A Bookshop Through Time- the 1940s

Sometimes it’s OK to have a gap in your knowledge.

World War Two has always awoken my curiosity, mostly because, like many of us, I have related family history and first-person accounts told to me by my British Grandparents and Aunties.  That side of my family is from Hackney and Stepney/Brick Lane, and so naturally, there were War and Blitz experiences, including my Great-Parents pub on Homerton High Street (The Coach and Horses), blown to smithereens in 1940.  My Grandma used to get the bus to work in town and hid under the bus seats during a raid. My Great Uncle rode a bicycle in the Azores.  My mum told me that when she was a child, her family still counted out the components of the family roast to make sure no-one had more than another. 

Our shop was there in the 1940s, of course, but going into a lot of detail will be difficult.

I don’t have a guide to running a bookshop in the War, but I have pieced together what I think our shop would have been like.  To do this, I have read a fascinating text published at the time, Britain Needs Books, which aimed to convince the world that they had a place in a society gripped by shortages and devastation.  Due to restrictions on paper usage bookshops like ours would have often ran out of stock.  The Government could at any time divert paper stocks to projects deemed integral to the war effort, and as a result, publishers also had to be more selective about what they produced and how many.  There was a committee set up at the PA for that purpose, and if you buy a book from that era today, you will most likely see a stamp that reads ‘War Economy Agreement.’ 

In our shop, the owner’s daughter is there, having taken over from her aging father, but aside from two other female assistants, the men have all been called up.  Not only that, but I speculate that all of those remaining are involved in the war effort, be that as fire wardens, ambulance drivers, or another role.  This would have been a strain on their time, made them tired, and coupled with air raids, I am sure they are not always early to work, nor always exhibiting the upbeat mannerisms expected by Heffer of his apprentice audience in 1933.  Bombing raids would also have interrupted business, so there may have been entire weeks or months when the shop was inaccessible.    

I am assuming that there would have been less passing trade from male office workers and clerks rushing to and from Charing Cross station and that many more books are being posted out as fewer people travel into central London.   I will guess that our shop’s big windows have been re-enforced to protect against being shattered so that there was not much on display under the blackout blinds, and the lighting had to dim after a certain hour if the shop isn’t closing early.  The bookshelves have more space between the volumes they house and the stationery shelves are empty of paper. During the War there were calls for books to be distributed to soldiers, and so the owner’s daughter (she is running the place, but this is what she is still known as) is getting a sack of paperbacks ready to be collected and taken to a central sorting centre.  The books are old copies that her father ordered off of one of his rep friends, and she is glad they are going to good use.  People don’t have a lot of money, so books are a luxury, but publishers have responded with more titles on gardening, cooking, and mending and a bit of a fiction boom because people want to escape.  The owner’s daughter has a display of Penguin Books, a popular and newish series of affordable paperbacks, which had been the idea of publisher Allen Lane, who would provide special editions to those serving in the War. 

All they hope for is a return to normality soon…..

This is as far as I am prepared to go with a description of our shop in the 1940s because if I carry on, I will start writing a novel.  We will go back to 1951 (my next bookshop guide) and see what is happening with it then, but before I go, I wanted to introduce you to a wartime bookseller in Paris,  Sylvia Beach.  She was interned for being a bookseller in newly-occupied France in 1941.  Her bookshop was called Shakespeare & Co., and a second Parisian bookshop would take over her legacy of helping authors and writers.  I won’t say anything else except, in these difficult times, suggest that you would enjoy finding out more in a fantastic and engaging history of the shop by buying the book here.  You will not be disappointed.https://shakespeareandcompany.com/d/9791096101009/shakespeare-and-company-paris-a-history-of-the-rag-bone-shop-of-the-heart

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A Bookshop Through Time- the 1930s

The next decade for our bookshop through time is the 1930s, 1933, to be precise. Ernest Heffer’s speech to some London bookseller apprentices about being an amazing bookshop assistant is the source material being used.  In it, he gives us a real insight into how a bookshop in this era would have looked and been run, so I will apply this to our Charing Cross bookshop, which we left in 1929.

