Anyone who has ever worked in a bookstore will nod ruefully while reading George Orwell’s little reminiscence “Bookshop Memories.” The names of the popular authors have changed since 1936 (as have some aspects of the situation; Orwell thought that “The combines can never squeeze the small independent bookseller out of existence as they have squeezed the grocer and the milkman”), but much is immutable. And the sad conclusion is still applicable:

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flavour about the battered unexpected books you pick up in that kind of collection: minor eighteenth-century poets, out-of-date gazeteers, odd volumes of forgotten novels, bound numbers of ladies’ magazines of the sixties.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.

(Via wood s lot.)


  1. I know someone who works at a bookstore (BN) and he feels the same way. (In the same essay, I faintly remember Orwell captures some shopping psychology: people ordered expensive/rare books just for the “high” of having made a purchase, but often didn’t turn up to collect the books and pay…)

  2. This is what happened to me after years of working in flower shops.
    I couldn’t bring myself to seeing individual flower beauty; it’s a “plant material for arrangement”, an object for collage.
    Only 4 years of gardening, with nursing plants from seed to blossom, got me back to a normal, not professional, perspective.
    To this day I secretly fear gifts of flowers – I can’t fake an admiring look when the arrangement is dismal or flowers show wilting signs…

  3. I worked in a Waldenbooks for a few months in high school and was disappointed by the tendency to throw out real literature for the latest high-selling fad. Half our poetry section was removed in order to feature _A Night Without Armor_ by Jewel (you know, that crappy musician). Romance was bigger than Literature. I, a 16-year old male, was expected to pitch middle-aged-housewife-targeted ephemera. I will never work in such an environment again.
    I wouldn’t mind working in a large bookstore like Barnes & Noble, however. Especially one that catered to a university crowd.

  4. ben wolfson says

    My mother has been working in independent bookstores for decades, as manager or buyer for the last few years, and her love of books remains thankfully undiminished. So it’s not an unavoidable fate.

  5. I’m with Ben. If anything, I found working in a bookshop more likely to destroy my faith in my fellow human (this is a problem with working in retain in general, I’d say) than to taint my love of books, as heavy, dusty, faddish, unsaleable as some could be. I was a valued employee because I reinvested about half my monthly salary back into the company, buying the stack of books I’d been hording in the stockroom between paydays. I’m curious, though, about what Christopher means by “throwing out” literature – does this mean putting books on a lower shelf somewhere or actually throwing them away? The bookstore I worked in was owned by two Southern Baptists who made a policy of throwing away (in Dumpsters out back) any undesirable books inadvertently received in bulk shipments. These books included things like astrology, occultism, dream interpretation, and sexual massage.

  6. I think I’d like to work in a bookshop. But I hope it wouldn’t have the same effect on me as taking a degree in English literature had on some people I know – having to read what they were told to read destroyed their love of books. I can understand how having to sell the books you’re told to sell could have a similar effect.

  7. Sissoula, “throwing out” books means stripping their covers off, recycling them, and reporting them to the publisher as destroyed.

  8. Thanks, Christopher, but now that I know, I wish I didn’t. I guess books are a disposable commodity like anything else nowadays, but I still feel a sense of horror knowing that such things go on. It’s counterintuitive, but somehow it must be better business for a company to cut its losses by destroying books than by selling them at significantly reduced prices or as remainders.

