Tuesday, May 28, 2024

'Daft in a Socially Useful and Quite Pleasant Way'

A young man and his friend wish to open a bookstore and I'm reluctant to say anything to discourage them. Nor do I want to encourage costly foolishness. He’s twenty-one, my age when I indulged in a similar fantasy half a century ago. With a poet and his wife – hardly the most business-minded of demographics – we came up with an appropriate name for our dream-bookshop: Omega Books. I can’t say we came to our senses, exactly. Rather, we never had enough money in the first place. We considered stocking the store with books from our own shelves, and actually thought that was a pretty good idea, at least briefly. My not-so-silent partner owned more than I, mostly slender volumes of contemporary poetry – not exactly a sumptuous source of seed funding. I’m grateful for the experience. It taught me that I have no business sense or entrepreneurial spirit. I just like books. 

That’s the question I posed to the young man, a longtime reader of Anecdotal Evidence: what do you bring to the enterprise beyond an admirable devotion to books and reading? A tough question to answer especially if one mistakes pleasure for competence in the marketplace. The classic text on bookstores – as businesses, as cultural mainstays – is “The Bookshop in America,” published by Edward Shils (1910-95) in the winter 1963 issue of Daedalus. That was the same year I started patronizing bookstores on my own, without parents. Shils was a sociologist, a member of the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago and formidably well-read. In the essay he writes (long before Amazon, even before Borders):


“The wonder is, given the unremunerativeness of the business, that bookshops exist at all. It takes a special kind of person, somewhat daft in a socially useful and quite pleasant way but nonetheless somewhat off his head, to give himself to bookselling. Why should anyone who has or who can obtain $10,000 or $20,000 invest it in a bookshop to sell serious books when, if he were an economically reasonable person, he would do better to open a beauty parlor or a hamburger and barbecue shop, or put his money into the stock market?”


Richard Zuelch said...

On the tediousness of working in a bookstore, there is, of course, George Orwell's essay, "Bookshop Memories" (1936), about his time as an employee.

Jack said...

Owning a bookstore because you like literature is about as sensible as owning a bar because you like alcohol - best not to mix vocations with avocations. The economics of retail bookselling today is way worse than in Shils's day given the rise of Amazon. NYC say 40 years ago had two bookstores devoted to books on philosophy. They are long gone along with most of NYC's bookstores presumably because the owners could not make ends meet.

Thomas Parker said...

I'll never own a bookstore, but if I did, I would have, instead of a bookstore cat (which I have seen in many establishments), a bookstore geek. He wouldn't bite the heads off of chickens in exchange for a bottle of cheap bourbon; rather, to quaff his thirst he would read any worthless bestseller you tossed to him - Danielle Steele, Harold Robbins, whatever. (I'm afraid I just revealed my age, there.)