Of red books and bookshop memories

Of red books and bookshop memories

A delightful essay by George Orwell called “Bookshop Memories” and written in 1936. It details his thoughts on having worked in a secondhand bookstore in London and what it taught him about the book trade, book buyers and consumers (not the same thing), and his own attitude toward books.

It is very entertaining and amusing and made me reflect on the time I worked in a local Christian bookstore and church supply. I’ll have to post my memories of that, including a third-hand brush with the Dead Sea Scrolls. Here’s a taste of 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. 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.

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.

I have to stop there and mention that I read this essay aloud to Melanie, but first we talked about our own experiences working in bookstores. I worked in the aforementioned Christian bookstore and Melanie has worked in both Waldenbooks (since eaten up by a still-larger chain) and her father’s Catholic bookstore in Austin.

One thing I recalled was the tendency of customers to come in and make the most inane requests, like, as Melanie recalled, “I want to buy a book for my nephew’s birthday. He’s 12.” As if every 12-year-old boy has the same tastes and a woman in her mid-20s would know what those are. Or, as I contributed, “The person who came in and said, ‘I don’t remember the title or author, but it has a red cover.’” I would swear on a stack of Bibles that this is what I said. In fact, “red cover” is how we described it back in the day at the store. For some reason it was always a book with a “red cover”. Are the titles of red-covered books harder to remember? Is their color more memorable than other colors, such as blue or purple? Very funny.

If you’ve ever worked in a bookstore or even just love books, you’ll like Orwell’s essay.

  • Her dad doesn’t own it anymore, but it’s on Burnet Road, just north of W. Koenig, across the street from the middle school. The store used to be called Emmaus, but Melanie doesn’t remember what they changed the name to.

  • Orwell notes that small independent bookstores will never be driven out of business in the way small grocers have by the supermarkets.  Sadly, not true.

    I confess to being one of the people who expect bookstore employees to find a book based on only the vaguest of information (usually more than “red cover,” at least).  That’s why I like the independents; they actually try and will often figure out what I want.  One time I went in with “Novel, starts with E, it was quite popular and may have won an award, set in the Northeast, and they made a movie about it.”  The bookstore employee got it (Empire Falls by Richard Russo).

  • Oh, you are right; he was talking about second-hand bookstores.  If they go under I suppose it would be due to the Internet.

  • I wouldn’t have any trouble coming up with a list of books for a 12 year old boy—

    How about-

    The Dangerous Book for Boys
    White Fang
    The Black Stallion
    Tom Sawyer
    The Last of the Mohicans

    maybe someday I’ll get to work in a bookstore- it must be great fun!