  9. That’s only done with cheap paperbacks, not worth the trouble of shipping back.

  10. Eh, that’s the book biz in the 20th century, and you have to take the bad (books getting pulped instead of read, blockbusters and series pushing out lit and mid-level authors) with the good (books for every taste and interest as cheap as dirt). If books are cheap enough to mass produce, then they’re cheap enough that shipping them back to moulder in a warehouse is inefficient. Distribution is a large part of the cost of each book, because unlike authorial and editorial costs which are fixed no matter how many copies, or production costs which enjoy economies of scale, each book that has to get moved from one place to another requires extra work. Paying that again on a book that has already failed to sell, well… Profit margins on books are razor-thin, which is another way of saying that the market is efficient and the price has been driven down towards the cost of production (and distribution). The most precious thing in the book store isn’t the stock, it’s the space that the stock takes up…and tables full or discounts and remainders aren’t going to pay the rent (or feed and clothe the clerks, for that matter) even if they do eventually sell. Amazon and the internet help the consumer, by removing the store-front rent from the transaction costs and widening the geographic area to draw the readership to, well, the whole world more or less, but until and unless print-on-demand (or some similar technology, like reprogrammable “paper”) takes off stripping and pulping books is the least of evils. Or would it really be preferable to only have hardbacks? Or paperbacks priced like hardbacks?
    Um. Forgive the mini-lecture. My grand-dad and dad were publishers, and I’ve got the book-bug bad.

  11. I’ve always liked that Orwell essay, but at the same time I’ve always felt there’s something about that final paragraph that doesn’t quite ring true. Orwell is trying to make his readers feel slightly guilty about owning books — as though a liking for books is merely a bourgeois affectation, unworthy of a true socialist. Perhaps it is the assumption of moral superiority that grates on me — the implication that Orwell himself, enlightened by his experience of manual labour (all that lifting and carrying and dusting of books ..), has seen through this limp-wristed pansy nonsense about the aesthetic appeal of books, and understands that the only proper attitude to books is an austerely utilitarian one. “I lost my love of books” is not a shy confession, it’s a proud boast — like Larkin’s line, “don’t read much anymore” — and we are supposed to nod wisely and admire Orwell all the more for saying so. It’s a bit too easy, isn’t it? and somehow I get the feeling that Orwell didn’t quite believe it himself. In other contexts he would have been the first to pour scorn on the romantic illusion that manual labour, whether in a bookshop or anywhere else, has a morally edifying effect.
    Am I alone here, or does anyone else feel this way?

  12. Actually, languagehat’s introduction gives it away. It is so rare for you to lapse into cliche, LH, that when I see you “nod ruefully” I know something is wrong. It is precisely the weakness of Orwell’s essay that it evokes a predictable response from the reader.

  13. Forgive the mini-lecture
    Not at all — it’s an excellent mini-essay on the book business, and I’m pleased to have it in my comment section. I’m always telling people who complain about B&N and Amazon that the selection of books available has expanded hugely since I was a kid.
    arnold: You’re quite right about Orwell; his “little guy”/socialist morality can get annoying. He was aware of the problem, but still couldn’t escape it. And it does seep through in that last paragraph.

  14. the implication that Orwell himself, enlightened by his experience of manual labour (all that lifting and carrying and dusting of books ..), has seen through this limp-wristed pansy nonsense about the aesthetic appeal of books, and understands that the only proper attitude to books is an austerely utilitarian one.
    Really? I read the essay as expressing Orwell’s sadness to have been personally damaged by the utilitarian attitude of practical bookshop commerce.
    Remember he kept his Eton accent, because he was proud to have graduated from Eton. He wasn’t one to toss out emotionally valuable traditions just because they seemed to conflict with socialist ideals, so I wouldn’t expect him to feel a need to hide or overcome attachment to books.

  15. How about this: I think we can agree that Orwell had a definite habit of ending his essays on a sharp, sudden emotional downer. Which makes it tough today to read a bunch of them all at once. The “predictable response” of ruefulness is precisely the modern reader’s reaction of self-preservation, which still permits him or her to enjoy the expositional technique from earlier in the essay.
    But I admire the invariable conclusory downer as a final triumph of technique. 🙂 So I want to insist that it’s a bit more complex!

