Bookshop memories by George Orwell
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.
When George Orwell worked part-time in a second-hand book shop to earn a living, it didn’t quite leave a very ideal experience for him. The place wasn’t jazzy with old people constantly pouring into nicely-bound books. But, real booklovers came there in very few numbers.
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.
Although the store stocked some really good books, but the rarity of really discerning book-readers made Orwell uncomfortable. Some came looking for first edition books, apparently looking for something new and exciting. There were the ill-funded students from Asia who bargained over prices. Some elderly women, with no knowledge of books at all, came looking to buy some to be given away as birthday presents to younger folks.
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.
Some of the visitors to the shop were clearly quite vexing in their nature. Some old ladies vaguely wanted to buy books fit for invalids (as if, invalid people have different literary taste). There were other elderly ladies who wanted books about whose name, author or content they remembered nothing barring the fact that it had a red cover. Satisfying such customers was a frustrating job for Orwell. Apart from such naïve ill-informed people, there were two more types of visitors who were particularly repulsive.
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.
A very old sickly person used to come to the shop to pester the owner to buy some of the old books he had brought for sale. He used to pester Orwell to buy his stuff. There were a few others of a different type. They came, grandly ordered some good number of books, but never turned up again to buy them. The shop offered no credit, but faithfully kept the ordered books aside for the customers to come later and buy them. However, the people seldom came to redeem their orders. Some came in to boast about their glorious pasts. Orwell instinctively knew that there was not much truth in their accounts. Why such people behaved in such pretentious ways always baffled and irritated Orwell.
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.
London is a place with all types of people, some eccentric, others of dubious characters. While moving around aimlessly, these people stray into bookshops because these places open their doors to one and all. Orwell could easily spot them. These people were somewhat loud-mouthed, but the emptiness of their rhetoric was easily apparent. One of these customers came in, and when Orwell offered him the books he had ordered, he would quietly slip away without buying them. There were quite a few of such type who seemed to derive some peculiar satisfaction in placing order for a long list of book, but later not buying any title from them at all. Orwell concluded that these customers perhaps felt that they were spending real hard money by ordering long lists of books.
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.
The owner of Orwell’s shop had a lending library nearby. It had some 500 to 600 novels. No deposit was taken from its patrons. Book thieves and crooks haunted these places. They would borrow a book from another library, tear its front page that had the shop’s name embossed, and then come to the library to sell the stolen book at a give-away price. Lending library owners and book shops knew some books would be stolen anyway. They knew if they insisted on a deposit to preempt such thefts, they would drive some genuine customers away.
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. Another thing that is very noticeable is the growing unpopularity of American books.
From the books the readers read, Orwell could judge the taste of the reader. H was saddened by the fact that classical English novelists were no longer in demand by the reading public. Books by authors like Dickens, Thackeray, Jane Austen, Trollope were no longer the craze among the reading public.
Orwell was amused to see that the same people, who turned away from serious authors in the library or the shop, didn’t hesitate to buy books written by Charles Dickens or Shakespeare. Books by Dickens always remained in the back of the minds of serious readers as indispensible reading material. Dickens enjoyed an enduring appeal among his readers. Characters from Dickens’s novels such as the bald-headed Mr. Micawber, Moses, found in a basket are fairly well-known to the reading public. But, most readers detested American novels.
And another 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.
Short stories, due to some inexplicable reasons, didn’t find favour among the readers whom Orwell got to know there. When these readers were asked about their aversion to short stories, they would say that the stories had all different characters with different names. ‘It was a bit too confusing for the readers,’ they mentioned. At times, the story unfolded along easily predictable lines. The readers found this quite boring. Only the stories and novels written by D. H. Lawrence had eager readers always.
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.
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.
Orwell asks himself if he would like to take to the profession of book selling. He answers in the negative. This is despite the fact that he enjoyed his time in the shop, and his employer was kind towards him. Orwell feels that with the right opportunity and capital, anyone could achieve moderate success in book selling. Selling rare books might be a bit risky. If one has a fair idea about the contents of a book, he would find it easier to sell it. Most book sellers lack knowledge about the contents of a book, Relying on the sales brochures of a book given by the publisher could be misleading. Book selling is noble trade and does not involve deceit or treachery of any sort. However, being a book seller might demand long hours of work from the owner. Orwell was a part time employee, so he didn’t have to do it. But, his employer had to be in the store for long hours. Book shops need to have large open front to improve visibility. Winter can be very cold inside a book shop. Books also tart smelling bad during the cold days. Insects like the bluebottles lie dead on the books. Cleaning of the books in the shelves is ot a ery pleasant job.
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.
End … The real reason for Orwell’s reluctance to go into book trade as a profession is, however, not any of these factors. When he worked in the book store, he lost his love for books. To entice the customer, he has to resort to some untruth about a book. By doing this, he begins to loathe the book. Apart from this, he has to constantly dust the books to keep them looking new and fresh. Shuffling the books to and from the shelf proves to be tedious.
In earlier days, Orwell liked to have books that were 50 years old. He could buy whole heaps of them in auction for a very nominal price. Books obtained like this were a mixed bag. Some were works of poets who lived more than a century ago. Some were bundles of government gazetteres, old volumes of ladies magazines etc.
In the midst of the sea of books in the book shop, Orwell lost his fascination for old books, because the charm of feeling and smelling an old volume had disappeared.
Orwell still buys new books, but only if he really needs to read them and they are not available in a library. Work in the book shop has left no love in him for new books. Instead, the stint as a shop assistant has left an unpleasant memory of eccentric customers and the smell of the dead bluebottles.