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Enemies of Book Stores

January, 2014
By John Huckans

Randolph Adams’ essay Libraries as Enemies of Books made something of a splash in academic and bookish circles when it appeared in Library Quarterly back in 1937.  His main complaint was centered on the trend in libraries and among librarians to de-emphasize books in favor of library house-keeping matters – called “library economy” at the time, later on “library science”.  Of course Adams would say that – he was mainly a scholar and political historian and later became the first director of the William Clements Library at the University of Michigan where he also served as a professor of history.  For him the books themselves were the heart of the matter – keeping track of them was a job for clerical people. 

One can only guess how he would relate to the new “information studies”  discipline that has all but replaced “library science” – the latter sometimes thought to be too suggestive of bookish matters in present-day conversation.

William Blades’ The Enemies of Books, first published in England in the 1880s, is a catalogue of the various misfortunes books are subject to and his essay is filled with all sorts of amusing anecdotes.  The chapter headings will give you a good idea: (1) Fire, (2) Water, (3) Gas and Heat, (4) Dust and Neglect, (5) Ignorance and Bigotry, (6) The Book Worm, (7) Other Vermin, (8) Book Binders, (9) Collectors, and (10) Servants and Children.   A salmagundi of bibliographical horror stories:

At the Reformation so strong was the antagonism of the people generally to anything like the old idolatry of the Romish Church, that they destroyed by thousands books, secular as well as sacred, if they contained but illuminated letters. Unable to read, they saw no difference between romance and a Psalter, between King Arthur and King David; and so the paper books with all their artistic ornaments went to the bakers to heat their ovens, and the parchment manuscripts, however beautifully illuminated, to the binders and boot makers…

Some years ago one of the most rare books printed by Machlinia – a thin folio – was discovered bound in sheep by a country bookbinder, and cut down to suit the size of some quarto tracts. But do not let us suppose that country binders are the only culprits.  It is not very long since the discovery of a unique Caxton in one of our largest London libraries.  It was in boards, as originally issued by the fifteenth-century binder, and a great fuss (very properly) was made over the treasure trove… Instead of making a suitable case, in which it could be preserved just as it was, it was placed in the hands of a well-known London binder, with the order, "Whole bind in velvet." He did his best, and the volume now glows luxuriously in its gilt edges and its inappropriate covering, and, alas! with half-an-inch of its uncut margin taken off all round…

A… mania arose at the beginning of this century for collections of illuminated initials, which were taken from MSS., and arranged on the pages of a blank book in alphabetical order. Some of our cathedral libraries suffered severely from depredations of this kind.  At Lincoln, in the early part of this century, the boys put on their robes in the library, a room close to the choir. Here were numerous old MSS., and eight or ten rare Caxtons. The choir boys used often to amuse themselves, while waiting for the signal to "fall in," by cutting out with their pen-knives the illuminated initials and vignettes, which they would take into the choir with them and pass round from one to another…

Some centuries ago a valuable collection of books was left to the Guildford Endowed Grammar School. The schoolmaster was to be held personally responsible for the safety of every volume, which, if lost, he was bound to replace.  I am told that one master, to minimize his risk as much as possible … raised the boards of the schoolroom floor, and, having carefully packed all the books between the joists, had the boards nailed down again. Little reckoned he how many rats and mice made their nests there; he was bound to account some day for every single volume, and he saw no way so safe as rigid imprisonment…

What boys can do may be gathered from the following true story, sent me by a correspondent who was the immediate sufferer… The children were keeping a birthday with a few young friends… and having been left too much to their own devices, they had invaded the library. It was just after the Battle of Balaclava, and the heroism of the combatants on that hard-fought field was in everybody's mouth. So the mischievous young imps divided themselves into two opposing camps – Britons and Russians. The Russian division was just inside the door, behind ramparts formed of old folios and quartos taken from the bottom shelves and piled to the height of about four feet. It was a wall of… fifteenth century chronicles, county histories, Chaucer, Lydgate, and such like. Some few yards off were the Britishers, provided with heaps of small books as missiles, with which they kept up a skirmishing cannonade against the foe.  Imagine the tableau! Two elderly gentlemen enter hurriedly, paterfamilias receiving, quite unintentionally, the first edition of "Paradise Lost" in the pit of his stomach, his friend narrowly escaping a closer personal acquaintance with a quarto Hamlet than he had ever had before. Finale: great outburst of wrath, and rapid retreat of the combatants, many wounded (volumes) being left on the field.

Lets cut the boys a little slack.  Until the library re-enactment of the Battle of Balaclava the books had probably been gathering dust while remaining untouched, unscathed, and unread for generations.