  16. Richard Hershberger says

    To expand on LH’s comment about stripping books: that is the practice with mass market paperbacks only. Hardcovers and trade paperbacks are shipped back to the distributor. This actually is the defining distinction between a mass market and a trade paperback. Trade paperbacks are usually larger than mass market books, and often printed on better paper, but neither of these are necessarily the case. I once had a job as a book vendor to WalMarts and the like. Part of the job was stripping the mass market returns and tossing them in the dumpster. This was quite a shock to the system at first, but the literary quality of most of the product eased my pain and I got used to it.
    I agree with Joshua, for what it is worth, about Orwell’s essay. But I’m not a big fan of Orwell. He wrote more than his share of nonsense. As for Amazon and B&N and, for that matter, Borders: I am a fan. For every good independent bookstore put out of business there are innumerable bad independent bookstores put out of business and areas now served by a pretty good chain bookstore. I can go to a suburban box store mall and buy Ovid in the original Latin. This is a Good Thing.

  17. So, I have a silly question.
    When a book isn’t selling, and you have to get rid of it, before you destroy it, why not lower the price to, say, a buck? I mean, wouldn’t you be a buck a copy ahead? Perhaps I don’t understand the system, though. If the publisher reimburses you for destroyed books, that would explain it. But then I would ask essentially the same question of the publisher.

  18. Orwell have never have considered working in a bookshop “manual labour”, more likely as as a lower middle class occupation akin to copywriting, as per “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” (how we Brits do love our social gradations).
    When in my late 20s I was between proper jobs I worked as a book packer at the Penguin paperback book printers near Heathrow, London, sending books around the world. Any books that were damaged in the process were stamped as such and put into large skips for pulping. These were meant to be thief-proof to prevent people selling them off (god knows who to) but it was my recreation in the meal-break to climb inside and scavenge for books – how I didn’t get pulpled I’ll never know (but it would have made a good epitaph).
    LH Invite Mary et all over to this site to discuss do’s and don’ts – it’s a much more logical place for it.

  19. Richard Hershberger says

    To answer ACW’s question, which isn’t silly at all, the key to understanding the system is that books are (in the US: I don’t know about elsewhere) usually distributed on a guaranteed-sale basis. The store ultimately doesn’t have to pay for its inventory unless it actually sells. Its incentive is to maximize profits for its display space. We have established that the book in question isn’t moving, so the store would rather fill that space with something that might sell and get its money back from the distributor for the books that didn’t sell. Of course it is more complicated than that, since some stores do devote some space to remainders and there are stores that are devoted exclusively to remainders, but that is the gist of it from the store’s end.
    From the publishers’ and distributors’ side, there is much potential for accounting nightmares and conflicts of interest. You would essentially be letting the store sell the book at whatever price it wants and reporting that price to you. How do you know what the store really sold it for? And what about the possibility of one store in a local market dropping the price while another is still selling it at cover price? It is better to keep a clear distinction between full price books and remainders. This means either shipping the books back from the store to the warehouse or destroying the books. At that point it is simply a calculation of costs versus expected income.
    The reason that WalMart et al mark down, say, Christmas junk after the holiday is that they can’t return that stuff. They have to either sell it for what they can get, toss it in the dumpster, or store it for a year. That last one is the least desirable option.

  20. “And what about the possibility of one store in a local market dropping the price while another is still selling it at cover price?”
    That’s exactly what happens in Britain following the collapse of the Net Book Agreement. You often find books being sold in the British equivalent of Walmarts for less than the cover price while the specialist bookshops nearby is selling it at the full price.
    It has reached the stage that a friend who owns a small bookstore in London last Christmas could not buy “The Guinness Book of Records” from the publishers at a price below that that Tescos supermarket was selling it to their customers, but he had to have copies of it – so he bought several dozen from the supermarket rather than the customer. He didn’t make a profit but at least he kept his customers.
    Also chains such as Waterstones offer numerous BOGOF deals (buy one get one free). (I am not referring to remaindered books or remainder bookshops here.) In this sense, books are being treated as no different to any other non-perishable article. I am not sure how the accountants keep track of all of this, but bookselling has changed radically since the 1930s.

  21. I can’t say that working in a bookshop has diminished my love of books- it did diminish the amount I bought, because I finally got to see I couldn’t possess them all if I live to be a thousand years. And, for better or worse, it did dampen my ambition to be a published writer. Most books are about nothing, and if I cannot stand out, I prefer to keep my ink to myself. But the smell, and the feel, of a truly good book, good inside & outside, be it new or antiquarian…there’s little to beat it.

