Fifty years ago, almost to the day, I had the good fortune to become a bookseller. Like most of the interesting things in my life this happened by accident. A small bookstore in North London, previously operated by the Communist Party, had become vacant and, with no more than the briefest previous experience I was brave or foolhardy enough to take it over and transform it into something more reader friendly. The old stock, including the complete works of Karl Marx in German and the complete works of Joseph Stalin in Russian, was shipped out to find a more appreciative audience, and the shelves filled up with modern novels, classics, children’s books and all the other delightful literary paraphernalia of a small general bookstore.
In those days we didn’t sell gifts, greeting cards, CDs, magazines or toys - just books. Nothing could have been more delightful. Nothing could have been more pleasing to me than to be king in my own little domain of books. I read the reviews, read the books themselves, ordered from the publishers’ representatives according to my whim, produced a little newsletter for my customers, some of whom were quite famous writers, and talked about books all day long. It was the most agreeable of occupations.
Bookselling used to be an historic and even a romantic profession. Once printing had been invented in the fifteenth century the first bookstores soon appeared, often combined with a publishing and printing enterprise. These were mainly small and precarious businesses, so nothing much has changed there, but because of the customers they attracted and the many secrets that might be hidden in the books themselves, bookstores came to feature in many novels. There are Victorian bookshop mysteries, cat bookshop mysteries, haunted bookshop mysteries, tales by Umberto Eco, Sylvia Townsend, Paul Auster , Ross King, Lawrence Block, and one I read recently with pleasure called Mr. Penumbra’s Twenty-Four Hour Bookshop by Robin Sloan. Many authors have found the bookstore a convenient setting, an ideal hiding place for criminals, amateur detectives, mystics, and anti-social misfits. If in doubt give one of your characters a job in a bookstore, and something strange is bound to happen.
Bookselling now seems a quaint and antique occupation, like thatching or blacksmithing. What remains is mostly another corporate enterprise of giant supermarkets and Internet distribution. A few independent bookstores survive. Most of them are still rather eccentric places that remind me of my own short-lived enterprise in London all those years ago. Short-lived because bookselling is not alas one of the most profitable occupations. Even then only a few people read books, and fewer still actually bought them. My accounting was always on the optimistic side, and perhaps rather idiosyncratic too. Profit never entered my mind. In fact I enjoyed buying books much more than selling them – a fatal weakness.
I can’t resist ending with this quotation from one of the great publishers of the twentieth century, Stanley Unwin. "To write books is easy, it requires only pen and ink and the ever-patient paper. To print books is a little more difficult, because genius so often rejoices in illegible handwriting. To read books is more difficult still, because of a tendency to go to sleep. But the most difficult task of all that a mortal man can embark on is to sell a book."
Copyright: David Bouchier