30 Jul 2016

No Amazon Back Then

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Alexis C. Madrigal, in the Atlantic, describes reading about the astonishing impact of the Paperback Revolution.

I’m reading a fascinating book called Two-Bit Culture: The Paperbacking of America, published in 1984 by the popular historian Kenneth C. Davis. …

I was absolutely dumbfounded by his description of the publishing business in 1931. He draws on a “landmark survey of publishing practices” carried out by one Orin H. Cheney, a banker, as a service to the National Association of Book Publishers.

Among the normal complaints about book publishers selection processes, we find this staggering stat about the retail business of selling books (emphasis added).

“In the entire country, there were only some four thousand places where a book could be purchased, and most of these were gift shops and stationary stores that carried only a few popular novels,” Davis writes. “In reality, there were but five hundred or so legitimate bookstores that warranted regular visits from publishers’ salesmen (and in 1931 they were all men). Of these five hundred, most were refined, old-fashioned ‘carriage trade’ stores catering to an elite clientele in the nation’s twelve largest cities.”

Furthermore, two-thirds of American counties — 66 percent! — had exactly 0 bookstores. It was a relatively tiny business centered in the urban areas of the country. Did some great books come out back then? Of course! But they were aimed only at the tiny percentage of the country that was visible to publishers of the time: sophisticated urban elites. It wasn’t that people couldn’t read; by 1940, UNESCO estimated that 95 percent of adults in America were literate. No, it’s just that the vast majority of adults were not considered to be part of the cultural enterprise of book publishing. People read stuff (the paper, the Bible, comic books), just not what the publishers were putting out.

I’m old enough to remember all this first-hand.

When I was a boy, the only books for sale in our town consisted of one short shelf of children’s book series (Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, Bobbsey Twins, Happy Hollisters) and classics intended for kids (Treasure Island, Huckleberry Finn, Robinson Crusoe, Black Beauty, Little Women) at Hook’s, our local greeting card and gift shop plus one revolving metal rack of paperbacks, Mickey Spillaine, James M. Cain, Erskine Caldwell, invariably featuring some partially-unclothed bosomy blonde.

I was about 8-years-old when I was surprised to find a brand-new rack of paperbacks near the checkout counter in Newberry’s Five-and-Ten-Cent Store on North Main. I made my first personal book purchase that day, buying Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for 45 cents.

Books were extremely difficult to obtain. I exhausted the resources of the Shenandoah Library, and would take buses to search the libraries in Pottsville and Jim Thorpe. I once walked five miles each way, over the mountain to Ringtown to pick up a Life of Washington someone offered me for free. (Rather a cornball story, but true).

Four or five years later, a paperback bookstore opened next to the Strand Movie Theater on South Main, and my self-education via the Signet Classics was off and running. I read fast and obsessively and when I entered college, I had already read a lot more than your typical Ivy League graduate.

I still accumulate books obsessively, and my wife and I own so many that we have to maintain two storage facilities outside the home to house them all.

My guess is that even provincial autodidacts in future will never be so obsessed with book acquisition and ownership as myself. The Paperback Revolution delivered quite a lot of the literature of the world into my hands for only a small price. Today, the Internet can deliver most books published before 1925 in eBook form absolutely free.

No one will ever need to buy a great big set of Dickens or of the Waverly Novels any more. They are all right there, just a few mouse clicks away.

5 Feedbacks on "No Amazon Back Then"

Dan Kurt

re: “No one will ever need to buy a great big set of Dickens or of the Waverly Novels any more. They are all right there, just a few mouse clicks away.” JDZ

Why not list your sources for these Free books, the URLs. I suspect you have an organized list you check or perhaps you have discovered blogs devoted to finding free books you could mention. This topic, I believe, would make a great blog entry for Never Yet Melted.

Dan Kurt

Dan Kurt

Jerry The Geek

I was born in 1945, and by 1953 I was a voracious reader of … comic books!

I had boxes and stacks of comic books, and then in 1958 someone decided that comic books were horrid things (some of them were about monsters and goules, and other of them showed dogs attacking people, and Roy Rogers shooting at people!!!)

So local ladies’ societies set up projects where a kid could turn in ten comic books (a few of them Disney comics!) and get a ‘real book’ in return.

I wanted books about dinasaurs, but when I turned in a box of comics, they were out of dinosaur books. So I had to settle for ‘regular’ books.

like: Treasure Island.

Best deal I ever made. Yes, I have 30 banker boxes of books, and five book-cases, and I keep track of how long it has been since I read each book.

The nice thing about growing old is, every time I pick a book out of a banker box, I seem to be reading it for the first time. I’m amazed at how much I missed the last time I read that book.


Try Project Gutenberg for starters: https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/


In general, just run a Google search with “title” or “author” and “eText.”


The only bookstore near where I grew up was a paperback bookstore. We’d go to New York where there were what seemed like a gazillion bookstores, but only Readmor Paperback books in my home town. In highschool a Paperback Booksmith opened up, and desire it’s name was much closer to a real book store. It had cook books and self help books and fiction and history… and some hard cover. Eventually, Walden took it over. I think it’s totally gone now. But when Paperback Booksmith came to town, it was great!!!


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