“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Brief History of Bespoke Bookselling in New York Circa 1916

'The [Sunwise Turn] bookstore opened in 1916 on Thirty-first Street just east of Fifth Avenue...The decor was designed by Arthur Davies...who had been a principal organizer of the famous Amoury Show in 1913. Davies colored the walls a "burning orange" and worked the other colors of the prism into the woodwork and detailing...The shop was lavish in displaying "beautiful pieces of sculpture and textiles and paintings"...But the emphasis on display and exhibition also stemmed from less personal considerations. When planning the store, Jenison and Mowbray Clarke had borne in mind "that an art dealer needs only five patrons buying $20,000 a year to keep him afloat, and that if we could have fifty patrons who bought $500 worth of books a year, we would be safe."...But this attempt to assimilate the bookstore to the art gallery, to operate on the principles derived from art dealers, proved difficult in actual practice, for the two owners soon discovered "how few people there are, except collectors, who buy $500 worth of books a year." The shop turned out to be a paradox: a store could not survive if it relied on only "fifty patrons," and yet it also could not survive by selling to a mass of undifferentiated buyers, since the profit margin on books was simply too small (roughly 30 percent at this time). To survive and succeed, the store had to sell other wares (such as stationery), goods with higher profit margins that would offset the low return on books...Jenison discovered through experience that only collectors spend five hundred dollars on books each year and that rare books bring in larger profits; these larger margins were critical to the store's survival and success. The Sunwise Turn, in short, exhibited paintings, textiles, and sculptures for the same reason that it pursued an extensive trade in rare books and signed editions: profit margins on them supplemented the meager returns on ordinary books, and they attracted an elite of cultured well-to-do clients whose every purchase was not only larger but more profitable. To thrive, a bookstore needed not just readers but a core group of collector-patrons.
         There was a second reason as well. The display of textiles and artworks also fostered a distinctive marketing profile...Every feature of the store--the decor, the stationery, even the bookwrappings--was marshaled to this end. "The sale of thousands of books strayed into our shop because we wrapped them in curious brilliant packages. Some artists who worked on the designs made them so deliriously lovely that it was difficult to make up one's mind ever to open them." Yet the unremitting emphasis on display and image, as such remarks suggest, could lead to a paradoxical state of affairs, one in which active readers were slowly replaced with passive consumers, mere buyers who were less engaged with a book's contents and more bedazzled by its wrappings. The attention given to rare books and artworks, the insistence on exhibition, display, ambience, packaging--all originally conceived as supplements to the core activity of bookselling--inexorably altered the relations among the store's functions. Buying was no longer a means to an experience of reading but an experience in its own right, an autonomous activity that threatened to overshadow and replace the reading event that it was meant to facilitate.'
                                                       --Lawrence  Rainey Institutions of Modernism, 66-7.

McSweeneys fans and other print fetishists, take note--you're still living in this contradiction (and I am, too, for that matter).

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