George Orwell: Why I Don’t Want to Be a Bookseller

alex atkins bookshelf booksAt the corner of Pond Street and South End Green in Hamstead, London, England you will be lured by the delightful aroma of fresh baked bread from Gail’s Bakery. As you face the entrance to the bakery, turn your gaze slightly to the left. Right about eye level you will find what seems to be an out-of-place architectural embellishment protruding from the building’s facade. It is small plaque dedicated to Eric Arthur Blair, better known as George Orwell, author of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm. The plaque reads: “GEORGE ORWELL, WRITER 1903-1950, LIVED AND WORKED IN A BOOKSHOP ON THIS SITE, 1934-1935.” Adjacent to the inscription is a bas relief of the famous author. British novelist and biographer Margaret Drabble was instrumental in helping erect this plaque; Orwell’s widow, Sonia, unveiled the plaque before she died in 1980.

Orwell worked at the Booklovers’ Corner, a used bookstore, early in his career when he was struggling to make a living as a writer. He worked in exchange for board and lodging in one of the three apartments located above the bookshop from October 1934 to March 1935. Nellie Limouzin, Orwell’s aunt, knew the owners of the bookshop (Francis and Myfanwy Westrope) who also owned the apartments and helped to arrange the housing and the job. Orwell worked at the bookshop in the afternoons, spending the mornings and evenings writing. In a letter to a friend he described his routine: “My time-table is as follows: 7am get up, dress etc., cook & eat breakfast. 8.45 go down & open up the shop, & I am usually kept there until about 9.45. Then come home, do out my room, light the fire etc. 10.30am – 1pm do some writing. 1pm get lunch & eat it. 2pm to 6.30pm I am at the shop. Then I come home, get my supper, do the washing up & after that sometimes do about an hour’s work.” It was there, that Orwell wrote the novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying, published in 1936. With respect to this novel, art imitates life: Gordon Comstock, the protagonist, happens to work in a bookshop as he pursues a career as a writer. A first edition of this early novel is now worth $35,000.

Like any successful, prolific writer, Orwell loved books and collected books — however, just don’t ask him to be a bookseller. Shortly after he completed his gig at the Booklovers’ Corner, Orwell reflected on his experience there that reflected his aversion to bookselling. Since Orwell was a clever satirist, one must keep in mind that some of his statements are an exaggeration to make a point. Clearly, Orwell did not care for a job he considered menial and mundane in order to support himself as a struggling writer. Here is an excerpt from his essay:

“When I worked in a second-hand bookshop — so easily pictured, if you don’t work in one, as a kind of paradise where charming old gentlemen browse eternally among calf-bound folios — the thing that chiefly struck me was the rarity of really bookish people. Our shop had an exceptionally interesting stock, yet I doubt whether ten per cent of our customers knew a good book from a bad one. First edition snobs were much commoner than lovers of literature, but oriental students haggling over cheap textbooks were commoner still, and vague-minded women looking for birthday presents for their nephews were commonest of all…

Like most second-hand bookshops we had various sidelines. We sold second-hand typewriters, for instance, and also stamps — used stamps, I mean… But our principal sideline was a lending library — the usual ‘twopenny no-deposit’ library of five or six hundred volumes, all fiction… In a lending library you see people’s real tastes, not their pretended ones, and one thing that strikes you is how completely the ‘classical’ English novelists have dropped out of favour. It is simply useless to put Dickens, Thackeray, Jane Austen, Trollope, etc. into the ordinary lending library; nobody takes them out. At the mere sight of a nineteenth-century novel people say, ‘Oh, but that’s old!’ and shy away immediately. Yet it is always fairly easy to sell Dickens, just as it is always easy to sell Shakespeare. Dickens is one of those authors whom people are ‘always meaning to’ read, and, like the Bible, he is widely known at second hand.

Would I like to be a bookseller de métier? On the whole — in spite of my employer’s kindness to me, and some happy days I spent in the shop — no. Given a good pitch and the right amount of capital, any educated person ought to be able to make a small secure living out of a bookshop. Unless one goes in for ‘rare’ books it is not a difficult trade to learn, and you start at a great advantage if you know anything about the insides of books. Also it is a humane trade which is not capable of being vulgarized beyond a certain point. The combines can never squeeze the small independent bookseller out of existence as they have squeezed the grocer and the milkman. But the hours of work are very long — I was only a part-time employee, but my employer put in a seventy-hour week, apart from constant expeditions out of hours to buy books — and it is an unhealthy life. As a rule a bookshop is horribly cold in winter, because if it is too warm the windows get misted over, and a bookseller lives on his windows. And books give off more and nastier dust than any other class of objects yet invented, and the top of a book is the place where every bluebottle [a large blow fly with shiny blue body] prefers to die.

But the real reason why I should not like to be in the book trade for life is that while I was in it I lost my love of books. A bookseller has to tell lies about books, and that gives him a distaste for them; still worse is the fact that he is constantly dusting them and hauling them to and fro. There was a time when I really did love books — loved the sight and smell and feel of them, I mean, at least if they were fifty or more years old. Nothing pleased me quite so much as to buy a job lot of them for a shilling at a country auction. There is a peculiar flavour about the battered unexpected books you pick up in that kind of collection: minor eighteenth-century poets, out-of-date gazeteers, odd volumes of forgotten novels, bound numbers of ladies’ magazines of the sixties. For casual reading — in your bath, for instance, or late at night when you are too tired to go to bed, or in the odd quarter of an hour before lunch — there is nothing to touch a back number of the Girl’s Own Paper. But as soon as I went to work in the bookshop I stopped buying books. Seen in the mass, five or ten thousand at a time, books were boring and even slightly sickening. Nowadays I do buy one occasionally, but only if it is a book that I want to read and can’t borrow, and I never buy junk. The sweet smell of decaying paper appeals to me no longer. It is too closely associated in my mind with paranoiac customers and dead bluebottles.”

From the essay, “Bookshop Memories” (1936) by George Orwell, included in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell (1968).

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For further reading: https://www.londonremembers.com/memorials/orwell-pond-street
https://www.nytimes.com/1984/03/25/travel/on-the-streets-where-they-lived.html
https://orwellsociety.com/keep-the-aspidistra-flying-in-hampstead/
https://www.orwellfoundation.com/the-orwell-foundation/orwell/articles/gordon-bowker-orwells-library/
https://www.bonhams.com/auctions/24114/lot/131/