The “Golden Age” of Bookstores: A Myth?
It’s become commonplace to bemoan the demise of bookstores in this age of Amazon.com and downloadable e-books. But The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal points out that, back in 1931, there were only 500 real bookstores in the US in 1931 and that the “golden age” of bookstores in the US may not have been such at all.
Madrigal takes these figures from historian historian Kenneth C. Davis’s 1984 book Two-Bit Culture: The Paperbacking of America, a book he picked up “because many of the changes that social media and the Internet are supposed to have wrought on culture are ascribed to the rise of the paperback in this book.” The creation of the paperback is credited with democratizing the reading experience, making books available to millions of Americans.
But bookstores themselves were a something of a rare entity and were once found in only one-third of American counties; the selling of books was a “relatively tiny business centered in the urban areas of the country.” Furthermore, these bookstores were not for the masses of the hoi polloi but were “old-fashioned ‘carriage trade’ stores catering to an elite clientele in the nation’s twelve largest cities” for what Madrigal calls “sophisticated urban elites” — one percenters.
95 percent of adults in America were literate in 1940, according to UNESCO figures cited by Madrigal but most people did not get their books from bookstores. Davies says that there were, all told, about 4,000 places where books could be purchased in this era, with the majority of them stationery stores or gift shops with only a few popular titles — just as, today, you can find books in numerous venues including supermarkets, Target and WalMart, but only a limited selection of popular titles, be they tell-all memoirs, self-help books, celebrity biographies.
From this information, Madrigal questions the claim that the “sprawling mess of Internet publishing” has led to a decline in the quality of writing. It is not that we were all reading George Eliot and Henry James novels then and foregoing more “popular” fare. Bookstores packed floor to ceiling with everything from full editions of Faulkner novels to the complete works of Williams Wordsworth to all the Steven King, mystery novels and cookbooks you could want — the big box bookstore — are a very recent phenomenon and one (as evinced in the bankruptcy of Borders) with a seemingly short existence.
It could be argued that books are more accessible than ever, provided you have Internet access and some kind of e-reader device. What the paperback and now the e-book eras have ushered in is another phenomenon, of more and more people being able to own books. As much as I’ve always liked building up my own library — when I was kid, my parents had a limit on how many toys we could get but not on books — I also like borrowing from the library and knowing that I’m not the only person reading a book, whether in paper or e-book format.
No one likes to see the local bookstore closed. But the ease with which we all — not just one percent of people — can access books now can’t be discounted.
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Photo by Ned Raggett