page explores book retailing, past and present.
It covers -
Bookselling has followed the same trajectory as retailing
of other cultural commodities, marked by the emergence
of large retail chains (leveraging economies of scale
and inventory management tools, albeit often with indifferent
service and unwillingness to cater for what are perceived
as niche markets) and the persistence of notions of the
book trade as a vocation rather than occupation.
In considering the history of bookselling in the West
we can identify several themes.
The first is change and continuity in the physical commodity.
For the first two hundred years most books were sold unbound,
with an expectation that the purchaser would have them
bound (or rebound) in a way that met their circumstances
and tastes. Many were sold directly by the printer, with
the one establishment combining the function of publisher,
printer and retailer. The lack of a hard binding has persisted
in France, where many books are still released with a
soft binding in a uniform grey or white.
A second theme is the way that bookselling has tracked
the 'industrialisation of retailing' that is evident in
the rise of electronics, fast food, clothing, furniture
and other chains. The evolution of those chains reflects
access to capital (and often advantageous terms from wholesalers),
advertising beyond the resources of individual establishments
and management tools (in particular large-scale inventory
'McBookselling' - and predatory practice by some chains
- has attracted criticism from independent retailers,
publishers, critics (with for example concerns about creation
of 'blockbusters') and discerning consumers. restrictions
such as UK Net Book Agreement (NBA) have been less effective.
Chains in the US include Waldenbooks and Borders. In Japan
they include Kinokuniya, Maruzen, Sanseido and Bunkyodo.
A third theme has been that bookselling - as with books
- can embody particular cultural values, resulting on
occasion in characterisation of the bookshop as an "occupation
for gentlemen" (or merely for single women of gentle
birth). Emphasis on bookselling as a vocation rather an
a wholly-commercial occupation reflected the aspirations
of librarians and the ethos within parts of the publishing
industry that resulted in publication on the grounds of
merit rather than likely high sales.
A final theme is the persistence of retail distribution
beyond the shopfronts of purpose-specific bookshops. The
emergence of virtual retailers such as Amazon.com
has been characterised as a decisive and unprecedented
break in bookselling. It is in fact merely the latest
iteration of a mode of distribution that dates from the
beginning of printing. Many sales in Georgian England,
for example, were by mail and the dominant booksellers
in the 19th century US were Sears Roebuck and its peers.
Book retailing is often conceptualised as the interaction
of a consumer and a specialist shop. That image is not
applicable to much of the market. In the US by the late
1990s only 45% of sales (by unit rather than value) were
attributable to businesses whose raison d'etre was bookselling.
Within that cohort 17% of sales were by independent bookshops,
25% by chains such as Borders and Angus & Robertson
and 3% to secondhand bookshops. 25% of sales were 'direct
to the consumer' (including 23% through book clubs) and
29% through a variety of outlets that include supermarkets
and department stores).
bibliographies and general studies
Among bibliographies we recommend Robin Myers' The
British Book Trade From Caxton to the Present Day: A Bibliographical
Guide (London: Deutsch 1973).
Insights on contemporary retailing are offered by Andre
Schiffrin's The Business Of Books: How The International
Conglomerates Took Over Publishing & Changed The Way
We Read (New York: Verso 2000), Jason Epstein's
Book Business: Publishing Past Present & Future
(New York: Norton 2000), Tyler Cowan's iconoclastic In
Praise of Commercial Culture (Cambridge: Harvard
Uni Press 1998) and Laura Miller's Reluctant Capitalists:
Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption (Chicago:
Uni of Chicago Press 2006), Harold Vogel's Entertainment
Industry Economics (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni Press
1998), Thomas Whiteside's The Blockbuster Complex:
Conglomerates, Show Business & Book Publishing
(Middletown: Wesleyan Uni Press 1981) and Richard Caves'
Creative Industries: Contracts Between Art & Commerce
(Cambridge: Harvard Uni Press 2000). For a broader view
see From Revolution To Revolution: perspectives on
publishing & bookselling, 1501-2001 (New Castle:
Oak Knoll Press 2002) by Leona Rostenberg & Madeleine
An introduction to bookselling in the UK is provided by
John Feather's A History of British Publishing (London:
Croom Helm 1988), Marjorie Plant's The English Book
Trade (London: Allen & Unwin 1974), Joy Thomas'
The Truth About Bookselling (London: Pitman 1964)
and Cambridge History of the Book in Britain
(Cambridge: Cambridge Uni Press 1999-) edited by David
Historical perspectives are available in The Human
Face of the Book Trade, Print Culture & Its Creators
(Winchester: St Paul's Bibliographies 1999) edited by
Peter Isaac & Barry McKay, their The Moving Market:
Continuity & Change in the Book Trade (New Castle:
Oak Knoll Press 2001) and The Reach of Print: Making,
Selling & Using Books (Winchester: St Paul's
Bibliographies 1998), The Business of Books: Booksellers
and the English Book Trade 1450-1850 (New Haven:
Yale Uni Press 2007) by James Raven, The Book Trade
& Its Customers, 1450-1900 (New Castle: Oak Knoll
Press 1997) edited by Giles Mandelbrote & Arnold Hunt
and The Stationers' Company & the Book Trade 1550-1990
(New Castle: Oak Knoll Press 1997) edited by Robin Myers
& Michael Harris.
For the NBA see in particular Books Are Different:
An Account of the Defence of the Net Book Agreement before
the Restrictive Practices Court in 1962 (London:
Macmillan 1966) by R E Barker & G R Davies and Free
Trade in Books: A Study of The London Book Trade Since
1800 (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1964) by James Barnes
Stuart Bennett's Trade Bookbinding in the British
Isles, 1660-1800 (New Castle: Oak Knoll Press 2004)
offers a revisionist view of bindings, a question explored
later in this profile.
