The Decay of the Bookshop


IN a recent number of the Atlantic my friend Mr. William Harris Arnold had a paper on the Welfare of the Bookstore. I read it attentively, and disagree with his conclusions. As it seems to me that the subject is one which all who read should be interested in, I should like to present my views for what they may be worth.

With Mr. Arnold’s statistics I have no quarrel. He says there are only half as many booksellers in this country as there were fifty years ago. He is in a position to know, and I am willing to accept all his facts as stated. I am not surprised to learn that the condition of the bookseller is so bad that it can hardly become worse, nor is it difficult to discover why. No trade will attract men in which it is practically impossible to make more than a bare, a very bare living. A man may be willing to teach or preach, and starve, but if he elects to make a living by selling something, he is sooner or later going to discover that he can sell almost anything with greater profit than current books.

Mr. Arnold’s remedy for the situation now existing is that publishers grant the booksellers ‘the option of taking books by outright purchase or on memorandum’ — that is to say, on sale and subject to return. I remember once, years ago, hearing the late Andrew Carnegie say to a body of business men that, if he were in a business in which it was impossible for him to tell, at least approximately, how much money he had made or lost in a given month, he would get out of that business. He said that the next best thing to making money was to know that you were not making it — and apply the remedy. Now, if a publisher should establish in any large way the custom of disposing of his publications ‘on sale,’ as the phrase is, I would like to know when, if ever, he could go before his creditors, represented by authors, printers, paper-makers, and binders, and declare himself solvent and worthy of their further confidence.

It seems to me that publishers assume sufficient risk as it is. Many books, I fancy, just about pay their way, showing very little of either profit or loss; there may be a small profit resulting from the average book, and the exceptional book shows either a handsome profit — or a large loss. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, translated so admirably from the Spanish by Charlotte Brewster Jordan, is the most recent of great successes: edition followed edition in such quick succession that the publishing facilities of New York City were heavily drawn upon to keep up with the demand. On the other hand, the publication, some years ago, of Endymion, by Disraeli, then Earl of Beaconsfield, occasioned an enormous loss. His publishers brought out this novel in the then customary three-volume form for, I think, two guineas. No one read into the middle of the second volume. It was a complete failure. A few months after publication every second-hand bookshop in London was trying to dispose of uncut, and unopened, ‘library’ copies at about the cost of binding. It must be admitted that these are extreme instances: the profit in the one case must have amounted to a small fortune, the losses in the other might have driven the publisher into bankruptcy.

The publishing business has always been regarded as extra-hazardous — more respectable than the theatrical business and less exciting, but resembling it in that one never knows whether one is embarked upon a success or a failure until it is too late to withdraw. And it has always been so. Sir Walter Scott, whose career as a publisher is not always remembered, said that the booksellers, as publishers were called in his day, were ‘the only tradesmen in the world who professedly and by choice dealt in what is called “ a pig in a poke,” publishing twenty books in hopes of hitting upon one good speculation, as a person buys shares in a lottery in hopes of gaining a prize’; and Sir Walter Scott had reason to know, as had also Mark Twain.

I remember that, some years ago, a little book, A Publisher’s Confessions, was issued anonymously by Doubleday, Page & Co. It recited the difficulties, financial and other, of a firm of publishers, and is now generally understood to have been written by Walter Hines Page, our late Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s. The writer’s conclusion was that men of such distinction as those who control the organizations known as Scribners, Macmillan, and others of like standing, could earn very much more by devoting their abilities to banking, railroads, or other lines of manufacture; for, he said, ‘publishing as publishing is the least profitable of all professions, except preaching and teaching, to each of which it is a sort of cousin.’ And it is to this harassed person, perplexed by reason of the nature of his calling beyond most business men, that Mr. Arnold would add the financing of the countless bookstores, in many cases in incompetent hands, all over the country from Maine to California. His suggestion is interesting, but I doubt if publishers in any large numbers will take kindly to it. They will probably feel that Mr. Arnold whom I last saw in his own library surrounded by his own priceless books, apparently free from problems of any kind, has suggested a remedy worse than the disease from which they are suffering.

It is, however, to the bookseller rather than the publisher that my heart goes out. We, the readers, have deserted him. A rich, intelligent, and extravagant people, we know nothing, and seemingly wish to know nothing, of the pleasure of buying and owning books. As I see it, the decay of the bookshop set in years ago with the downfall of the lyceum, the debating society, and the lecture platform. We have none of these things now, and if we had not largely given up reading as one of the consequences, I would not be sorry; but the mental stimulation that comes from personal contact has been lost, and seemingly there is nothing that will take its place. Of course, when I say we have none of these things, I mean in proportion to our population and wealth.

