Joy's Bookselling

Posted by Wally O Neill on

I recently came into ownership of a first edition copy of Bookselling by Thomas Joy. This textbook for the bookseller has now fallen into obscurity, with only anoraks like me still vaguely interested.

This one is of more interest however, as it carries two inscriptions of note for a bookseller like me. The first is a signature from the author made out to Doreen Enright, with the legend, ‘all good wishes for happy bookselling.’ This is dated April 23rd 1955.

The second description is ‘John Jackson, from Doreen Jackson 1978.’ This would seem to be the now married and elder bookseller Doreen passing on the baton to a young Kilkenny man, John Wyse Jackson, who was just starting out in John Sandoe Books in Chelsea.

Twenty five years later, John Wyse Jackson returned to Ireland and opened the iconic Zozimus bookshop on Gorey’s main street, running it smoothly as a literary institution until his sudden death in 2020.

And now this book finds its way to me.

Booksellers were different once. It was a gentlemanly vocation, zealously protected by university dean-types who could look back effortlessly over a linage of generations of professional book people.

Then there were the years of panic, when one after the other, prized bookshops were sank and booksellers abandoned what they saw as a dying industry, ravished by rapid technological progress and growing super-monopolies online.

“There are no professional booksellers left,” The Sherriff of Nottingham tells me, in between haggling over the two euro price of one of my books. “There all retired like me.”

“Hard to be professional when you won’t even hand over two euro Sherriff.”

Joys ‘Bookselling’ was published seventy one years ago. In some ways, it could have been written yesterday. In other ways, it seems to belong to an antiquated age, more like seven hundred years than seven decades.

“Difficult days of adjustment after the wartime boom are here, but I do not think bookselling has deteriorated to the extent met in certain other classes of retailing....”

Thomas Joy describes a world where bookselling was a pursued profession, noble and respected. While other retail collapsed to syndicated supermarkets, and the faceless uniformity of corporate land, bookselling retained its character.

For awhile. And now, that character is pretty much dead and forgotten.

“We were the last generation of booksellers,” The Sherriff of Nottingham muses, letting his two euro coin come ever so close to my reach before pulling it back with a jolt. “Of course booksellers don’t really retire you know. We age gracefully.... like the books we used to shift.”

“Well I’m still selling so, the question is, are you buying that book?”

“Selling?” he laughs, glancing around theatrically at the empty shop. “Is that what you call this? Back in the day, I sold books to all the right people. Royalty and business gurus, theologians of the highest rank and the true movers and shakers. That was bookselling boy. Of course, unlike you, we were educated. Trained by the very best. You can’t just open a bookshop and expect to be a bookseller you know. A pig in a dress is still a pig.”

Booksellers like the Sherriff of Nottingham, Thomas Joy, Doreen Enright and John Wyse Jackson were educated and inducted into the vocation. Joy points out that a bookselling apprenticeship was a four year course comprised of business studies, marketing, accounts and, most importantly, a deep study of books.

“ not intended to be a study of English Literature on traditional lines, but rather an outline, for the practical purposes of bookselling, of the chronology and sequence of authors and their works, and of the characteristics of past and contemporary movements and fashions in literature. Each student should be provided with a reading list, and should be trained to read regularly and quickly, and to give orally a brief summary of the theme and outstanding characteristics of the books read.”

These were truly gentlemen (and women) booksellers.

“This is the post apocalyptic wasteland of bookselling,” the Sherriff sighs.

“Does that make me Mad Max?”

“Hardly, more like one of those feminine bikers with the purple hair who get killed off screen in the car chase. You wouldn’t even get a full name in the credits. Just something like ‘stupid boy with purple hair’. They wouldn’t even pay the actor who played you.”

Thomas Joy understood bookselling. He particularly understood the nuances of second-hand bookselling and the many different practical skills one would need to successfully manage such an enterprise.

“It is true that a knowledge of second-hand bookselling can be acquired only the hard way – by experience. It is a far more intricate business than selling new books, and although both are a lifetimes study, sufficient working knowledge of the new book trade can be more quickly gained.”

There are many barriers to this type of bookselling which might suggest why the majority of remaining independent bookstores are phasing out their second-hand supplies, refusing to buy in more or even evaluate stock unless it is obviously of high value.

This is why books from authors like Leon Uris, Maurice Walsh, Neville Shute, John Fante and many more are becoming so hard to pick up, and why prices of their titles online are steadily increasing.

‘Bookselling’ can no longer provide a guide to running an independent bookstore in this strange period, but it can provide a glimpse into what it once was, and what it could be again.