The shop windows are tidy and uniform, and a sign explains that the books on display are ‘featured in the press.’ Another display in the smaller window has a few ‘perfect gifts’ because although it is October, people will start their Christmas shopping soon.  Any shelves which can be viewed from the window are full of organised spines.  Aesthetically inside the shop, there is little change, and the owner hasn’t dramatically altered anything in the last four years, except the new basement area.  This extension would be for more books, but instead, it is a packing and dispatch room, hidden from the customers’ view.  The post is bulging with orders, and there is another assistant at the back counter rubber stamping when they were received to be dealt with in date order.  The organisation of tasks feels much more important than it did just a few years ago.  There are letters now from far-flung places requesting English-language books in a variety of subjects.  The export book trade would take off in this decade as postal systems became more reliable and quicker and bookshops which carried all the latest new books in English would appear in countries all over the world.  Publishers would start to invest in the Export market, and customers from New Zealand, America, and Europe would be willing to wait to read their requested publications.

Although there is more staff now, it is not the ‘done thing’ to talk about the dance last night in front of customers, so a strict code of conduct is observed by the assistants, although I am sure that they slip up on occasion.  A couple of assistants get the shop ready for the day, dusting and cleaning because customer experience is now paramount.  When customers come in, the dusters will be put away downstairs, and the assistants will start leading them to the sections they ask for, and rather than walk away, their training has taught them to recommend some titles they have read or known that are good.  This is active selling, and a few years ago, in 1929, you might remember that the shop assistant was on their way to learn about this.  In the 1930s, a bookselling apprenticeship was set up by the BA who were influenced by the German book trade, who did and still do treat it as a proper profession. 

An assistant has just sold a book can now record the sale without diverting to the owner, who is not around.  He is about to pass the business on to his daughter, and she will start working in the shop shortly.  One of the changes she is looking at is a proper filing system to keep all correspondence and old orders.  Bookkeeping is becoming more important with all the letters arriving from around the globe, and a clerk will be needed soon. A job advertisement will be drawn up and placed in The Bookseller before long. There’s a traveller or representative as they are becoming known, sitting and reading it. 

We will leave the shop here, in peacetime for another six years.  World War Two will be challenging to capture due to lack of sources.  However, I will write a more general piece using a couple of sources that will explain the challenges that bookshops faced.  See you in the 1940s.

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A Bookshop Through Time- the 1920s

The next stop in our bookshop through time is the year 1929 and comes courtesy of a little paper-covered hardback called Books: From The MS To The Bookseller by John L. Young.  The shop is still in Charing Cross and doesn’t look much different at first glance from how I described it in the early 1900s.

The mirrored panels in the windows have gone, replaced by plain backing. Inside, an effort has been made to provide a quiet and calm, tidy environment that will hopefully encourage people to browse like those two over there, weighing up which London map to buy.  This bookshop is small, but it is becoming the fashion to expand into basements to provide a suite of rooms which each house different sections, put together by relevance.  As a result, the owner is looking into opening up a lower ground floor using the shop’s storage room.  The layout is much tidier with the cabinets removed, and the books are classified by broader subjects that move into sub-sections.  One of the booksellers responsible for this upgrade is Gilbert Foyle, whose system has been adopted in this shop.  The dewy decimal library system influenced him.  The owner of our shop has decided to follow Foyle’s guideline, and the books are shelved into the following sections:

  • General Literature (Includes biography, Belles-Lettres, poetry, children’s, fiction, and essays)
  • Music and Drama
  • Educational and School Books
  • Domestic Science
  • Natural Science
  • Farming and Gardening
  • Technical and Applied Science
  • Naval and Military
  • Sports and Physical Culture
  • Medical
  • Occult, Psychic and New Thought
  • Theology and Religion
  • Philosophy, Logic, Psychology and Ethics
  • Law and Commerce
  • Politics, Economics and Banking
  • Typography, Travel and Guides
  • Archaeology and Heraldry
  • Art, Collecting etc.
  • Rare Books and First Editions
  • Foreign Books (A-Z by Language)

