The Bookstore and the Customer


Two complementary articles recently printed in the Atlantic — Mr. Arnold’s ‘Welfare of the Bookstore’ and Mr. Newton’s ‘Decay of the Bookshop’ — must have interested many who, like myself, have always been buyers as well as readers of books. Perhaps there are more of us than Mr. Newton thinks — not buyers in his class, not collectors or devotees of the rare and the beautiful, but people whose occupations oblige them, perhaps, to buy books of certain kinds, and who buy other kinds simply for the pleasure of reading them. And there are one or two reasons, which neither Mr. Arnold nor Mr. Newton lays stress upon, why we do not buy as many books as we might.

One reason is the gradual reduction of living-space, and therefore of space for the keeping of books, which has affected so many of the dwellers in cities. Houses have largely given way to apartments, and apartments grow smaller and smaller. Of course, there are apartment-palaces for the millionnaire, and these seem to grow larger and larger. But year by year the walls of the average apartment contract while the rent expands, and the former process is quite as effectual as the latter in restricting the outlay for books. Just now in New York there is a rapid trend toward the impossibly exiguous. Scores of houses and large apartments are being altered into nests of ‘ two rooms, a bath, and a kitchenette,’ the occupants of which must seek most of their food around the corner, in the hotel or the bakeshop. These fragments of a house are not for the poor: they are held at rentals which only those can pay who a very few years ago could get eight or ten rooms for the same sum. Even if there is money left over when rent and food have been paid for, where is a man or a woman to put new books, or even old and treasured ones, when he can hardly buy a coat, or she a skirt, without giving away the old one to free the hook it hung upon?

No matter what their inborn tastes and desires, or their former practices, such perchers on a mere twig of habitation can be little concerned with the functioning or the fate of the bookshop. More and more they thank God for the public and the semi-public library. The other day a busy woman, unexpectedly dispossessed of her apartment, which is to be turned into several ‘two rooms,’ etc., told me that she positively must find another in the same part of town, giving as a main reason the need to live where, on her way to or from her office, she could stop at the Society Library for a book.

It is not remarkable that this deterrent influence upon the buying of books should have escaped the notice of Mr. Arnold and Mr. Newton. But I think it is remarkable that neither of them dwells upon the chief shortcoming of the bookstore of to-day — the inefficiency of its salesmen. Incidentally Mr Newton advises booksellers to get ‘intelligent’ assistants, and he describes in a graphic way the lack of manners and of information that often confronts one at the book-counters of the department-store. But in our largest, finest, most highly considered bookstores we are not quite sure to find good manners, and are very likely not to find even what might be thought the minimum of intelligence.

Examples speak louder than generalizations. A few years ago I asked in a bookshop for a history of commerce, or some work dealing with the commercial experience of Europe and especially of Great Britain. I already had Adam Smith, but did not say so. It was one of the two or three best bookstores in New York, and I spoke with the chief salesman, who has since set up a bookshop of his own. He knew of no such book as I wanted, but said he would inquire; when he had inquired he knew no more, but promised to investigate further and to write to me; and a few days later he wrote that no such work existed. Even apart from the Wealth of Nations, he was, of course, mistaken.

Another day, in the same store, I asked for a certain edition of Swinburne’s works. I had forgotten the name of the edition, but knew the number of volumes and the price. Evidently the young man to whom I spoke had never heard of Swinburne. Together we searched the shelves where he said a poet would stand. Finding nothing, he too went to inquire. When he returned, swinging a book in his hand, he remarked, ‘I guess this is what you want but it’s shy on the price.’ It was not what I wanted, but I could neither find nor learn about anything else. I do not imply that every salesman in a bookstore ought to know about all the editions of Swinburne, or that all editions ought to be on the shelves of every store. But such an inquiry as mine should, I think, have brought from somebody more information than I got from my slangy young man.

In another big shop which offers only the publications of the firm itself, largely consisting of classical and educational books, one might expect to find competent salesmen. Here I asked a while ago for Aristotle’s Ethics. The gentleman who went to search returned to say that, while they had Aristotle’s works, these included no Ethics. I asked to be piloted to the shelf he had searched, and found that he had carefully examined a set of Aristophanes!

Again: a few weeks ago I wanted a book which I had seen advertised some months before. I did not remember the author’s name, but knew that it related to the oracles of Delphi and was published by X and Co., an English firm. At two large shops I could get no trace of it, although, apparently, the publishers’ lists were consulted. So I tried the New York offices of X and Co. I was received in a charming little library where a pleasant young woman asked my wishes. I gave her the title as ‘The Oracles of Delphi,’ or ‘The Delphic Oracles,’ speaking as distinctly as possible, and she wrote on her pad, ‘Articles of Delfi.’ When this had been corrected, she sought information in an inner sanctum, and returned with the message that only a few copies of the book had been imported, all had been sold, and no more would be ordered, but I might find a copy in a bookstore. ‘And here,’ said the young lady, ‘is the correct title,’ producing a slip on which she had written ‘Orkles of Delphic,’ with the author’s name, also misspelled.

Is it strange that such attendants discourage the frequenting of bookstores? I myself never go to one except as some special reason may force the adventure. I write for what I want, knowing that better wits may thus be set to work upon my order than usually respond to a spoken inquiry; and often I write to the publisher, not to a bookstore.

Of course, no bookseller likes a customer to write instead of coming in person. He must know that, as appetite grows with eating, so the thirst for books grows with seeing them. But if one can get no guidance, if books that should be familiar are unknown, and if those that must be on the shelves are not found, why waste one’s time and fray out one’s temper? I am not the only person who, if there were a really good bookstore in New York, would haunt it and spend more money there than she could afford. And by really good 1 mean one where the customer can sit while she looks at books, as well as one where the attendants know their business.

I am hot condemning the bookseller; I am only explaining the troubles of the customer. I know how difficult it must be to get a salesman or saleswoman who knows anything of books, or is willing and able to learn about them; and I take pains to say that I have found some who are more than polite, who are cordial and friendly, and two or three who, within their special provinces, are competent also. I know one man, for example, who is an authority on novels of mystery and adventure, and a French girl who has a real knowledge of French books. As a rule, however, the attendant, as well as the shop itself, is a weariness to the body and the soul. Far better may one go to the public library if he wants information about books.