The “Golden Age” of Bookstores: A Myth?

It’s become commonplace to bemoan the demise of bookstores in this age of 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.

Related Care2 Coverage

Independent Bookstores Continue to Close

“Pop Up” Bookstore To Become Permanent?

The End of the Story: Borders To Close



Photo by Ned Raggett


Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson5 years ago

interesting. I am an avid reader but I rarely frequent book stores that sell new, over priced books. I love to search through stacks of used books at thrift stores, yard sales, library book sales, used book stores, and antique malls. the discovery is half the fun!

AnimalWhisperer Rosi

As both a prolific writer and reader, I feel both hard copy books, and Ebooks, are relevant in this day and age. The important factor in choosing which to go for, lies in remaining openminded about which is the right format for a given situation or need. Anyone who would like some free reading and insight into The Animal/Human Interlink, click on the link below, which will take you to The System of Animal Therapy website. Much Love and Peace from Animal Whisperer Rosi Caswell

Angie V.
Angie V5 years ago

I love going to a bookstore and being impressed by a good variety of books that you could actually see in person.

Angie V.
Angie V5 years ago

I love going to a bookstore and being impressed by a good variety of books that you could actually see in person.

Magyar Girl
Past Member 5 years ago

Sorry, I will always love actual, paper books that can be passed down through the generations. I have many rare works of medicine and theology.

joanna e.
joanna e5 years ago

When I was growing up in he WW2 era we took the bus everywhere. I looked forward to getting to the 'stop' early to go to the book store 1/2 block from the stop. The lady who helped everyone (children included) saw how much I loved certain books and would come over to steer me to others. They were some of the best books ever written. From Mark Twain, John Witcomb books to Frank Buck and later on to O' Henry stories, My Friend Flicka, Black Beauty, etc.
I'm sure e-books are good and will take there place in our lives, but give me a quiet place to
meditate with a good book. What a way to be restful.

Pamela K.
Pamela K5 years ago

The mega-bookstores may be on the way out but I see a huge opening for second-hand bookstores. I love to browse these for gems!

Lesley Palma
Lesley Palma5 years ago

I love the real thing. I have no desire to go to bed at night with technology in my hand. Give me a hard copy book any day.

Duane B.
.5 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Susanne S.
Susanne Shaw5 years ago

Some parts of Canada cherish books more than other provinces, it seems. BC is definitely more bookish than any of the other provinces, despite the extremely large Asian immigrant population who aren't as much interested in books, preferring technology. Maybe they get e-books? They tend to be a very young group, and if they are like the rest of Canadian youth, they are functionally illiterate (which is why we're getting a new world-wide feudalism, but that's another issue,,,or is it? King Rothchild...? Princes Koch?). In any case, it's hard to read e-books --the glare, IMHO. And you can't easily mark poignant phrases or important info for future reference. You can't eat while reading an ebook as easily as you can while reading a real book. Besides, it's easier to pass on a real book to someone else.,,even if the pages are folded down, passages underlined, and food spatter sticks some of the pages:))