In an effort to escape the blame that should be ours, we sometimes say that Mr. Andrew Carnegie, who scattered public libraries all over the land in an effort, relatively successful, to die poor, is responsible for the plight in which the booksellers find themselves; but I am willing to acquit the libraries of all blame. They do an immense amount of good. I never go to a strange city without visiting its library, and I count many librarians among my friends, but I am, nevertheless, always overwhelmed in the presence of countless thousands of books, as I might be in the presence of crowned heads; indeed, I think that, idle curiosity once gratified, crowned heads would not impress me at all.

And so it is that, not being a scholar or altogether indigent, I do not much use any library except my own. I early formed the habit of buying books, and, thank God, I have never lost it. Authors living and dead — dead, for the most part — afford me my greatest enjoyment, and it is my pleasure to buy more books than I can read. Who was it who said, ‘I hold the buying of more books than one can peradventure read, as nothing less than the soul’s reaching towards infinity; which is the only thing that raises us above the beasts that perish’? Whoever it was, I agree with him; and the same idea has been less sententiously expressed by Ralph Bergengren in that charming little poem in Jane, Joseph and John, the loveliest book for children and grownups since R. L. S. gave us his Child’s Garden of Verses.

My Pop is always buying books:
So that Mom says his study looks
Just like an old bookstore.
The bookshelves are so full and tall,
They hide the paper on the wall,
And there are books just everywhere,
On table, window-seat, and chair,
And books right on the floor.
And every little while he buys
More books, and brings them home and tries
To find a place where they will fit,
And has an awful time of it.
Once, when I asked him why he got
So many books, he said, ‘ Why not? ’
I’ve puzzled over that a lot.

Too many of us who are liberal, not to say lavish, in our household expenses, seem to regard the purchase of books as an almost not-to-be-permitted extravagance. We buy piano-players and talking machines, and we mortgage our houses to get an automobile, but when it comes to a book, we exhaust every resource before parting with our money. If we cannot borrow a book from a friend, we borrow it from a library; if there is anything I like less than lending a book it is borrowing one, and I know no greater bore than the man who insists on lending you a book which you do not intend to read. Of course, you can cure him, ultimately, by losing the volume; but the process takes time.

My philosophy of life is very simple; one does n’t have to study the accursed German philosophers — or any other — to discover that the way to happiness is to get a day’s pleasure every day, — I am not writing as a preacher, — and I know no greater pleasure than taking home a bundle of books which you have deprived yourself of something to buy.

‘ I never buy new books,’ a man once said to me, looking at a pile on my library table; ‘I’ve got to economize somewhere, and they are so expensive.’

‘And yet, ’ I retorted, ‘you enjoy reading; don’t you feel under any obligation to the authors from whom you derive so much pleasure? Someone has to support them. I confess to the obligation.’

When I think how much pleasure I get from reading, I feel it my duty to buy as many current books as I can. I ‘ collect ’ Meredith and Stevenson, the purchase of whose books no longer benefits them. Why should I not also collect George Moore or Locke or Conrad, whom I don’t much like, or Archibald Marshall, whom I do? They are engaged in carrying on the glorious tradition of English literature. It is my duty to give them what encouragement I can, to pay tribute to them; I wish I were not singular in this.


But to return to the bookshop. In addition to having to compete with the many forms of amusement unknown fifty years ago, — it would be superfluous for me to do more than mention the latest of them, the ‘movie,’ — the bookshop elects to sell a ‘nationally advertised’ article in competition with the department store. The publishers allow a fairly liberal margin of profit, if the bookshops were permitted to keep it; but the department stores cut that margin to the quick. For reasons that are well known it is profitable for them to do so: with their immense ‘turnover’ and their relatively small ‘overhead,’ they can buy a book for $1.50, less the usual trade discount of 40 per cent, and sell it at $1.25, or even $1.08, and make money, for the reason that at the next counter they are selling boxes of chocolates, marked: ‘WEEKEND SPECIAL, 70c, Regular Price $1.00,’ which do not cost over forty cents, perhaps less; and they frequently do get a dollar for just such boxes. And what is true of chocolates is true of practically everything they sell, except books and a few other specialties which they use as ‘leaders.’ Books are the only ‘nationally advertised’ specialties which anyone pretends to sell in shops almost exclusively devoted to them. Time was, and it was a sad time, when the monthly magazines, Atlantic, Harper’s, Scribner’s, and the rest, which cost $28.00 per hundred wholesale, were retailed in a large store in Philadelphia for 25 cents each. The highest court to which the question can be carried has ruled that the seller can sell at any price he pleases, provided he does not misstate the facts, as, for example, that his immense purchasing power enables him to undersell his competitors. In some few cases the publishers provide ‘specials,’too: they give extra discounts for quantities, and there are always, alas, ‘remainders’ sold at a loss by the publishers and at quite a tidy little profit by the retailer; but in general the facts are as I have stated.

