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.