What’s in a Bookstore?

For more than five centuries, equilibrium between profit and passion has remained elusive to book buyers and sellers.

When brick-and-mortar publishers and bookstores close, today as in the past, the unsold stock sometimes ends up in an indecorous heap. It’s one thing to know that about one-third of the books published in Europe before 1700 survive only in a single copy; it’s quite another thing to confront waterlogged books languishing on the sidewalk. Without the public funding or institutional backing enjoyed by many libraries, bookstores these days tend to have a hard time making ends meet, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only intensified these pressures. Should a bookstore have to close, we lament the disappearance of its social and intellectual ecosystem, even more than the loss of the books themselves.

Especially for antiquarian and other independent booksellers, there exists a tension between sharing knowledge and running a business. Bookstores sell books and book-adjacent items, of course. But they also may serve as editorial offices, publishing houses, classrooms, and lecture halls, not to mention cafés, play spaces, and reading rooms. Sites of collaboration and exchange, bookstores, like libraries, can help hold a community together.

A number of recent works warn against reducing bookstores to the financial bottom line. Kaouther Adimi’s novel Our Riches, translated from the French in 2020 by Chris Andrews, reconstructs a history of the bookstore that French-Algerian intellectual Edmond Charlot founded in Algiers in 1935. In Bookshops: A Reader’s History, translated in 2017 from the Spanish by Peter Bush, Barcelona-based critic Jorge Carrión weaves together notes from his bookstore pilgrimages around the world with anecdotes culled from books about books and reading. And D. W. Young’s The Booksellers, an earnest 2019 documentary film about the antiquarian book trade, follows a cast of collectors, archivists, librarians, and booksellers as they try to reinvent and diversify their craft, while selling what appears to be a trifling number of books. There’s no wide-eyed optimism in these three works. Their affectionate depictions of bookstores and booksellers instead ask us to consider what we’re in danger of losing.

Can lessons from the past help guide independent booksellers and their patrons as they navigate a book world in flux? Histories of the early modern book market, when both books and the global economy were new, do not provide a definite blueprint for how to deal with the changing technologies of the book or the effects of online bookselling. They do, however, reveal a pliable sense of what books were in the first place. Literary scholars José María Pérez Fernández and Edward Wilson-Lee’s Hernando Colón’s New World of Books: Toward a Cartography of Knowledge and historians Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen’s The Bookshop of the World: Making and Trading Books in the Dutch Golden Age show that books, and the book world, have never not been in flux.

This knowledge may offer some measure of reassurance to 21st-century bibliophiles uneasy about the future of reading. It turns out that book buyers have always sought to temper desire with circumspection, while booksellers have aimed to balance parsimony with intellectual largesse. For more than five centuries, equilibrium has remained elusive to both parties.


Book Collection at the Dawn of Print

Hernando Colón—aka Ferdinand Columbus, Christopher’s son—built in Seville one of the largest private libraries of the 16th century, but he distrusted booksellers. Making a show of defending his family’s name, Colón refuted rumors that his father had been a bookseller in Genoa before his rather more famous transatlantic endeavors. When Colón’s last librarian described the cross-referenced author, title, and subject catalogues, the transcribed snippets, and the book summaries used to organize this collection, he emphasized the usefulness of these tools for sniffing out bookseller fraud.

Compiled in the nearly two-thousand-page Libro de los epítomes manuscript rediscovered in the University of Copenhagen’s Arnamagnæan Institute, in 2019, the book summaries, in particular, made it possible for Colón’s collaborators to spot titles that had little or nothing to do with the works they adorned and to recognize attempts to hawk old publications as new. Early modern book buyers had reason to be wary of unscrupulous publishers and shady booksellers.

Wealthy booksellers were worthy of particular suspicion. In his will, Colón instructed heirs charged with the conservation and expansion of his collection—which consisted of about 15,000 volumes at the time of his death, in 1539—to avoid merchants who dealt principally in large and expensive books, like those that characterized the disciplines of law and theology. Colón faulted such booksellers with overestimating the comprehensiveness of their stock and remaining uncurious about the inexpensive, small-format works of popular poetry and current events that he coveted.

Obrezillas, or “little works,” as Colón called these sorts of pamphlets, with tender regard for their uneven quality and ephemeral nature, could yield scant profits and be difficult to source. Once obtained, and perhaps read, they were more likely to finish their days as wrapping paper at the butcher shop or fruit stall than to be preserved in a library. But Colón insisted that his agents across Europe purchase them for his collection before making any other acquisitions whatsoever.