It must be admitted that the department store helps the publisher by selling hundreds of thousands of copies of books like Dere Mable and the Four Horsemen. The Young Visiters, too, whether it be by Barrie or another, will sell enormously; but just so large as is the sale of books like these, just so small is the sale of books of enduring merit. Perhaps I am wrong, but I fancy that men prefer to buy what I may call good books, while women buy novels and the lighter forms of literature. Now, fancy a man going into a department store and asking for a copy of Tom Jones. He is met by a young lady in a low-cut dress, standing in high-heeled slippers, with her hair gathered up in large puffs which entirely conceal her ears; her nose has been recently powdered, and she looks as if she might be going to a party. ‘ Tom Jones!' she says; ‘is it a boy’s book? Juveniles, second to the right.’ ‘No, it’s a novel,’ you say; and she replies, ‘Fiction, second to the left.’ You move on, avoiding a table on which is a sign, ‘The Newest Books Are On This Table,’ and you meet another young lady, also ready for a party, and repeat your question. ‘Is it a new book?’ she says. ‘No,’ you explain; and she conducts you to a case containing hundreds of volumes of the Everyman’s Series — and an excellent series it is. But the books have been skillfully shuffled, and what you seek is hard to find. While you and she are looking, someone ‘cuts in’ and inquires for a copy of Java Head, to which she promptly replies, ‘One sixty-nine,’ and conducts her customer to a large pile behind which she disappears and is seen, by you, no more. You keep on looking until someone comes to your rescue, and asks if she can do anything for you. You say ‘Tom Jones,’ and she, being an intelligent person, says, ‘Fielding,’ and conducts you to the fine-book department, where you are finally shown a set of Fielding flashily bound in what appears to be morocco, marked $40.00. You demur at the price and explain that you want Tom Jones to read, not a set to put upon your shelves; finally, thanking the ‘saleslady ’ for her trouble, you go out emptyhanded, having wasted half an hour.

And, as a result of this situation, what remains of the once flourishing retail store? It has practically disappeared from the main street, and in some neglected backwater, with a poor stock and little trade, the owner quietly awaits the result of the race between death and the sheriff. Is it any wonder that under these conditions the bookshop languishes? A few good souls are in it for the reason that they are locked in; they cannot get out. A man, it may be presumed, will give a glance around before he decides what is to be his life’s work, and what does he see? He sees a business out of which, as at present conducted, he can hardly hope to make more than a bare living.


If this paper should be read by the proprietor of a retail store, or by his intelligent clerk, I can hear him cry, ‘You are quite right, but we know all this. Have you any remedy?’ Certainly I have nothing to suggest which will prove a royal road to fortune; but I do suggest the selling of good second-hand books along with current publications, and I would stress the second-hand, and call it the rare-book department, for the profits of that department will be found to be surprisingly large. I would say to the proprietor of the bookshop, ‘Bring some imagination to bear on your business.’ Imagination is as necessary to a successful tradesman as to the poet. He is, indeed, only a day-laborer without it. I am reminded of one of the clever bits in Pinero’s play, Iris. A tall distinguished-looking man enters; his appearance instantly challenges attention, and the ingénue inquires who he is, and is told, ‘That is Mr. Maldonadno, the great financier.’ Then comes the question, ‘What is a financier?’ and the telling reply, ‘A financier, my dear, is a pawnbroker — with imagination.’

The point is well made. What quality was it in Charles M. Schwab which, while most of the great business men in America were wringing their hands over what appeared to be their impending ruin, when the war broke out, sent him off to England, to return quickly with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of orders in his pocket? Imagination! It was this same quality, working in conjunction with the imagination of the late J. P. Morgan, which led to the formation of the great Steel Corporation.

There may be little room for the display of this supreme qualification in the retail book business, but there is room for some. Be enterprising. Get good people about you. Make your shopwindows and your shops attractive. The fact that so many young men and women enter the teaching profession shows that there are still some people willing to scrape along on comparatively little money for the pleasure of following an occupation in which they delight. It is as true to-day as it was in Chaucer’s time that there is a class of men who ‘gladly learn and gladly teach,’ and our college trustees and overseers and rich alumni take advantage of this and expect them to live on wages which an expert chauffeur would regard as insufficient. Any bookshop worthy of survival can offer inducements at least as great as the average school or college. Under pleasant conditions you will meet pleasant people, for the most part, whom you can teach and from whom you may learn something. We used to hear much of the elevation of the stage; apparently that has been given over; let us elevate the bookshop. It can be done. My friend, Christopher Morley, —

. . . Phœbus! what a name
To fill the speaking-trump of future fame! —

in his delightful Parnassus on Wheels, shows that there may be plenty of ‘uplift’ and a world of romance in a traveling van well stocked with books. Indeed, a pleasant holiday could be planned along the lines of Roger Mifflin’s novel venture in bookselling. I prophesy for this book, some day, such fame as is now enjoyed by Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey. It is, in fact, just such a book, although admittedly the plump white horse, Pegasus, lacks somewhat the temperamental charm of R. L. S.’s best drawn female character, Modestine.

