Wednesday, March 30, 2011

telling our story

When legendary Washington DC bookseller Carla Cohen died last fall, I remember thinking that I hope someone got to her with a tape recorder.

Aside from the personal loss felt by family, friends and customers, the passing of a great bookseller too often means the passing of a unique institutional memory. For a profession founded on peddling the printed words of others, we do a very bad job of documenting our own.

There are notable exceptions, especially on the publishing side. Bennett Cerf’s memoir At Random made books seem simultaneously commercial, sexy and important. And anyone who wants to sample old-school, cranky, carriage trade bookselling should check out Stuart Brent’s memoir chronicling his early bookselling days, The Seven Stairs. (Philip Roth called him “a cross between a Chicago intellectual and a Persian rug dealer.”) There are others, but not enough.

Whether or not we are facing the end of bookselling and publishing as we have known them, what we badly need is an archive through which future generations can have a taste of this maddening but deeply satisfying calling.

Like a combination of Studs Terkel’s oral histories and Robert Darnton’s universal digital library, such a project would document the memories, experiences and wisdom of the unsung heroes of the book industry: ordinary, Main Street families who have devoted their working lives to bookselling; underpaid receivers who have packed and unpacked millions of books and dealt with all manner of invoice and shipping craziness; exhibitions assistants, rights managers, wholesalers, buyers, accountants, publicists.

Luckily, we wouldn’t have to invent the wheel. I’ve just finished reading a fantastic book that accomplishes for the UK book market just what I had in mind for our own- The British Book Trade: An Oral History.

The collection, deftly edited by former bookseller Sue Bradley, is essentially a compendium of excerpts from oral interviews she conducted over the course of a decade for “Book Trade Lives,” one of a whole series of archives about 20th century British working lives stored at the British Library Sound Archive. (More available here) Other categories include oral histories of everything from the post office to the wine trade, a really wonderful, forward-looking celebration of labor of every sort.

What was it like to be a rep in 1950? Or a secretary at a publishing house in the twenties? Or a lowly bookstore clerk in the forties? The testimonies are authentic, surprising and completely mesmerizing (at least to anyone who has spent a lifetime in books.) The ways that bookselling and publishing have changed (and stayed the same) over the century speak eloquently to our 21st century fears of a bookless future.

The actual recordings, the result of hours and days spent with dozens of individual subjects, are only available via the British Library, and some of the interviewees have put an embargo on access so that only future generations will be able to listen. (The long-term, civic-minded reach of this project is awe-inspiring in itself. I can hear some US politician asking where is the profit in it, and if "the market" wanted such a thing someone would create it.)

The Library issued an audio CD compilation with excerpts, and the live voices are thrilling, if frustratingly brief. At their best, they are tantalizing and remind me a bit of Alan Bennett’s wonderful “Talking Heads” monologs.

But we have the next best thing in Sue Bradley’s transcript, which throbs with wit, history, and rich cultural detail. Though these interviews were conducted separately, they are woven together so skillfully that it seems as if the reader is eavesdropping on a conversation among friends.

One brief sample among many choice ones, which can be heard under "media files" here:

“You would have your duster or your brush, and every morning you would start on the shelf where you had stopped the day before. As you worked your way along, you would pick up a book, look at the title and publisher, and if you were sensible you would open it and read a couple of pages, then say ‘Right, that’s it, back on the shelf.’ So when someone came in and asked for a book, you could say ‘I saw that yesterday,’ and you could stretch out your hand and have that book. It’s not done nowadays- there isn’t the discipline of learning about the inside of books. I don’t want to denigrate present book staff, but I don’t think there’s the depth of knowledge that existed in the great old bookshops like Thin’s. Blackwell’s and Heffer’s were the same- full of people who were wrapped up in books and knew nothing else but books.”

John Milne trained at James Thin, the Edinburgh bookseller, before taking over his father’s Aberdeen shop, Bisset’s, where he was managing director from 1954 until 1987.

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