Edward Wilson-Lee’s first book on Colón, The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books: Young Columbus and the Quest for a Universal Library, is a lively biography, chock-full of not only book purchases but also seafaring mishaps in the Caribbean and heady outings in Rome. Wilson-Lee and José María Pérez Fernández’s new coauthored book, Hernando Colón’s New World of Books, argues that Colón’s capacity for book buying and his innovations as a bibliographer rested on newfangled financial instruments and bookkeeping systems. In the early 16th century, mercantile practices crept into the realms of scholarship. To understand Colón in the library or bookshop—where he occasionally bought more than a hundred books at a time—we must first imagine his Genoese associates at the bank, converting their client’s annual royal salary and inherited New World wealth into money readily available in Seville or Venice.

These days, it does not seem reductive to follow the money and the materials to understand methods of interpretation and information management. Ink and paper quality; the availability of type; shipping and storage logistics; financial and copyright law; the mobility of skilled workers; public investment in literacy; the going rate for a pint of beer in relation to the cost of a book—all these elements shape what gets read and, to some significant degree, how. Even without the backache and eyestrain that may accompany present-day book scrolling, it’d be hard to remain insensible to the shifting material conditions of reading and, in turn, to the economics of books.


The Early Modern Book Market Matures

Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen’s wide-ranging coauthored work, The Bookshop of the World, demonstrates that the economics of books is best understood by thinking about print culture as broadly as possible. Building on Pettegree’s previous research on books in the early Renaissance and on the “invention of news,” this new book examines 17th-century Dutch publishing dynasties like the Elzeviers, in Leiden, and the Blaeu and Janssonius families, in Amsterdam. These family firms produced costly and significant books. Joan Blaeu’s Atlas Maior, a richly illustrated collection of maps, and the Elzeviers’ publications of works by Galileo and Descartes stand out. Dutch traders also bought books in bulk from publishers elsewhere in Europe, often paying in cash, and then resold them at a markup at home and abroad. Adept entrepreneurs with an eye for the shifting tastes of readers in both Protestant and Catholic regions, they speculated.

Meanwhile, large and small firms alike jostled for the predictable income and low risk associated with smaller printing jobs. The highly literate and politically engaged Dutch were avid readers: newspapers, advertisements, funeral orations, dissertations, political and wedding pamphlets, posted announcements, and the like—obrezillas and paperwork, one could say. Drawing on publisher and notarial archives, Pettegree and Der Weduwen plot this iceberg of lost printed matter.

Successful Dutch publishers transformed the book market beyond the Dutch Republic, too. They squeezed out local competitors in Copenhagen. They dictated preferential terms at the critical Frankfurt book fair. They were strident players in the production and trade of English bibles. And their success in Paris aroused protectionist reactions. Amsterdam became the metaphorical bookshop of the world, but at a cost.


Bookstores as Archives

Although the buying and selling of books for profit has always been an aim of booksellers, bookstore archives reveal the myriad other activities taking place amid the commerce. Blurring the lines among the different sorts of intimacy and creativity realized in rooms full of books, Paris-based author Kaouther Adimi’s Our Riches fictionalizes the story of Edmond Charlot and Les Vraies Richesses, the bookstore that Charlot founded in Algiers in 1935.

Charlot was an editor and publisher as well as a bookseller. The works of Albert Camus, André Gide, and a host of other prominent authors appeared in the book list he deftly curated. The inventive Charlot—in Our Riches, at least—is bursting with ideas for collaboration, resulting in an “éditions Charlot” book frontispiece painted by René-Jean Clot and an exhibition at the bookstore of Sauveur Galliéro’s sculptures. Adimi depicts Les Vraies Richesses as a ferment.

The bookstore lent books in addition to selling and producing them. In Adimi’s telling, a young man named Riyad is sent from Paris in 2017 by the building’s new owners to clear out the remaining books and prepare the space for a beignet shop. Since the 1990s, when the Algerian government acquired the bookstore from the founder’s sister-in-law, the space had served as a branch of the Algerian National Library—though locals persisted in calling it Les Vraies Richesses. Abdallah, who from 1997 onward had managed the lending library while sleeping on its mezzanine, was known fondly in the neighborhood as “the bookseller.” Evoking the slipperiness of the French word librairie, which now denotes “bookstore” but in centuries past more often meant “library,” Adimi questions whether book lovers must conserve their books and booksellers must sell them.

Sites of collaboration and exchange, bookstores, like libraries, can help hold a community together.

