George Orwell's Collected Essays: Bookshop Memories (1936)

I haven't read the entire of George Orwell's Collected Essays, just this particular essay that caught my attention: Bookshop Memories (1936). It caught my attention because it is a secret dream of mine to open a second hand bookshop one day. I accept that it is something that is very unlikely to happen, but we all have to have dreams don't we?

Anyway, back to Bookshop Memories. In this essay, Orwell recounts his experiences working in a local second hand bookshop. His experiences are largely negative. His chief complaint is "the rarity of really bookish people". He recalls that many of the people who attend second hand bookshops are people looking for companionship and a place to spend time more than anything else. He decries the patrons that order books they never collect, that request books of which they cannot recall the title or author and those that would rather read Ethel Fell than Hemingway or Wodehouse.

Orwell doesn't just focus on the wide variety of people who attend the bookshop, but also the content of what they read. He puzzles over why people are willing to buy Dickens, but wouldn't look twice at his works if they are included in the bookshops's lending library. He laments the unpopularity of short stories, although notes that DH Lawrence's short stories always seem popular.  I particularly liked his comment about male readers:
"It is not true that men don't read novels, but it is true that there are whole branches of fiction that they avoid. Roughly speaking, what one might call the average novel - the ordinary, good-bad, Galsworthy-and-water stuff which is the norm of the English novel - seems to exist only for women. Men read either the novels it is possible to respect, or detective stories. But their consumption of detective stories in terrific".
Orwell concludes that ultimately, he couldn't make a career of working in a bookshop. He states that the real reason he wouldn't choose to be in that job for like "is that while I was in it I lost my love of books."

I really enjoyed reading this brief essay. Despite his negativity, it hasn't put me off opening my own bookshop one day. I appreciated Orwell's honesty, and it made me think about selling books from a perspective that I haven't thought about before. It seems foreign to me that you could lose your love of books by spending time with them all day, but then the longer I think about it, the more I understand how that could be the case. Work is work. When your one true interest becomes your work, I can see how it might lose some of its shine. I was particularly disturbed by a comment he made about having to lie about books all day when you sell books. That's very true. If you were selling books and someone approached you for an opinion about a book you hated, you would have to tell them how great it is in order to get the sale. That could become depressing. My only complaint was that Orwell sometimes seemed a little condescending about people's choice of books, disparaging people who preferred Elliot to Boswell for example. But then, I suppose someone like Orwell is allowed to be a little disparaging, he has earned the right.

All in all, a wonderful essay that I thoroughly enjoyed reading.

33 comments

  1. I am a great admirer of Orwell-I think he was very dedicated to telling the truth-I like his Road to Wigham Pier a really lot and after reading Down and Out in Paris and London (partially set in the kitchens of expensive restaurants) I lost a lot of interest in one day dining in a 4 or 5 star Paris restaurant-

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  2. What a fascinating post! I reckon it would still be my dream to run a bookstore :) despite these very interesting issue Orwell and you have raised about the prospect.

    I read Animal Farm earlier this year and reviewed it here:

    http://melbooksnstuff.blogspot.com/2010/05/george-orwell-animal-farm.html

    I did not really enjoy it but can none the less admire that it was bold and well executed.

    Having said that these essays sound good. Thanks for sharing them.

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  3. Ha! All through reading your review of his essay I found myself nodding: yep, uh huh, right on George! Especially about the uncollected orders and the fumbling for an unknown title/author.

    Although I haven't lost my love of books yet, and hopefully never do, I understand what he means, I sometimes start to see them as just objects to be sold that comes with a readymade sales pitch that I don't always believe in, if that makes sense? And yes, I do judge peoples tastes! :P

    Looks like I'll be pushing the Orwell Collected Essays further up my wishlist, this sounds like a great essay. Thank you for writing about it.

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  4. Old stuff like that is one of the hardest things to find. For me It is a treasure that we should protect and preserve.

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  5. Girl, why is it unlikely that you'll open a bookshop? DO IT! Now's a great time! Real estate is cheap, at least here in the U.S. You know what people want to read, and you're an attorney, right? Free legal advice!

    Doitdoitdoit.

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  6. This sounds excellent. I too like Orwell, although I have some gaps in my reading of his work. Next up is definately Homage to Catalonia which I have had on my pile of TBR for ages!

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  7. What a great find! And I love his comment about male readers ... it seems the more things change, the more they stay the same. I'm with Jane Doe above, if you want a bookshop, go for it. No time like the present (though the legal community would be the worse for it--couldn't you do both?). I remember visiting a secondhand bookshop on Santorini that was staffed by volunteers that lived in the loft above the shop--now that is the life!

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  8. It's nice to know that a lot of people like Orwell. I am not his biggest fan but I did definitely enjoy this essay.

    Jess - Its nice to see a book sellers perspective on it, thanks for that.

    And thanks for saying I should go for it, that made me feel really warm inside, its nice to get encouragement like that. I wish I could take your advice. The one thing I am lacking though is capital. I have two mortages already and my partner is a mature age apprentice at the moment. So there is no capital to get stock together and premises etc.

    Unfortunately real estate in Sydney is very expensive. In 2009 it was the 28th most expensive city to buy in the world (the only city in USA that beat it was New York).

    One day though!!! Thanks for the encouragement :-)

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  9. Oh I love the sound of that collection, I hope you´ll enjoy the other essays as well! :)

    And do open your own bookshop, making your hobby your work does work for a lot of people :)

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  10. I am trying to read Orwell's more obscure works and I would say that these essays probably fall into that category. I must get my hands on them!

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  11. Dried parsley!!??? NO!! If there was only one of these places I reckon you'd get more love, Paul. But since its a franchise I guess you're stuck with the Italian Plate mentality!
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