  22. Aloke Kumar says

    My father had a rare and antiquarian bookshop in Calcutta , India. Here is the comment on him and the shop.
    Nirmal Chandra Kumar
    Bohemian bookseller and Champion of arts
    By Swapan Das Mahapatra
    Nirmal Kumar, who died of cerebral stroke in 1978, aged 60, was a man who was an antiquarian and owned a rare bookshop. He was also among the greatest influences on a generation of artists, from filmmaker to fiction writers, folk musician to folk artist; actors to activists, writer to wanderer; teachers to travellers -more so perhaps than any art critic or editor.
    For 30 years, Kumar, a stocky Bengali, presided over his own collection of rare books, prints, maps, manuscripts and other materials in his own bookshop opposite a Protestant Church, in a place near Entally, in Calcutta. A place also famous, for the birth of the Communist Party Of India, Mother Teresa’s Nirmal Hriday (Young Heart) and birth of the Revolutionary Communist Party, Naxalbari.
    The bookshop from its opening in 1945, until the death of Kumar in 1978 was Calcutta’s pre-eminent rare bookstore. Whether you wanted books on art, travel, ornithology, botany, history, literature, mountaineering, mutiny, religion; KUMARS was the place to go. Under Kumar’s care, its Art and Indology section was its greatest strength, and the tradition of bohemian bookselling was carried forward into the 1950s and 1960s.
    Kumar’s bookshop, if it could be called so, as it spread over several rooms in his residential house and looked more like a personal library housed in a well-appointed living room, was a hub for book lovers. In the early 1940s, rare book collection was in a dismal, class-bound rut. The famous rare book shop Cambray, who provided Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee with 90% of his books, was already fading, Thacker & Spink the well known bookshop was alive but there were hardly any rare books, more or less you had to hunt your way in College Street Bookshops to add rare books to your collection.
    Kumar helped to change all that. His enthusiasms included, the then unheralded British Painters Thomas and William Daniel to be re-introduced to Calcutta once more. He bought the rare Elephantine Folio of 144 Views of T&W Daniell from Sotheby’s to sail it to Calcutta. That it got damaged in the way and a bitter battle was fought with the then Macanon McKenzie is history. Much of the Folio remains today with The Victoria Memorial in Calcutta. He had agents to buy books for him at auctions abroad and purchased books and prints from such well-known establishment as Foyles. Bernard Quaritch and others.
    Kumar’s collection boasted books by the painter Hogarth, Travel writers such as Colonel Sleeman and George V Higgins; Anglo Indian writers from the forgotten James Hamilton to the unknown Bishop Heber. The Scottish writer named O’Malley was also a favourite, as was the great African Missionary Traveler David Livingston and Sir Richard Burton. If these rare works were easily available in Calcutta to the literary landscape, it is in no small part due to Kumar’s efforts. When he obtained the complete set of the famous journal Reis & Rayot from the Maharaja Tagore library, he persuaded none other than Satyajit Ray to add it to his personal collection. A rare set of Daniells landed with Kumar and he begged R.P.Gupta to take it, without much success. Gupta later in his writing confesses and laments the decision. If Mr. A. Lahari, then Superintendent of the Calcutta Zoo, has been able to leave behind the rare collection of Himalayan Birds and other books on Ornithology and Wild-life to the collection of The Zoological Gardens, it is because of Kumar.
    To walk into KUMARS, survey the books on display and ask Kumar’s advice was to enter a new world of bibliograph. The shop became the haunt of an unlikely mixture of luminaries, from Radha Prasad Gupta, the famous Anglophile to Satyajit Ray, the famous film-maker, Kamal Majumder, the well-known writer to Mulk Raj Anand the famous art historian; Nirmalendu Chowdhury, the folk singer. Santi.P.Chowdhury, the first Documentary film maker of India, Asok Mitra, the father of Indian Census and Professor of Art JNU and a host of others.
    Thanks to Kumar, and his friends, the place in the 1950s became a kind of counter-cultural nexus: a place where you could drift from paintings to graphics to early prints and thence to the maps. You could visit Somerset, then walk down the Hoogly and then take a ride up the Nile. There you would find Kumar at the heart of a group of autodidacts, film makers, musicians, writers, lowlifes and just plain booklovers whose cultural heroes were Jean Renoir, Jamini Roy, Richard Burton (not the film actor, the great 20th.century traveler) Ananda Coomarswamy, Sir Auriel Stein, and many more Not only food for thoughts, Kumar was a gourmet and loved food. He organized the very best of fine cooking to be presented to his friends. Sometimes such delicacies that you would only find in the pages of some rare Mughal document. R.P.Gupta recollecting the same comments, that it reminded him of the fabled stories of the Arabian Nights where the food was served fit for royalty.
    Kumar formalized its literary scene by initiating regular readings in the bookshop, something of an innovation at the time. Visiting Americans, from old travel heroes like Peter Fleming to British Army Colonel like O.L.J.Milligan read there; so too did the Calcutta writers Kamal Majumder and R.P.Gupta. Ellla Maillart who was born in Geneva, Switzerland and gained international recognition as an expert for Asia, an ethnologist, and a writer wrote that ,to visit Kumar’s, was like pilgrimage…. you spend the whole day browsing through books, chatting with Kumar on different subjects, meeting the Calcutta intelligentsia and enjoying the Bengali hospitality with the best of food and savories…. all seamlessly interwoven .
