paperbacks and tossed them.

My first edition of Lord of the Rings was the Ballantine Books paperbacks published in the 1970’s with artwork that formed a triptych. I’d heard from my friends that this was an incredible adventure fantasy, and the cover art suggested the same thing.


I am a fan of the work of David McCullough, and one of the things I have found is that the cover art on his books always represents what I will find within the pages, something I think should be a criterion. Here is his cover for The Greater Journey, about Americans who lived in Paris during the nineteenth century.


Last fall, while recovering from foot surgery, I re-read Anna Karenina in the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation. It is a great translation of this sprawling Tolstoy work centered around Anna’s illicit love affair. While I didn’t buy the book because of the cover (I had heard great things about the translation–really!), the cover leaves no doubt about the sexual undercurrent of the book, without being distasteful.


Over the years I’ve admired the cover art on a number of books published by InterVarsity Press (I will acknowledge that I work for the parent organization with which this publisher is associated). I do know that this reflects an intentional effort as expressed in their statement of values where they state “Aiming for thoughtful integration of the whole person and placing emphasis on the dignity of people and relationships, IVP practices beauty and stewardship in our work.”

One of their books that caught my attention over forty years ago, not only for its astute cultural analysis, but also for the graphic design of its cover was The Dust of Death by Os Guinness, which included a work of contemporary art against a white background with the title and author in a very clean font. Here it is:

Dust of Death

That tradition of aesthetically striking design combined with content has been carried on down to the present. Here is the cover of a publication I recently reviewedOur Deepest Desires:

Our Deepest Desires

I realize this is quite subjective and others may choose different, and surely better examples, but the covers of books, much like LP album covers, are a part of the reading experience. We encounter books primarily through our eyes (although touch and even smell are also part of it with physical books, and sound with audiobooks). I have to confess that some books I’ve kept not only because of content, but for how they appear on my shelves.

I’ve just scratched the surface and would love to hear about and see book covers that you love, and the role book covers play in your own reading experience.