Whether bound in leather, cloth, or paper; in e-book format or print-on-demand – books seem to have more friends than enemies lately. The internet is awash with book titles.  Every antique picker, book scout, and library in the country must be offering books for sale on the internet.  And judging from some of the descriptions, a lot of them might have been culled from dumpsters and tips.  Everybody’s a bookseller – or thinks he is.

While books seem to have lots of new-found friends, there’s not much debate that bookstores have been under siege for a long time.  In the old economy, the stiff competition came mainly from book clubs, drug stores, supermarkets, discount stores, and other retail outlets.  But it’s only in the past ten years or so that new forms of competition have combined to help bring about the final solution to the independent bookstore problem.

(1) Library Book Sales.  It wasn’t that long ago that college and public libraries had a cooperative relationship with booksellers and bookstores. Ex-library copies and pre-accessioned or unneeded duplicates were offered to booksellers in exchange for cash or credit, to the long-term advantage of both parties. How many important rare book research collections have been built because booksellers, wealthy donors, and librarians with imagination have worked together?  Folger, Beinecke, Huntington, and the Morgan are among the most prominent, but there are hundreds, if not thousands, of lesser-known examples.  But over the past few decades booksellers have been gradually removed from the equation.  Not only have more public libraries taken to running annual book sales, but in many cases library staff and their volunteers are listing donated books for sale on the Internet.  Bookstores, if not books themselves, have become an anachronism.

(2) Amazon. Thou shalt buy thy books and most other worldly goods from Amazon.  Of all the commandments, this above all must thou keep.  But to this end, it is important for bookstores to remain open during convenient hours so people can discover and comfortably preview books before e-mailing their orders to Amazon.  For more on this see showrooming.

(3) Electronic readers. Commonly called e-readers, with brand names such as Nook and Kindle, and with functions adopted by many multi-purpose cell phones or tablet computers, are useful substitutes when there are no real books around. No argument here.  After the novelty appeal has worn off, if reports are true, many readers have gone back to reading conventional books. Speaking only for myself, I know that after reading and writing while staring at a flat-screen during much of the work day, I look forward to reading cloth or paper-bound books during the evening.  Some of you might remember reading this magazine before the final print issue of May/June 2013.  We would have preferred to carry on with the paper version, but economic realities dictated otherwise.

(4) Escalating Overheads.  The increasing costs, especially rent, associated with maintaining retail premises in urban or densely populated areas have been a serious problem for many years. When I was growing up in a Bedford Falls-sized city north of the Mohawk River in upstate New York, we had two “book and stationery” stores on the main street, which is about all that a small town could support in those days. Stationery, office supplies and gift items comprised most of the stock-in-trade while the books were shelved along a third to a half of one of the long walls running from front to back. To a child mesmerized by books these two stores were paradise.  Later, during my college years, I found out about real bookstores, which, though I did not know it at the time, were already fading away.  While in graduate school I returned to my home town and discovered that the books had disappeared from the shelves of both stores, even though the “books & stationery” sign remained. The manager of Alvord & Smith was not at all happy that the books had to go, but with limited space, rising costs, and a slowing-moving inventory what else could he do?

(5) Charity Book Shops.  How is it that charity operations such as Oxfam and the like should be lumped together with other enemies of antiquarian book shops? After all, they do sell books and by all accounts make a fairly good profit doing so. Of course it helps when they pay nothing for inventory, are often staffed by volunteers, and are exempt from many of the taxes that “for profit” booksellers must pay. In the struggle for survival the “non profits” are in most cases immune from the worry of escalating overheads. Nonetheless they have been an important part of the book chain, as were the “barrow boys” of Farringdon Road (London) many years ago. Both have helped in the upward migration, as books pass from less unknowledgeable to more knowledgeable hands.

(6)  Showrooming.  This is a relatively new term that has come to mean using the technology available in most new “smart phones” (i.e. multi-purpose cell phones, also known as Swiss army phones or pay-as-you-go electronic ankle bracelets) to examine merchandise displayed in retail stores, scan the codes, and then shop on line to find a lower price for the same item. Showrooming is commonly used by customers at large electronics stores that sell the very devices that are used against them, but what long-term effect this will have on those stores remains to be seen. Showrooming has also had a devastating effect on independent and chain bookstores in the United States and Great Britain and in both countries medium-sized cities have been affected the most.

About a year ago there was a newspaper story based on what happened when a medium sized city in Texas lost its last book store – it may have been Borders.  Among the people interviewed were several self-described avid readers who were “devastated” by the loss. One of them expanded on his comments and insisted that it was irresponsible for the departing book store to leave the city “bookless” by which he meant there was no place within a hundred miles or so where “avid readers” like himself could browse and check out the latest titles while discovering books they’d never heard of, so they could then shop for the best price on line.