    Jean Ribaud, the French billionaire and industrialist who married the daughter of Somen Tagore was one such visitor. Ribaud was introduced to Kumar, by R.P.Gupta, not to forget that many of the people who found their way to this quaint address was introduced by him. Whenever Ribaud visited his in-laws place, which was near Entally market and opposite to Kumars, he made it a point to visit Kumar. With his Kurta, he very easily slid into the mileue and spend his time pouring over books, many of them in French which Kumar got from Chandanagore, the erstwhile French colony in Bengal. Ribaud loved to eat a Bengali starter, called “shukta”, which had no equivalent to any cuisine of any other countries. It was a concoction of bitter gourd and sweet potatoe among a host of other ingredients. Jean made it his specialty and compared it with the taste of Campari.
    When Satyajit Ray, started his research on the Mutiny for Satranj ki Khilari, he depended on Kumar for rare books on the subject. Kumar not only provided him all the relevant books but also went out of his way to bid for a Scrap Book on Mutiny, having paper clippings of the happening. Ray did not forget this gesture and paid Kumar his biggest personal tribute by having one of his characters in his series on Feluda etched on him. The character Sidhujata (Sidhu Uncle) in his Feluda series with an encyclopedic knowledge immortalizes Kumar.
    Vasant Chowdhury, the well-known Bengali Film actor was offered the role of the 19th. Century, educator, Raja Rammohan Roy. Chowdhury was elated and reached Kumars, to give the good news. The detailed study of the Raja began -the way he sat, wore his shawl, his dress and posture. Hundreds of documents were referred to including paintings, which were at home and abroad. It is during this race for information on the Raja that Kumar bumped into, maybe the only engraving of Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar, another notable educationist of the same period, and which was till date completely unknown.
    A trader’s son, born in Calcutta, Bengal, Kumar was the eldest of seven children. After local schooling at Mitra Institute, Kolkata, he went on to Bangabasi College. The family had a large Departmental Store at Shyambazar and the family had their ancestral house nearby. Kumar lived with his parents before moving separately to Taltola, in the early 1930s. He did odd jobs and tried his hand at writing, which in his own words, he failed miserably. Thereafter, he started collecting rare books, which became his passion. This he turned into a business, at which he was neither a success nor could he make it pay for his living. This did not deter him and he continued with his passion. In 1900 he invited his parents to come and live with him, as his father had a misfortune in business. His parents arranged for his marriage to Karuna, who was a teacher in a school, in a sleepy railway hamlet, called Adra, which is in the border of Bengal and Bihar. Their thinking was that they would make a good pair as books and teaching go together. He continued working on his collection, but side-by-side gave support to a lot many fledging artists and writers in those days.
    As the 1960s moved into the 1970s, Kumars became a resource for Calcutta’s researchers, but he was not able to cope up as much of its collection had faded away. Nirmal Kumar ‘s health had deterioited and much of it was due to a domestic crisis of two of his children becoming members of the Naxalbari Movement. By the end of the 1975s, the rare book trade became thoroughly commercialized; books started to be torn for their prints and sold separately. Kumar did not want to be a part of this and lost out. Its last remaining outposts of bohemianism swamped by cheap commercialization, and it was with a sense of bowing to the inevitable that KUMARS mentally gave up.
    Nirmal Kumar died in 1978 and with his death, the literary world lost a sweet and genuinely unselfish man who freely gave of his vast knowledge and delighted in the achievements of those he influenced so profoundly. With him the tradition of such meeting points faded away. Places where you could literally spend your time to educate yourself.
    After his death, his second son, Aloke Kumar, tried to revive the establishment. He was the nearest to his father and had a fair idea of business, but lacked the deep knowledge of his father on hundreds of subjects that his father dealt with. He started concentrating on Maps, Prints and allied and contributed modestly to the collection of Aveek Sarkar, N.J.Nanpooria, Gira Sarabhai, Nita Thapar and others. It is sometime before Kumar’s death, maybe in early 70’s that Indranath Majumder, also started a rare books shop, called Subarnarekha, modeled on Kumars. He enjoyed a close relation with Nirmal Kumar, and during his last years, Kumar lamented that they should have met earlier.
    With Kumar the tradition of bohemian bookselling, much in the line of Herman Hesse, when he worked for a bookshop in Basle in 1899, was lost. Kumar combined his pursuit of a highly specialized passion of collecting with a broader interest in the society around him. His Calcutta home, which also housed his bookshop, was always a meeting point for remarkable people from all walks of life, ranging from iconoclastic artists to conservative writers. His range of mind and vitality of character will be long remembered by all those who knew him.
    Swapan Das Mahapatra is a Professor of Fench at The Benaras Hindu University. He also studies Cinema at Chitrabani, the Centre for Mass Communication, St. Xavier’s College Calcutta translated Andre Bazin’s work and French Chason into English. He lives in Benaras.

