Women in the Vanguard of Bookselling
The early days.
By Karen Wright
I just finished an interesting book called Sunwise Turn by Madge Jenison (E.P. Dutton & Co. NY, 1923). Madge Jenison was a one of a not inconsiderable number of independent-thinking "leisure class women" of post-Victorian times who devoted themselves to charities and other pleasurable activities. She loved to read and loved books above all else. She and women like her were always looking for something new to do. Jenison got a wild idea one sunny Sunday afternoon as she lounged in a chair reading a novel. She and her friend would open a bookstore!
Up until that time, 1917, most bookstores were owned by men or large companies. They were of the musty, dusty, disorganized, funny-old-guy with glasses variety or they were elegantly ensconced in large department stores such as Macy's or Gimble's, which were more like today's impersonal big bookstores such as Barnes and Noble.
Both Jenison and her friend/partner, Mary Mowbray-Clarke, were well educated, well read feminists and suffragists. In fact, Mary Mowbray-Clarke and her husband, John Mowbray-Clarke, were included among other artists, writers and anarchists, including Emma Goldman, Bayard Boyesen, Carl Zigrosser, and Hippolyte Havel in Anarchist Modernism: Art, Politics, and the First American Avant-Garde by Allan Antliff.
It was an exciting time in New York City in those days, in spite of the rigors caused by World War I. Because so many men were off across the sea fighting, women had many more opportunities to get involved in business. Bookstore owners dealt directly with the publishers and book companies, and were on a first name basis with some of the most famous names in publishing at that time; names that are still heard today.
When Ms. Jenison went looking for encouragement to begin her store among these moguls, Alfred Harcourt (Harcourt Brace) told her that "bookselling is a great lost cause." Another friend, Norman Baker, co-founder of Baker and Taylor, said "But of course you know that you cannot possibly make bookselling pay, the only way any bookshop survives is through its stationary."
"Mr. Knopf used to come occasionally at noon and buy royally," said Jenison. When Frank Bruce of Houghton Mifflin came into the store just before they opened, he rolled up his sleeves to help lay the linoleum "because he had come in and found women laying it in a way that no linoleum should be laid."
Women in the Vanguard of Bookselling
The way it was.
At the same time that thousands of women all across America awaited the Senate's vote on the proposed 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which would give women the right to vote, a group of women booksellers were excluded from membership in the all-male Bookseller's League. Jenison and Clarke were charter members. They met in the fall of 1917 at a bookstore in downtown New York to form the Women's National Book Association. According to their present website, "Its unique characteristic was that membership was open to women in all facets of the book world--publishers, booksellers, librarians, authors, illustrators, agents, production people--the only criterion being that part of their income must come from books. The WNBA is still a vibrant organization with more than 800 members and so open-minded that they even let men join!
In 1917, when Clarke and Jenison started the Sunwise Turn Bookstore, it was believed that any bookshop must do $20,000 a year to survive. They did $12,000 the first and second years, $18,000 the third, $38,000 the fourth, then they moved the store to a more populous location near Central Station, and by the end of the fifth year they did $70,000. They had budgeted $7500 for the first year's expenses, with $125.00 a month for their two salaries, but "we never drew them except the first month." With hard work, perseverance and three times more work than they anticipated, they caught on and succeeded.
They wanted the store to be different. Of course, they would carry all the great classics, but they also carried some of the more risque authors of the times such as D. H. Lawrence. They took the First Amendment as much to heart as most of us booksellers do today. To quote Jenison, "To do a thing as nobody else could have done it--if you can wrench that out of yourself--is style." They first stocked books that they liked because they felt that if they liked it, it would be more likely to sell. That is my own philosophy; sell what you know first and foremost. Then you can spread your tentacles outward into foreign waters.
The women agreed that they had to read every book they possibly could before it came into the store; a daunting task then and an impossible one now. But in those days, a good bookseller needed to really know good books in order to recommend and sell books. And it is still true. A really GOOD bookseller must be a prolific reader. That has unfortunately changed somewhat with the era of the schlock novel and box stores. Powell's in Portland used to be clerked by highly knowledgeable, well read staff. Now, one goes to a section in the bookstore, takes a book off the shelf that has a pretty cover or that sounds as though it might be good, goes to the cashier, pays, and leaves. There are few bookstores left where one can have a fascinating literary discussion with the people behind the counter or even just talk about the weather, politics or the kids.
Women in the Vanguard of Bookselling
Karen Wright's home in northwestern Nevada during January's heavy snows.
"We tried," said Ms. Jenison, "to make the shop a cult, something unlike other things and offering one a breath of experience even to buy a book there." They did things like painting the walls bright colors; unheard of then. They carried good art works, sculpture, textiles, and books that came into the store with local "starving authors".
"We never had an apprentice who did not want to sell," remarked Jenison about the people who worked for them. That sounded familiar, because at every bookstore where I have worked, and in my own store, stock people and shelvers start by wanting to just do their job, but before long they are out in the shelves recommending a book or writing up an order. It is the mystique of books, I think.
Many of the ways in which Jenison and Clarke brought in customers still work today if a bookseller can find the time to implement them. Our modern systems are more efficient because of computerization while theirs were all hand-written; no emails, no computerized inventories, no credit cards. Each receipt was done by hand and a clerk needed to remember if a book was gone so they could inform the next customer who asked about it.
They sent out monthly postcard book reviews on the eight or ten books they had read and liked that month. They created lists of "must read" books for customers on all sorts of subjects in a particular field then sent the lists out to different businesses, clubs, libraries, and even retail stores recommending books for specific groups of people. "When you are confronted by 20,000 books, you may read nothing, but if you have at hand 15 books which you feel to be the best current material on any subject important to you, you will probably read them all," said Jenison. Now, we just put a subject in Amazon or ABE and we come up with fifty books on that subject.
Jenison and Clarke did tenacious book searches, sometimes finding the books quickly, sometimes finding them two years later, but always going out of their way to send them along to delighted customers. With the dawn of the internet book search engine, that process is sped along at lightening speed but the customer's delight is still the same.
In this day and age of computers, Game Boys and videos, getting children to read is a challenge. I have heard parents say that they don't want to give children books because they don't take care of them. I disagree and so did Madge Jenison. "Books are not to be taken care of," said she, "A book is a tool of life. A child must communicate with a book if he can - have it live on the floor with him. He will surely not learn the power of books by being exiled from them because he tears a sheet of paper."
The next time you go into one of those rapidly-disappearing, small bookstores with well-worn, polished, old wood bookshelves you can thank Madge Jenison and Mary Mowbray-Clarke, the women who were in great part responsible for beginning the era of the cozy, comfortable bookshop. These are the shops that still have real flowers on the table, big squishy chairs to sit in, lamps to read by, a knowledgeable staff, and a great selection of books from classics to modern prose. These are the stores that can take us back in time for a slower, less stressful hour or two.