February 4th, 2018

For me, the two most magical places in the world are libraries and bookshops. I still own the first two books I bought with my own money—the Modern Library editions of Walden And Other Writings Of Henry David Thoreau, edited by Brooks Atkinson (1965 edition) and The Complete Works Of Lewis Carroll with illustrations by John Tenniel and introduction by Alexander Woollcott (1940)—from a small bookstore at Putnam and Front streets in Marietta, Ohio. I don’t remember the name of the shop, but I do recall that owner had a thick, eastern European accent and also sold beautiful chess sets.

All of this is prologue to George Orwell’s own remembrances of working in a secondhand bookshop in London: Bookshop Memories, published on 1 November 1936.

Orwell begins his 2,037-word essay:

When I worked in a second-hand bookshop–so easily pictured, if you don’t work in one, as a kind of paradise where charming old gentlemen browse eternally among calf-bound folios—the thing that chiefly struck me was the rarity of really bookish people. Our shop had an exceptionally interesting stock, yet I doubt whether ten per cent of our customers knew a good book from a bad one. First edition snobs were much commoner than lovers of literature, but oriental students haggling over cheap textbooks were commoner still, and vague-minded women looking for birthday presents for their nephews were commonest of all.

(I wonder how at-home Orwell might feel in my own favorite used bookstore: Mac’s Backs?)

The browsers afforded Orwell the opportunity to observe those grazing from the stacks the blind. Of particular interest to me were those described by Orwell’s as the paranoiacs.

…there are two well-known types of pest by whom every second-hand bookshop is haunted. One is the decayed person smelling of old bread-crusts who comes every day, sometimes several times a day, and tries to sell you worthless books.The other is the person who orders large quantities of books for which he has not the smallest intention of paying. In our shop we sold nothing on credit, but we would put books aside, or order them if necessary, for people who arranged to fetch them away later. Scarcely half the people who ordered books from us ever came back. It used to puzzle me at first. What made them do it? They would come in and demand some rare and expensive book, would make us promise over and over again to keep it for them, and then would vanish never to return. But many of them, of course, were unmistakable paranoiacs. They used to talk in a grandiose manner about themselves and tell the most ingenious stories to explain how they had happened to come out of doors without any money–stories which, in many cases, I am sure they themselves believed. In a town like London there are always plenty of not quite certifiable lunatics walking the streets, and they tend to gravitate towards bookshops, because a bookshop is one of the few places where you can hang about for a long time without spending any money.

Over the years I’ve frequented many bookshops without observing a similar phenomenon and I think we can thank Benjamin Franklin and Andrew Carnegie: Franklin for inventing the lending library in 1731 and Carnegie for building 2,509 libraries (including my first public library in Marietta, Ohio (built for $30,000 in 1912), where I spent many, many hours) in the United States (1,689) and the United Kingdom (660).

Orwell closes with an observation that wonder at.

The combines can never squeeze the small independent bookseller out of existence as they have squeezed the grocer and the milkman. But the hours of work are very long–I was only a part-time employee, but my employer put in a seventy-hour week, apart from constant expeditions out of hours to buy books–and it is an unhealthy life. As a rule a bookshop is horribly cold in winter, because if it is too warm the windows get misted over, and a bookseller lives on his windows. And books give off more and nastier dust than any other class of objects yet invented, and the top of a book is the place where every bluebottle prefers to die.

But the real reason why I should not like to be in the book trade for life is that while I was in it I lost my love of books. A bookseller has to tell lies about books, and that gives him a distaste for them; still worse is the fact that he is constantly dusting them and hauling them to and fro. There was a time when I really did love books–loved the sight and smell and feel of them, I mean, at least if they were fifty or more years old. Nothing pleased me quite so much as to buy a job lot of them for a shilling at a country auction. There is a peculiar flavour about the battered unexpected books you pick up in that kind of collection: minor eighteenth-century poets, out-of-date gazeteers, odd volumes of forgotten novels, bound numbers of ladies’ magazines of the sixties. For casual reading–in your bath, for instance, or late at night when you are too tired to go to bed, or in the odd quarter of an hour before lunch–there is nothing to touch a back number of the Girl’s Own Paper. But as soon as I went to work in the bookshop I stopped buying books. Seen in the mass, five or ten thousand at a time, books were boring and even slightly sickening. Nowadays I do buy one occasionally, but only if it is a book that I want to read and can’t borrow, and I never buy junk. The sweet smell of decaying paper appeals to me no longer. It is too closely associated in my mind with paranoiac customers and dead bluebottles.

I wonder what Orwell would think of Amazon?


Coming next week: Down The Mine…

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