I was in a college town recently, and passing a shop, I noticed some books in the window and at once entered, as is my habit, to look around. But I stayed only for a moment, for in the rear of the shop I saw a large sign reading, ‘Laundry Received before 9 A.M. Returned the Same Day ’ — enterprise, without a doubt, but misdirected. If the bookshop is to survive, it must be made more attractive. The buying of books must be made a pleasure, just as the reading of them is, so that an intellectual man or woman with a leisure hour may spend it pleasantly and profitably increasing their store. Every college town should support a bookshop. It need not necessarily be so splendid an undertaking as the Brick Row Print and Book Shop at New Haven, over which Byrne Hackett presides with such distinction, or even the Dunster House Book Shop of Mr. Firuski of Cambridge, which in some respects pleases me even better. And to make these ventures the successes they deserve to be, faculty and the students and the public alike should be loyal customers; but it should be remembered that these shops need not, and do not, depend entirely upon local trade. Inexpensive little catalogues can be issued and sent to customers half-way round the world.

Another thing — I have no patience with people who affect to be fond of reading and who seem to glory in their ignorance of editions. ‘All I am interested in,’ they say, ‘is the type: so long as the type is readable, I care for nothing else.’ This is a rather common form of cant. Everything about a book should be as sound and honest and good; it need not be expensive. I have always resented William Morris’s attitude toward books. Constantly preaching on art and beauty for the people, he set about producing books which are as expensive as they are beautiful, which only rich men can buy, and which not one man in a hundred owning them reads. Whereas my friend Mr. Mosher of Portland, Maine, — I call him friend because we have tastes in common; I have in point of fact never met him or done more than exchange a check for a book with him, — has produced, not a few, but hundreds of books which are as nearly faultless as books can be, at prices which are positively cheap. As is well known, Mr. Mosher relies very little upon the bookshops for the marketing of his product, but sells practically his entire output to individual buyers by means of catalogues which are works of art in themselves. We may not fully realize it, but when Mr. Mosher passes away, booklovers of another generation will marvel at the certitude of his taste, editorial and other; for he comes as near to being the ideal manufacturer as any man who ever lived.

I would not for a moment contend that the retail book-trade will in a short time recover from its condition. Symptoms of the disease from which it is now suffering were noticed fifty years ago, and the times are not propitious. We are lovers of games of all kinds — in a word, of sport; the cities are being deserted for the suburbs and the country, and country life is selfish. Churches are affected by it, as the bookshops are. Look around a large city church: for the greater part of the year it is practically deserted, its congregation is out of town; go out in the country, and you will find relatively few churches, and these sparsely attended. Golf, the automobile, and other forms of amusement have a greater drawing power than the preacher, who, like the bookseller, wonders whether, if he had to choose his career over again, he would not adopt some other profession.

But I do not despair of the bookbusiness becoming what it once was — under favorable conditions. In New York City, for example, there is Brentano’s, one of the great bookshops of the world; but Brentano’s has its finebook department, as have Scribner’s and Dutton’s and Putnam’s, and these so-called fine-book departments are doing expensively, as befits New York, what I would have every bookshop do according to its locale, as McClurg is doing in Chicago.

The advantages which would accrue are several. More readers would be made. The book-business of the department stores would not be interfered with in the least — they would remain as now, the best customers for certain classes of publishers who might expect to have some day, in addition, a more thriving class of booksellers than now. And better books would be published — better, that is, in print, paper, and binding. If a man felt that, if he should for any reason wish to dispose of his library, there was in his town a bookseller who would be glad to buy it for a fair price, he might be tempted to buy, say, such a fine edition of Green’s Short History of the English People as the Harpers brought out some years ago, in four well-printed, admirably illustrated volumes, rather than the same work in one volume, badly printed on wretched paper, and so badly bound that it falls to pieces in the reading.

In the fine-book department, which I am urging every bookseller who has survived to start without delay, I would keep out trash; I would admit only good books — good, I mean, in every sense of the word except moral. The department should be in charge of the most intelligent man in the shop, if there be an intelligent man; and I would get one if I had not one, and in these days of profit-sharing, I would give him an interest in the profit of that department. I would buy, too, good books from the second-hand English booksellers, who sell very cheaply; and above all things I would not forget the wisdom stored up in the distorted proverb, —

Early to bed and early to rise,
Work like h——, and advertise.