These categories form how the books are organised not only for the ease of the book-buyer but also inform buying decisions because now there are even more books published each year, around 16,000.  See all those travellers over there, they are waiting patiently for their meetings with the owner.  Some are lucky enough to be responsible for the latest bestseller, and others are trying to shift reprints of classic literature.  The assistant is on the shop floor, tidying all of these sections and keeping them in order.  When a customer walks into the shop, the theory is they can be guided to their interests, and the assistant can sell rather than be passive.  They are off on a course today run by the Booksellers’ Association, all about how to be an intuitive bookseller.  There is a lot less stationery in the shop due to the number of new books, but some papers and basic materials are still available.  Typewriters did well, but now there are specialist shops that sell them, so that’s all been wound up, as well as the lending library that produced many used and dog-eared books that no-one wanted.  The assistant is about to have a lunch hour before going on the training course, so, luckily, there are now a few who can cover for each other; here’s the other one arriving now.  The owner does allow holiday and offers some extra hours over Christmas to the staff, so they are considered a fair employer.  The Bookseller is still on the cash desk, and this time a till helps with totting up purchases, although they are all still recorded by hand. The collector still calls at the shop and delivers books directly from publisher offices, ordered by customers.  The posting counter has the same brown paper and string, and there is a special book post rate arranged with the Royal Mail.  At the back of the shop, where the lending library was, there is a clearance section.  Really old books are allowed to be discounted as long as they have met the time-limits of the Net Book Agreement.  A magazine publisher with offices around the corner from the shop often brings in ex-review copies they are added to the clearance and sold at bargain prices. 

The bookshop in this era feels more organised with a want and need to expand.  Assistants were being trained in selling rather than just being in the shop waiting for a customer to buy something.  Books were being published in a vast selection of categories, which aided an expansion of publishing into sub-areas.  Things are certainly looking more familiar, but there is still a lot of human work involved in keeping the shop going.  It will be interesting to see what difference another decade will make.

Next time, the 1930s…

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A Bookshop Through Time

In honour of Bookshop Day 2020, I decided to write about an imaginary London bookshop through the decades using books and bookselling guides.  This series of posts begins here in the early twentieth century and to create the bookshop of this era I have used The Successful Bookseller; a guide to running a bookshop, published in 1906.

Let’s go and discover the bookshop in 1906. It’s a cold and crisp October morning. Let’s make it a Tuesday.

The shop premises is situated on a street in London near Charing Cross. The front has a sizeable single-paned window, and a door separates this from a smaller one.  The frame is made of dark stained and varnished timber, and at each side are a pair of console brackets that trail an ornate pattern down to the pilasters on either side.  The shop name sign runs across the facia at the top in ornate gold lettering and above the doorway is a single glass panel with the words’ Books Bought and Sold.’ This was a common practice for booksellers of this era as many dealt in the second-hand market.

The windows are not all full of books thought as this shop also sells stationery and other goods.  Set in front of mirrored boards and on top of a dark cloth material are typewriters, playing cards, and glass cases containing different coloured inks, reading glasses, and slate pencils.  A bigger glass case houses some attractive purses for rail passes or business cards.  Every item comes with a sign so that the window’s contents remain clear at a glance for busy passers-by.  The smaller window contains a mixture of the latest new books standing on piles of the same title.  Behind them are full purpose-built shelves where books are displayed spine-out.  An advertisement is propped up in the corner of the window on a wooden board, proclaiming that ‘new novels a bargain at 4d.’  One poster at the entrance to the shop tells of a new typewriter area in-store, and another demands that customers ask about the circulating library service.’ Above the shop is a gas lamp which will be lit as the sun goes down. It is winter, and the shop is open until at least 9pm to capitalise on the office worker’s day.

Inside the shop, there are tall sets of shelves, as you would expect, but the gaps between them are smaller than those in today’s bookshops because books were shorter, and the coffee table and illustrated book were rare.  The dark wood that they are made of creates a dim but cosy atmosphere, but there are electric lights if needed.  There are familiar sections to browse, such as novels, children’s books (huge demand at Christmas) and reference works, and the owner and their assistant know where everything is because they write it all down. That’s right; every single book in this shop (imagine a lot) has been manually recorded in a journal and numbered to its exact location.  There is a physical division between the new and second-hand books, and aside from the novel section, the majority are mostly hardbacks.  There is a certain snobbery around books with paper covers, and they are seen as throwaway more like a magazine; they are not designed to be kept.  Good book bindings are sought-after, and so the best-bound publications can be seen displayed on top of various counters. If a customer buys a book and wants to rebind it, there are copious binding shops across London which this bookseller can recommend.  A case with glass doors houses some scarce first edition manuscripts because this shop also dabbles in the antiquarian market. There are no reductions off the published prices of books, because the Net Book Agreement has just come in (1900) and its terms forbid any retailer from competing on price. Hang on, in the corner over there is a sale crate, here’s hoping they have got permission.