In 1961, in the midst of the Algerian Revolution, bombs demolished a second bookstore opened by Adimi’s Charlot in 1949, two years after he had sold Les Vraies Richesses to his brother. Charlot bewailed the loss of his archive. Reader reports, correspondence, photographs, manuscripts, and financial documents were all destroyed, along with this second store’s books. Adimi’s work mingles extracts from a notebook written by her fictional Charlot with Riyad’s story, told to “you,” the reader, by a circumspect narrator preoccupied with a new and distinct sort of loss—that of the relationships and habits of the neighborhood around Les Vraies Richesses, along with the store’s books and patrons. The slippage between Adimi’s title, Our Riches, and “the true riches” of Charlot’s original bookstore’s name indicates this widening estimation of collective fortune and deepening anxiety about who ought to possess it. Adimi both restores Charlot’s ruined archive and safeguards the neighborhood’s story using her own technology of recollection and organization: a novel.

Jorge Carrión, literary critic and author of Bookshops, also seeks to document bookstores and explain why they ought to be preserved, but his means differ from Adimi’s. He builds his collage-like memoir of bookstore visits and reflections on reading from a collection of business cards, receipts, and travel journals, which he calls “my bookshop archive.” Like Colón, Carrión crosses borders as he ticks off entries in his ledger, cataloguing bookstores alongside books, especially those by authors whom a learned and cosmopolitan literary critic could ill afford to overlook.

Surveying his archive, Carrión concludes that, for a bookstore to survive, it must highlight the commercial markers that make it stand out. A shop’s size and antiquity make Carrión’s list of such markers, but his heart is with literary history. Think Shakespeare and Company founder Sylvia Beach in conversation with Argentine writer Victoria Ocampo in Paris—or Rachel Muyal, the longtime manager of Tangier’s Librairie des Colonnes, talking politics with the author Mohamed Choukri or trying to track down Paul Bowles, the telephoneless American expat, writer, and translator. These sorts of vignettes, together with descriptions of other secular bookstore spaces and literary chatter, make for entertaining sketches in Bookshops.

Less present are the everyday human connections and sense of place that come with routine and repetition, however provincial. As Bookshops darted around the world, I pined to return to the sleepy, ramshackle used bookstore near where I grew up, in suburban New England, where parents gather with their friends while children feed the property’s resident goats.


Antiquarian Bookstores Today

If they’re canny and patient, booksellers specializing in rare books also sometimes step into literary history, though they usually arrive late, sometimes by a few centuries. D. W. Young’s film The Booksellers illustrates that the reputations and livelihoods of antiquarian booksellers are more often tied to the books themselves than to the comings-and-goings of poets and novelists.

Yet as once difficult-to-find books appear for sale online at clearinghouse sites, what counts as a rare book is changing. For one, the bar to qualify as rare is higher: annotations or ownership by some noteworthy figure—a book “run over by the right truck,” as one merchant puts it in The Booksellers—add value. What’s more, the boundaries of the book are now more porous even than they were in the first decades of print. This porousness is manifest in, among other things, the variety of the antiquarian bookseller’s merchandise. The familiar hardback is today but one artifact among a surfeit of manuscript notes, corrected drafts, published zines, audio recordings, video outtakes, fancy gloves, curious writing implements, and all manner of literary historical tchotchkes.

To reimagine the bookstore’s stock is to grow the community of collectors and transform the image of the bookseller. Amplifying the feminist legacies of New York dealers like Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern, for instance, booksellers Heather O’Donnell and Rebecca Romney founded the Honey & Wax Book Collecting Prize for an outstanding book collection by a young woman. Collector and filmmaker Syreeta Gates built an archive of early hip-hop because such an archive did not exist, and she needed one for her activist work. The long-term payoff on these investments will not simply be solvency for antiquarian bookstores. As these sorts of nascent collections multiply and, over time, migrate to libraries, the authoritative histories of much more than the book will look different.


All the World's a Page

By Gill Partington

My own first purchase at an antiquarian bookstore was the unabridged second edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1935. Neither old nor rare by comparison with the rest of the stock, the dictionary’s defining feature was its colossal thickness. It was a wedding present, nearly 20 years ago, for some friends, so they could resolve their lexical disputes with the definitive sound of that tome slamming shut. Ill-informed about book history and intimidated by the imposing merchandise, I paid and fled.

I secured the gift but missed an opportunity to learn something. Antiquarian booksellers do not simply buy and sell books or nurture affluent collectors. They model how to think and talk about books as objects. Published introductions to book history are handy—but listen to a bookseller freestyle about bindings, ink color, and, indeed, size and one catches the rhythm before long.

By any other name—publisher, lending library, literary salon, archive—a bookstore must still sell books. No escape from the pressures of commerce is available to the bookseller, or the book reader, really. But a bookstore need not only sell books. It does, and always has done, much else besides. What else? And how? Surely a nearby bookstore has a book or two about bookstores. Stop by. I recommend lingering to chat with the bookseller.


This article was commissioned by Bécquer Seguínicon

Featured image: Still from The Booksellers (2019). IMDb