whilst Winston Smith sings ‘Angst for the memories.’
(Yet another potable portion from a chapter, this one recently posted with A Republic of Books, the novel in progress to be found elsewhere on this site.)
Besides, what did it all really amount to?
Given that I have no good excuse, other than my own pleasure, for my unwillingness to comply with the mundane requirements that are so readily met by everyone else, I have over time manufactured a better explanation (i.e. excuse)—that my biggest problem (re: conceit) as a bookseller was, and has always been, that I simply don’t like selling crap! Either my own, or the crap of others. This is now my true belief, whatever vague notions I began with. And most of what is published is crap, indeed! But the publisher’s put a great deal of money into promoting that crap each year and convincing the public to buy it. And the larger result, and insult, and consequence of such mercantile foolishness is an ever diminishing readership—being those people willing to spend hard-earned cash on something that they will only end up putting aside, part-way through, unfinished, from whence it peeks at them beneath the magazines on the coffee table and reproaches them for having wasted the money, or further disheartening those willing to blame themselves for not understanding why the books they read are so bad when all the ‘critics’ have said that they were ‘fabulous.’ (I’ve heard it said, ‘Thank goodness for cable, or I might have to speak to my husband!’)
It is thus that the shop has never benefited much from the bestseller list. The prices at the chain stores are necessarily better than ours for those titles, anyway. Other than the classics, our strength has always been in ordering the back-listed previous efforts by the same author whose latest might be selling well at the moment. (Often enough, those past efforts were written when he or she was still trying to create something for the ages, and before they realized that the demands for mortgage payments were monthly). And many of those early titles are now out of print due to lack of demand. That is where the selling of used books works best. That and finding titles in a series which have fallen out of print, or even more precisely, mystery or science fiction titles that are not part of a series and only had one printing to begin with. Or, science fiction that does not treat physics as magic, which is the current rage (this used to be called ‘fantasy.’ I am told that word is a pejorative now, but I still use the differentiation). We carry a fair section of poetry, most of which was almost immediately out of print and usually sells only to lovers trying to impress their beloved with the true faith of their own unspoken (and usually bastard) sentiments. And drama. Who reads old plays? (I am asked this at least once a month by a customer wondering why I don’t give the space over to something better, like the complete works of Stephen King). And essays. In a non-reading age, the essayist is the first to be ignored. Still, though, it’s amazing how many classics are out of print at any given time.
When Hollywood makes yet another movie out of a Jane Austen novel, we do well with it. But that too is not enough. They can’t seem to make another Jane Austen movie every month, no matter how they try, so there we are. (Taken one a month, and each done once a year, six novels will only fill half the need.) In any case, it’s tough to pay the bills hand-selling all those other titles that clog our shelves, one copy at a time, to people who have never heard of them (or seen them on TV). It works to a certain point to constantly be out of step, but the economies of scale are always set against us.
As I say, I leave most of the new and highly touted material by fresh young talents to the other shops. In those days when people still read, Boston used to have many other booksellers to choose from. But it’s a fugacious bet to depend too much on that coarser prose in any case. And besides, we’ll always get another crack at those titles in a few years when they are remaindered, as even mine own had been, or when the authors have quit their writing in favor of a regular pay check for teaching University classes on how to write the way they themselves don’t do it anymore, only then list their own books on recommended reading lists—I suppose in much the same way as I display my own efforts at the front counter in my shop.