June 13, 2012

When did America get its bookstores?

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It’s 1931, in a book industry without returns, discounting, superstores, or even paperbacks. Where do you buy a book? As Alexis Madrigal writes in The Atlantic, the answer is not so simple. He cites a 1984 study by popular historian Kenneth C. Davis, who writes in his book Two-Bit Culture: The Paperbacking of America that:

“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.”

Furthermore, two-thirds of American counties — 66 percent! — had exactly 0 bookstores. It was a relatively tiny business centered in the urban areas of the country. Did some great books come out back then? Of course! But they were aimed only at the tiny percentage of the country that was visible to publishers of the time: sophisticated urban elites. It wasn’t that people couldn’t read; by 1940, UNESCO estimated that 95 percent of adults in America were literate. No, it’s just that the vast majority of adults were not considered to be part of the cultural enterprise of book publishing. People read stuff (the paper, the Bible, comic books), just not what the publishers were putting out.

Davis’ work draws on a “‘landmark survey of publishing practices’ carried out by one Orin H. Cheney, a banker, as a service to the National Association of Book Publishers,” and the numbers show that our own era—during which retail space dedicated to books seems to be shrinking back to 1930s levels, after massive expansions in the 1960s and 1990s—isn’t all that different from 1931.

To Madrigal, there’s a lesson to be drawn from people comparing what was in the bookstores of the 20th century to what’s published every day on the Internet: “They’re taking the most elite offerings that could be imagined, which were based on the tastes of the most educated people in 12 cities, and comparing them to the now-visible reading habits of everyone on the Internet.”

Kelly Burdick is the former executive editor of Melville House.

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