Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Book Store

When I was growing up book stores were a rarity outside of the big cities.  We relied on libraries which, back then, actually contained books and were not multi-media centers.  Towns like mine, with a population of about 70,000, usually contained one small store containing hard cover books, tucked away on a side street and run by a knowledgeable owner who made you feel like a member of a special cult when you entered the store.
(Sherman's Book Store, Bar Harbor, Maine)

My favorite thing to do, both in libraries and book stores, was to browse, searching for titles previously unknown to me, that seemed intriguing and worth closer inspection. Fortunately, I had another option.  My father and uncle operated a large variety store in a neighboring town, selling newspapers, magazines, toys, candy, greeting cards, wrapping paper, records, household items and some clothing.  The store also contained two or three racks of inexpensive paperback books. I devoured the science fiction I found there - books by Robert Heinlein, Andre Norton, Clifford Simak, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clark, Ray Bradbury, AE van Vogt, along with  "one-hit wonders" like A Canticle For Liebowitz by Walter Miller. (from bookfever)

(from amazon)

Since those days much has changed.  The 1980s and early 1990s saw the rise of bookstore chains like Barnes & Noble, Borders and Walden.  They brought large inventories of books to the smaller cities and suburbs, often at better prices than the old book stores.  The availability and ease of going to these stores and the enjoyment of browsing along with often having a coffee shop to sit down and read at, was all terrific for readers.  The downside was the devastation it brought to the small, independent stores.  While some have survived and prospered, many have gone out of business.

In the last few years it has been the turn of the big chains to be destroyed, primarily by Amazon.  Borders and Walden are out of business and the remaining Barnes & Noble stores have reduced their book inventories by half, filling the empty space with music and nick-knacks.  Amazon has been a boon for the reader; you can find anything you are looking for, usually at a reasonable price, and have it delivered.  The problem for the browser is that Amazon is most effective when you already know what you want.  Even its algorithms for suggesting books you might be interested in has limited viability for the dedicated browser.

The Atlantic recently carried an article, A Golden Age of Books?, by Alexis Madrigal, reminding us that these changes were not the first in the bookselling industry.  Madrigal's article is about Kenneth C Davis' 1984 book Two Bit Culture: The Paperbacking of America, which is about:
"the Paperback Revolution" that "enabled American writers to find American readers by the millions" among the "Paperback Generation." Mass-market paperbacks, we're told, "made an enormous contribution to our social, cultural, educational, and literary life." 
I can certainly attest to my own experience as a youngster.  You could buy a paperback for 35, 50, 75 or 95 cents, rather than the much more expensive hard cover books.  They were smaller and easier to carry.

But what really caught Madrigal's attention was this description of the book selling world of America in 1931, before the paperback avalanche:
"In the entire country, there were only some four thousand places where a book could be purchased, and most of these were gift shops and stationary stores that carried only a few popular novels," Davis writes. "In reality, there were but five hundred or so legitimate bookstores that warranted regular visits from publishers' salesmen (and in 1931 they were all men). Of these five hundred, most were refined, old-fashioned 'carriage trade' stores catering to an elite clientele in the nation's twelve largest cities."
Two thirds of American counties had no bookstores.  Most of America was literate but was not reading books, though newspapers had huge circulation.  For those interested in the latest in novels or non-fiction and living outside the major cities, they had to resort to the same means as George Washington did when he built his book collection in the second half of the 18th century - hear from friends and acquaintances about books, in person or by letter, or via newspaper and then order them for delivery.


  1. Sherman's Book Store and paperback sci-fi sure bring back a lot of memories!

  2. Excellent post as usual Mark. There were of course public libraries. Andrew Carnegie built 2,509 public libraries between 1883 & 1929. Norwalk Library (the one on Belden) is a Carnegie library.