Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Bookshop of My Dreams

Thanks to a recommendation from the very-well-read Laura, I’ve just downloaded Fifty Essays by George Orwell.  As I was looking for his essay on Dickens, I stopped to read Bookshop Memories, his 1936 piece on working at a second-hand bookshop.  If you love reading books and talking/writing about them, you may at some point dream of owning a bookshop. I do. Mine would be a second-hand store staffed by people whose company I enjoy, shelves filled with far-ranging subject matter, interesting customers, authors dropping by for a chat, comfy chairs, and of course, a resident cat. (Did I mention it would also be profitable?)

Orwell’s comments show another side of the experience:

“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.”

He goes on to describe, with some irritation, customers looking for “a book for an invalid (a common demand)”, those who order books then never return for them, as well as the “not quite certifiable lunatics” drawn to the shop because it was a place they could “hang about for along time without spending any money.”

A plaque at the site of Booklovers' Corner,
the London shop where Orwell worked in the 1930s.

The shop where Orwell worked also ran a lending library, where customers were able to borrow a book for two pence.  Orwell was disappointed to find that popular authors included Ethel M. Dell, Warwick Deeping and Jeff Farnol*, rather than Priestly, Hemingway, Walpole, or Wodehouse. He also notes that
 “In a lending library you see people’s real tastes, not their pretended ones, and one thing that strikes you is how completely the ‘classical’ English novelists have dropped out of favour. It is simply useless to put Dickens, Thackeray, Jane Austen, Trollope, etc. into the ordinary lending library; nobody takes them out. At the mere sight of a nineteenth-century novel, people say, ‘Oh, but that’s OLD!’ and shy away immediately. Yet it is always fairly easy to SELL Dickens, just as it is always easy to sell Shakespeare. Dickens is one of those authors whom people are ‘always meaning to’ read, and, like the bible, he is widely known at second hand..”
I’d like to think Orwell would be heartened by the resurgence of interest in the 19th-century novel, at least for Austen and Dickens. But I wonder if some of the same generalities apply today, that is, are there still marked differences between what people buy, what they borrow from the library, and what they actually read?

While Orwell concludes that the book trade was definitely not for him, in fact, it temporarily caused him to lose his “love of books”, I think I’ll hold on to my fantasy shop. It gives me all of the imaginary pleasure, with none of the hardship.

* Respectively, Ethel M. Dell, a successful author of romance novels, considered quite racy for their time; Warwick Deeping, a prolific and popular novelist (and doctor) who’s most well-known work, Sorrell and Son, was called a “wish-fulfilling dream of perfect filial love” by Kingsley Amis (according to; and Jeffrey Farnol who wrote a number of romances and swashbucklers, including Waif of the River and The Geste of Duke Jocelyn!


  1. "are there still marked differences between what people buy, what they borrow from the library, and what they actually read?"

    Many people buy talked-about books to display their hip-ness, and many of these books must go un-read, especially once the Next Big Thing comes along. One example that comes to mind is Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon. It was hugely hip. But how many book buyers actually read it, I wonder?

    One time someone was looking at our bookshelves (in NYC) and said about Infinite Jest, "Oh, you have a copy of that, too? There's a book everyone owns and no one has read."

    I was amazed. That's Allan's favourite book of all time. He's read it more than once, frequently re-reads portions of it, writes about it, discusses it online. I had no idea that some people use it as a prop!

    So I think the pattern (like your bookstore dreams) still exists.

    (If a version of this comment came through twice, please delete the earlier one. I have problems with Blogger at work.)

  2. Re: the next big thing. I wonder if all the people who bought Walter Isaacson's tome about Steve Jobs will read it. It's funny, too, you made me think of the "furnishings" in certain hotels or even restaurants--what appears to be a shelf of books are actually a solid block of material made to look like the spines of books. It seems like an acknowledgement that reading books is good for you (and makes you look good), but ultimately too much trouble.

  3. When I was in junior high, I babysat at a home that had books with wrapping paper on the shelves, like the old book covers we used to make out of brown paper shopping bags, but shiny and brightly coloured. It turned out they were just random books, used only for show! I had never seen that before, came home and told my parents about it. After that, we called that babysitting gig The Fake Readers.

    Re Steve Jobs, good example. I hope people do not treat Robert Caro's tomes that way, he's too good. But big fat books may be singled out for that treatment.

  4. One time someone was looking at our bookshelves (in NYC) and said about Infinite Jest, "Oh, you have a copy of that, too? There's a book everyone owns and no one has read."

    I cannot recall, but I assume we threw that impudent rascal out on the street immediately forthwith.

  5. Spoken like a true booklover!