Other works of value include W G Corp's Fifty Years
- A Brief Account of the Associated Booksellers of Great
Britain & Ireland, 1895-1945 (Oxford: Blackwell
1945), Ralph Straus' The Unspeakable Curll, Being
Some Account of Edmund Curll, Bookseller (London:
Chapman & Hall 1928).
For the US see John Tebbel's A History of Book Publishing
in the United States, Bookselling in America
& the World (New York: Quadrangle 1975) edited
by Charles Anderson and broader works such as A History
of the Book in America: Vol 1, The Colonial Book in the
Atlantic World (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni Press 2000)
edited by Hugh Amory. For the early period see Henry Boynton's
1932 Annals of American Bookselling, 1638-1850
(New Castle: Oak Knoll Books 1991).
Art book publisher and retailer Zwemmer was lovingly and
definitively described in Nigel Vaux Halliday's More
Than A Bookshop: Zwemmer's & Art in the 20th Century
(London: Philip Wilson 1991). His detailed study draws
on previously unexploited archival material in building
a portrait of what was a benchmark among bookshops. There
is similar value in A L Norrington's Blackwell's 1879-1979,
The History Of A Family Firm (Oxford: Blackwell 1997).
WH Smith is examined in Charles Wilson's First With
the News: The Story of WH Smith 1792-1972 (Garden
City: Doubleday 1985) Books & Co, the landmark
New York bookshop established with part of the IBM fortune,
is described in Bookstore: The Life & Times of
Jeannette Watson and Books & Co (New York: Harcourt
Brace 1999) by Lynne Tillman. For the Gotham Book Mart
see W G Rogers' Wise Men Fish Here - The Story of
Frances Steloff & The Gotham Book Mart (New York:
Harcourt Brace 1965).
Terry Maher's Against My Better Judgement: Adventures
in the City & the Book Trade (London: Sinclair
Stevenson 1994) is an account of the fall of the UK Pentos/Dillons
empire. Retail chains B Dalton and Waldenbooks have yet
to feature in readily-accessible general studies. Blackwell's
features a corporate history.
Robert Spector's Amazon.com: Get Big Fast (New
York: Harper 2000) is the best of the books about the
the Australian scene
We have yet to encounter good studies of Mary Martin's,
Margarita Webber's or Hall's, among
other Australian bookshops that shaped the nation's cultural
John Holroyd's George Robertson of Melbourne 1825-1898
(Melbourne: Robertson & Mullens 1968), Isadore Brodsky's
Sydney's Phantom Bookshops (Sydney: University
Co-operative Bookshop 1975), Cole Turnley's Cole of
the Book Arcade: A Pictorial Biography of E W Cole
(Hawthorn: Cole Publications 1974) and Ian McLaren's Henry
Tolman Dwight: Bookseller & Publisher (Parkville:
Melbourne Uni Library 1989), James Tyrrell's Old Books,
Old Friends, Old Sydney (Sydney: Angus & Robertson
1952) and A H Spencer's The Hill Of Content: Books,
Art, Music, People (Sydney: Angus & Robertson
1959) cover the Victorian and Edwardian scene.
For Cheshire see the memoir Bookseller, Publisher,
Friend (Melbourne: National Press 1984) by F W Cheshire.
people and potentates
John Carter is profiled in Donald Dickinson's John
Carter: The Taste & Technique of a Bookman (New
Castle: Oak Knoll Press 2004)
Sylvia Beach's Shakespeare & Company (Lincoln:
Uni of Nebraska Press 1991) is a modest and elegant history,
by its owner, of the famous Paris bookshop.
It is complemented by The Very Rich Hours of Adrienne
Monnier (London: Millington 1976), Richard McDougall's
translation of the memoirs and essays of Beach's rival
Adrienne Monnier, and Noel Fitch's Sylvia Beach &
the Lost Generation (New York: Norton 1983). Contemporary
Harold Monro appears in Joy Grant's Harold Monro &
the Poetry Bookshop (London: Routledge 1967).
Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy edited A Bookseller's War:
Heywood & Anne Hill (Norwich: Michael Russell
For Rosenbach and Rota see Edwin Wolf's Rosenbach,
A Biography (Cleveland: World 1960) and Anthony Rota's
Books in the Blood (New Castle: Oak Knoll Press
Works by peers include Percy Muir's Minding My Own
Business: An Autobiography (London: Chatto &
Windus 1956) and Barbara Kaye's The company we kept
(New Castle: Oak Knoll Press 1995), George Sims' The
Rare Book Game (Philadelphia: Holmes 1985) and A
Life in Catalogues and other essays (Philadelphia:
Holmes 1994), Paul Minet's Late Booking: My First
Twenty-Five Years in the Secondhand Book Trade (London:
Frantic Press 1989) and Oswald Snelling's Rare Books
& Rarer People: Some Personal Reminiscences of 'The
Trade' (London: Werner Shaw 1982).
Other memoirs of retailers and consumers include Books:
A Memoir (New York: Simon & Schuster 2008) by
Larry McMurtry, Old Books, Rare Friends: Two Literary
Sleuths and Their Shared Passion (New York: Doubleday
1997) by Madeline Stern & Leona Rostenberg and 84,
Charing Cross Road (New York: Grossman 1970) by Helene
Among predecessors see Edmund Curll, Bookseller
(Oxford: Oxford Uni Press 2007) by Paul Baines & Pat
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