  23. Hey love this site. Especially LH, Joshua, arnold (love orwell too)
    Here are some things to think about – from someone who worked in bookshops in oz for five years, and has published 3 books, 2 of which were pulped in spite of winning a prize and being shortlisted for another …
    Even from the booksellers’ point of view you are a moron if you think that sale and return can make you lazy in your orders. It takes a bloody long time packing up returns, and it shouldn’t be done at all if possible for that reason alone.
    From the author’s point of view, to have your book pulped is eviscerating, when it’s done in breach of contract it’s an act of absolute contempt towards the writer – and the writer is the matrix when it comes to a book, even if they earn the least, no matter what. Authors should be offered the opportunity to buy back the books at cost. 90% of the time they aren’t. The publisher would rather waste than give someone a fair deal. The writer says nothing cos they feel ashamed, and they’re scared their next manuscript won’t get accepted.
    Pulping is mostly through poor management – publishers should do smaller print runs, then reprint on demand – tough if per unit a smaller print run costs a little more – aren’t you going to lose if you overprint anyway?
    I can fully appreciate the economic sense of sale or return and MINIMAL pulping for booksellers. However, I think it has bred laziness, and contempt. The book industry rides on intellectual kudos, but it treats its product like just another consumerable. In fact I’d say camembert gets a better deal. The book industry is full of philistines – the higher you go the worse they get.
    MOst of all, and no-one has said this yet, pulping is the big finger to the environment. And how can we afford to trash trees so blithely these days?

Speak Your Mind