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George Orwell > Bookshop Memories > Essay

Bookshop Memories


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.

Many of the people who came to us were of the kind who would be a
nuisance anywhere but have special opportunities in a bookshop. For
example, the dear old lady who 'wants a book for an invalid' (a very
common demand, that), and the other dear old lady who read such a nice
book in 1897 and wonders whether you can find her a copy. Unfortunately
she doesn't remember the title or the author's name or what the book was
about, but she does remember that it had a red cover. But apart from
these there are two well-known types of pest by whom every second-hand
bookshop is haunted. One is the decayed person smelling of old
breadcrusts 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. In
the end one gets to know these people almost at a glance. For all their
big talk there is something moth-eaten and aimless about them. Very
often, when we were dealing with an obvious paranoiac, we would put aside
the books he asked for and then put them back on the shelves the moment
he had gone. None of them, I noticed, ever attempted to take books away
without paying for them; merely to order them was enough--it gave them,
I suppose, the illusion that they were spending real money.

Like most second-hand bookshops we had various sidelines. We sold
second-hand typewriters, for instance, and also stamps--used stamps, I
mean. Stamp-collectors are a strange, silent, fish-like breed, of all
ages, but only of the male sex; women, apparently, fail to see the
peculiar charm of gumming bits of coloured paper into albums. We also
sold sixpenny horoscopes compiled by somebody who claimed to have
foretold the Japanese earthquake. They were in sealed envelopes and I
never opened one of them myself, but the people who bought them often
came back and told us how 'true' their horoscopes had been. (Doubtless
any horoscope seems 'true' if it tells you that you are highly attractive
to the opposite sex and your worst fault is generosity.) We did a good
deal of business in children's books, chiefly 'remainders'. Modern books
for children are rather horrible things, especially when you see them in
the mass. Personally I would sooner give a child a copy of Petrenius
Arbiter than PETER PAN, but even Barrie seems manly and wholesome
compared with some of his later imitators. At Christmas time we spent a
feverish ten days struggling with Christmas cards and calendars, which
are tiresome things to sell but good business while the season lasts. It
used to interest me to see the brutal cynicism with which Christian
sentiment is exploited. The touts from the Christmas card firms used to
come round with their catalogues as early as June. A phrase from one of
their invoices sticks in my memory. It was: '2 doz. Infant Jesus with

But our principal sideline was a lending library--the usual 'twopenny
no-deposit' library of five or six hundred volumes, all fiction. How the
book thieves must love those libraries! It is the easiest crime in the
world to borrow a book at one shop for twopence, remove the label and
sell it at another shop for a shilling. Nevertheless booksellers
generally find that it pays them better to have a certain number of books
stolen (we used to lose about a dozen a month) than to frighten customers
away by demanding a deposit.

Our shop stood exactly on the frontier between Hampstead and Camden Town,
and we were frequented by all types from baronets to bus-conductors.
Probably our library subscribers were a fair cross-section of London's
reading public. It is therefore worth noting that of all the authors in
our library the one who 'went out' the best was--Priestley? Hemingway?
Walpole? Wodehouse? No, Ethel M. Dell, with Warwick Deeping a good second
and Jeffrey Farnol, I should say, third. Dell's novels, of course, are
read solely by women, but by women of all kinds and ages and not, as one
might expect, merely by wistful spinsters and the fat wives of
tobacconists. It is not true that men don't read novels, but it is true
that there are whole branches of fiction that they avoid. Roughly
speaking, what one might call the AVERAGE novel--the ordinary, good-bad,
Galsworthy-and-water stuff which is the norm of the English novel--seems
to exist only for women. Men read either the novels it is possible to
respect, or detective stories. But their consumption of detective stories
is terrific. One of our subscribers to my knowledge read four or five
detective stories every week for over a year, besides others which he got
from another library. What chiefly surprised me was that he never read
the same book twice. Apparently the whole of that frightful torrent of
trash (the pages read every year would, I calculated, cover nearly three
quarters of an acre) was stored for ever in his memory. He took no notice
of titles or author's names, but he could tell by merely glancing into a
book whether be had 'had it already'.

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.
People know by hearsay that Bill Sikes was a burglar and that Mr Micawber
had a bald head, just as they know by hearsay that Moses was found in a
basket of bulrushes and saw the 'back parts' of the Lord. Another thing
that is very noticeable is the growing unpopularity of American books.
And another--the publishers get into a stew about this every two or
three years--is the unpopularity of short stories. The kind of person
who asks the librarian to choose a book for him nearly always starts by
saying 'I don't want short stories', or 'I do not desire little stories',
as a German customer of ours used to put it. If you ask them why, they
sometimes explain that it is too much fag to get used to a new set of
characters with every story; they like to 'get into' a novel which
demands no further thought after the first chapter. I believe, though,
that the writers are more to blame here than the readers. Most modern
short stories, English and American, are utterly lifeless and worthless,
far more so than most novels. The short stories which are stories are
popular enough, VIDE D. H. Lawrence, whose short stories are as popular
as his novels.

Would I like to be a bookseller DE MÉTIER? On the whole--in spite of my
employer's kindness to me, and some happy days I spent in the shop--no.

Given a good pitch and the right amount of capital, any educated person
ought to be able to make a small secure living out of a bookshop. Unless
one goes in for 'rare' books it is not a difficult trade to learn, and
you start at a great advantage if you know anything about the insides of
books. (Most booksellers don't. You can get their measure by having a
look at the trade papers where they advertise their wants. If you don't
see an ad. for Boswell's DECLINE AND FALL you are pretty sure to see one
for THE MILL ON THE FLOSS by T. S. Eliot.) Also it is a humane trade
which is not capable of being vulgarized beyond a certain point. 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.

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