We have reached that point in the calendar when the book trade is at its most buoyant. Over the coming month or so more books will be bought than in the rest of the year put together. Or so the theory goes.
Booksellers, publishers and authors all look to Christmas and the shopping frenzy it encourages to turn loss into profit. As you might expect the stress is only borderline bearable. It is imperative to sell as many books as possible. In that regard, bookselling is like any other business. Fail to thrive and you’re unlikely to survive. It’s as stark as that.
It was not always thus. In the sixteenth century, Pietro Aretino, satirist and ‘light’ pornographer, wrote to his publisher telling him all he wanted by way of recompense was to have his work printed carefully on good quality paper. ‘I would sooner endure poverty,’ he added, ‘than offend virtue by turning the liberal arts into a trade’. Described by Milton as ‘that notorious ribald of Arezzo’, Aretino got by on handouts and patronage and, on occasion, by blackmailing those who had sought him out for his knowledge of vice. Never wealthy in the material sense, he is said to have died of suffocation from ‘laughing too much’. If this was caused by a joke it has not been recorded.
Moneymaking entered the booktrade in the nineteenth century following the unprecedented popularity of Sir Walter Scott. So desirable were his novels that from 1822 they appeared simultaneously in English and French. In 1824, in Germany, a parody of his fictions, Walladmor, was published in which Scott himself featured as a character. As the Spanish writer and translator, Jorge Carrión, notes in Bookshops (Maclehose Press), ‘there is no better guarantee of success than imitation or parody’.
Thereafter things were never the same again. Soon, along came Dickens and Thackeray, Wilkie Collins and George Eliot, and with them trains and the first bookshop chains, many of whose outlets were situated in railway stations. Few parts of the globe were without them. In India, for example, A.H. Wheeler held a monopoly on the sale of books and papers from 1877 to 2004, when it was cancelled by the then Minister of Railways ‘in a nationalistic political move…against the British resonances in the India company’s name’. Six years later, however, the decision was revoked.
Bookshops – as we surely do not need to remind readers of the SRB – are not like other shops. We have often believed that if every high street had one the effect on the collective well-being would be more beneficial than that, say, of chemists and bookmakers. An enlightened government would encourage local councils to allow empty premises to be opened as bookshops with no rent or rates charged to their owners until they were demonstrably in profit. It would also insist that such bookshops were well-supplied with books from indigenous publishers.
In the meantime, the death of the bookshop is routinely foretold. That it defies all such doomsaying is a cause for optimism in the face of myriad reasons to fear the worst. Bookshop owners do not expect to get rich quick. The best they can hope for is to stay open. In his foreword to Footnotes from the World’s Greatest Bookstores by New Yorker cartoonist Bob Eckstein (Clarkson Potter), Garrison Keillor pays tribute to independent bookshops. ‘Nothing against the big chain bookstores,’ he writes, ‘nothing at all, but the feeling is different: like the difference between eating at a café owned by the guy who is cooking and eating from vending machines’. Among the seventy-five bookshops featured and pictured by Epstein is the ever-excellent Watermill in Aberfeldy, the sole Scottish representative.
A few years ago Keillor, author of Lake Wobegone Days and compëre of A Prairie Home Companion, realized a dream and opened his own bookstore, Common Good Books, across the street from Macalester College in St Paul, Minnesota. At first it haemorrhaged cash but of late, apparently, it’s been doing okay. ‘There is no sign on the front door, TOILET IS FOR PATRONS ONLY,’ writes Keillor. ‘We only ask that you won’t go in the toilet to read – there are couches for that.’ Ownership of bookshops by writers in the US is not uncommon. Ann Patchett is co-owner of Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tennessee, while Louise Erdrich has Birchbark Books in Minneapolis. Most notably, and most laudably, there is Booked Up in Archer City, Texas, which was founded more than four decades ago by Larry McMurtry. According to its website, all of its stock of between 150,00 and 200,000 ‘fine and scholarly books’ has been purchased and shelved by the author of bestsellers such as Lonesome Dove and the co-writer of the Oscar-winning screenplay of Brokeback Mountain. Isn’t it amazing what people will do for the love of books.