No golden age of books: “five hundred or so legitimate bookstores” in the US in the 1930s

As people lament the closure of chain bookstores like Borders as well as independent bookstores, having fewer bookstores may not be sending us to some dark age. Indeed, easily accessible and abundant bookstores may be a relatively recent feature of society: there were few bookstores in the US in the 1930s.

I haven’t gotten far enough along in the book [Two-Bit Culture by Kenneth C. Davis] to tell you how Davis argues the story, but early in the book, I was absolutely dumbfounded by his description of the publishing business in 1931. He draws on a “landmark survey of publishing practices” carried out by one Orin H. Cheney, a banker, as a service to the National Association of Book Publishers…

“In the entire country, there were only some four thousand places where a book could be purchased, and most of these were gift shops and stationary stores that carried only a few popular novels,” Davis writes. “In reality, there were but five hundred or so legitimate bookstores that warranted regular visits from publishers’ salesmen (and in 1931 they were all men). Of these five hundred, most were refined, old-fashioned ‘carriage trade’ stores catering to an elite clientele in the nation’s twelve largest cities.”

Furthermore, two-thirds of American counties — 66 percent! — had exactly 0 bookstores. It was a relatively tiny business centered in the urban areas of the country. Did some great books come out back then? Of course! But they were aimed only at the tiny percentage of the country that was visible to publishers of the time: sophisticated urban elites. It wasn’t that people couldn’t read; by 1940, UNESCO estimated that 95 percent of adults in America were literate. No, it’s just that the vast majority of adults were not considered to be part of the cultural enterprise of book publishing. People read stuff (the paper, the Bible, comic books), just not what the publishers were putting out.

This data suggests that there is a big difference between books being published (and there is a reason the printing press is regarded as a major invention in human history) and how books can be purchased by consumers. There were not a lot of bookstores where people could browse thousands of volumes, let alone go online at Amazon.com and find tens of thousands of books.

If there was a paucity of bookstores in the 1930s, might the profile of libraries have been higher then? Libraries would have been one of the few places where average citizens could have found a wider range of books. Indeed, just before this period was when the Carnegie libraries were built:

A Carnegie library is a library built with money donated by Scottish-American businessman and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. 2,509 Carnegie libraries were built between 1883 and 1929, including some belonging to public and university library systems. 1,689 were built in the United States, 660 in Britain and Ireland, 125 in Canada, and others in Australia, New Zealand, Serbia, the Caribbean, and Fiji.

That is a lot of libraries when there were only 500 or so bookstores in the entire United States.

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