A large amount of stationery is noticeable inside the shop.  People in this era buy paper, inks, and journals to use in their daily lives.  The bookshop also supplies cash books, blank postcards, glue, and pencil lead to the clerks and office workers in the local area.  The paper shelves look like deep pigeon holes, and each is stocked with a different kind in loose sheets.  At the back of the shop is a small typewriter counter where inks and replacement keys can be bought, and where the latest models are shown.  There is a rudimentary repair service offered on a wooden board hung up above the counter.  This new technology is becoming quickly popular, particularly with city office workers who have the money to purchase one outright.

There is no till in this shop, but towards the back is a mahogany desk with drawers used to pack up purchases and orders. A copy of The Bookseller is on the desk, ready with all the latest releases and trade gossip- it has been a bookshop staple since it began publication in 1858. The owner sits here and waits for people to come and buy, eyes down, reading a newspaper. Sales are recorded manually.  The customer can open a credit account; each purchase is written in the sold ledger, and then an invoice written out, which takes the money off the customer’s credit balance.  Cash is also accepted outright. The man that has just approached the desk is a collector. He is picking up a list which contains customer’s requests for books that London publishers may be able to fulfil. He will spend his day going from firm to firm asking for books on several of these lists and if he is successful he will transport them to the bookshop. If you have ever heard of the odd trade term ‘Asking Code,’ it exists because collectors used to verbally ask publishers for the status of their books.

Along the desk there is copious brown paper and white string to wrap book purchases and post them as required. The assistant is here frantically packing the morning’s orders. They would have been received by letter and now need to meet the morning post collection. It’s pretty cold in the shop as there is no heating but right at the back are some built-in wooden reading seats situated around a fireplace.  In this area, above the seats, shelves stock the circulating library books, and subscribers can come in and read for a while or take their choice of books with them for a monthly fee. There is a sales rep or ‘traveller’ sitting down waiting for his appointment with the owner. He has a large suitcase of proofs with him because he is hoping to get a good order for Christmas.

Bookshops in the early 1900s were not only places to discover the next bestseller, they were part of their local community. The services provided in this imaginary shop went beyond the book and although booksellers were very passionate about their trade, at this time, believe it or not, they were not guaranteed a living just from books. The public would also have expected to receive services from their shops rather than being in perfect showrooms of manicured displays. Lending libraries were popular additions as they encouraged loyalty in an era when more people were travelling for work. Digital was a far-off dream, but there were ways to categorise and classify books to the public which are still in use today albeit online. If you are a bookseller now I have no doubt that you could walk into this bookshop and understand it.

Next time, we will be looking inside the bookshop in the 1920s to see what will change.

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Bookshops Solving Crimes, London, 1853

Never steal from a bookshop.

In the Victorian era, there was a sizeable antiquarian book trade in London.  Booksellers bought and sold from each other, and there was a different set of customs and terms used which differentiated this type of bookselling from those who dealt in new books.  These booksellers held auctions over dinner, bought entire libraries, looked for red flags above private residences, which indicated a sale of contents of the deceased homeowners, and most notably, in the case of the following story, knew and spoke to each other regularly.  In fact, in The Observer of 30 October 1853, an article shows us that bookseller connections were so close they could even help solve a petty crime.

It was reported that Thomas Laurance, described as a ‘shopman’ to bookseller Mr. Willis, stole £30 worth of books from his employer. Willis’ shop was in The Piazza, Covent Garden, and close to other, similar businesses, such as Mr. Bush, who ran a bookshop on Leicester Square, only a short walk away.  There had been some suspicion from Mr. Willis over the disappearance of a few books which happened sporadically. However, when a rare volume called Cunningham’s Songs of Scotland went missing from his shelves, Willis sought the help of his fellow booksellers in the immediate area.  In a conversation, Mr. Bush revealed that he had bought this particular book only a week after it had gone missing and was perplexed when the seller repurchased it.  Laurence’s wife also re-bought several of the books, once they had been sold to different bookshops.

To disguise the rare Scottish songs book further, and remember this was in the day before books were traceable by ISBN or edition number, Laurence re-bound the book at a binder in Hatton Garden, which again was not that far away from either shop.  The perfect crime, if it were not for the bookseller’s network that existed which traced the perpetrator’s address through his credit account (no GDPR or data protection to worry about in those days) to a second-floor room, Laurence and his wife rented on The Strand.  There the police found a bookcase full of books owned by Willis. Laurence’s excuse was that he had “borrowed them to read.” What a terrible plead for innocence. He was not believed and ended up in prison.