Orwell's ill-tempered rant on bookselling

The bookshop by my office has a huge, blown-up quote from George Orwell's 1936 essay "Bookshop Memories" over the counter, which inspired me to go look up the original essay. It's a hilarious, ill-tempered, mean-spirited and vastly entertaining rant about what's wrong with the booky trade -- sure to be appreciated by recovering booksellers like me, and bookstore junkies (like me):
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flavour about the battered unexpected books you pick up in that kind of collection: minor eighteenth-century poets, out-of-date gazeteers, odd volumes of forgotten novels, bound numbers of ladies’ magazines of the sixties.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.

(Image: Community Bookstore, a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike photo from Phooky's Flickr stream)


  1. Old books are quaint in small quantities, but they’re pretty annoying when you have to deal with them all the time. I work in a library, and I can’t wear a white shirt to work, because it will get old-book scum all over it. The books that are too fragile to stand on their own and have to be put in little book-sized boxes are the worst; it is such a pain in the ass to have to open and close the box to scan and stamp the book.

    But I would point out that working at the library hasn’t diminished my love for young to middle-aged books in the slightest. I still love shiny, smooth new covers, and I’m even fond of the nondescript academic uni-color binding with which they replace the original covers.

  2. I worked in a bookstore for a year while in college and I’ve spent enough time in second-hand bookstores to say Orwell’s hilariously spot on. I had a bazillion people hem and haw, only able to identify the color of a book’s cover. A coworker told me of one old man, who spoke no English, trying desperately to draw the bar code of the book he was searching for. Someone really should do a full taxonomy of book store kooks. Obese obsessive with Ghallagher hair hunting books on commercial aircraft. Closeted gay white supremacist trying to find translated book by Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Outraged scold offended by Bridges of Madison County. Ha! I’m sure I’m even a subspecies of some type. Maybe I didn’t work around books long enough, because I still love them. Like Lauren O, I too have a real fondness for unicolor library binding…

  3. Maybe its because I only worked in a new books bookstore (Borders, to be precise) but my time selling books didn’t diminish my love for them at all. I’ll be a passionate bookworm for life.

    It did, however, foster my hatred of customers, most of whom seem keen to be vicious, inconsiderate jerks.

    I’ve avoided CS ever since.

  4. Feel the same way about computers now. I use to love them when I was younger, as a hobby. Now that I’m in the IT business, I hate them. *Gives a baleful glare at the tower next to me*

  5. Interesting insight into our author’s past. I relate. I love-hate books. I love to read them, of course. And I love to write them. I also sold them…for about ten minutes (the headshop next door paid better). But I hate to store them and dust them. I got rid of most of my library last year, purging myself of much of my reading past. But I like to support writers that I love, so I collect them. At least now I try to buy only first edition hardbacks, and if possible, signed. I would like to think that one day I’ll be able to give a signed Heinlein to someone who will take care of it like I have.

  6. I worked in an indy bookstore for about three years and I loved it. It was not, however, a second hand bookstore.

    Maybe it was because I’d had half a dozen crappier jobs before that. If you are going to work in retail, bookstores are the best place. The customers are actually more gracious to you than in any other form of retail because they assume you know more than they do, and they’re right.

    I also worked in a newsstand and that was depressing. The customers were aggressively anti-intellectual. People referred to magazines, and I mean crappy wrestling magazines, as “books”. It drove me up the tree. And our biggest sellers were porn.

    Porn, wrestling, automobile, sports and fashion magazines. Boring, depressing and stooopid.

    I think Orwell’s main beef is really with working retail. Think he would have been happier working at the GAP? Would he have blamed the jeans for his misery?

    Retail is just kind of crappy.

  7. You might be surprised how many people change from optimistic joy-mongers into the most depressing and negative people you can imagine, all in the matter of weeks while interacting with a general public that is (apparently) viciously hellbent on being as offensively stupid as possible.

    Of course, that just typifies our culture and political state here in the US of A. Sad eh?

  8. I have become a big, big fan of Orwell’s essays, after admiring his fiction for years. He’s really clear and interesting (although his political writing usually has me reaching for wikipedia or the like).

  9. “Retail is just kind of crappy”
    Amen to that. I am a trained bookseller (2 year education in Denmark) and have worked in 7 different bookstores. The only good one was Diesel Books in Malibu and it was only good because of the amazingly informed owners. That said, it is silly to have a bookstore in a place where people can’t read (it seems).
    Why retail still exists is beyond me. If you can’t get it digitally, then get it mailed. Retail degrades customers & sellers alike. Imagine all the good things people could be doing with their time instead.
    I also worked for B&N for a while. If you ever shop there and give the sellers any grief, you are going straight to hell. They work for absolute minimum wage and B&N gets away with it because people only work there for their love of books (and the discount).

  10. Orwell didn’t like scutwork. Hell, no one likes scutwork. But it’s necessary, and not liking it doesn’t make anyone special, or the job that involves it worth disdaining.

    I usually like Orwell, but sometimes he’s just a whiny spoiled intellectual.

  11. Raw Bacon, Diesel is an AWESOME store.

    Jjasper, Orwell is one of history’s greatest documenters of the conditions and privations of working people; books like DOWN AND OUT IN PARIS AND LONDON and THE ROAD TO WIGAN PIER are as clear-eyed, ferocious and brilliant an exegesis on labor and the working poor as have ever been published.

  12. Oh I love when we receive a shipment back form the bindery! Rows of color coded books in unicolor hard bindings are so… solid. They are the bricks that the literary world is built of.

    Becoming a librarian only made me love books more. Hell, I sometimes buy a McSweeney’s title just for the design of it (and only ht design since it’s certainly not for the limp prose inside).

  13. On my first day of my bookstore job many years ago a co-worker said to me, “before I started here I had respect for two things: books and people. Now I have respect for neither.” I quickly adopted that position. I rapidly got over the idea that books are sacred vessels. Paperbacks had to be destroyed after covers were ripped off for return to the publisher. We used to have book ripping parties in the back room and books that were uncategorizable, and thus unshelvable, might sit in the stock room for months and then be returned to the publisher. We regularly abused, mocked, swore at and generally hated most of the stock.

    I ended up becoming a librarian and I still don’t think that books are “sacred.” The ideas in them are another matter…

  14. For anyone lucky enough to find a copy of these belly laugh funny books, of course it helps to be in Britain. Richly rewarding, laughing to tears, and a unique and wonderful guide to second hand books in Britain. Don’t know if there are anymore recent issues

    drif’s guide: To the Secondhand & Antiquarian Bookshops in Britain
    (I also have his 1986/87 guide spelled “driff’s”)

    D I S- C O N T E N T S













  15. People tend to emphasize the negative of an experience. I bet the average customer wasn’t that bad, and I also bet you had a bunch of really cool ones.

    I worked in a computer store for years, and enjoyed it, crazily enough. Sure we had a bunch of really weird, smelly, and occasionally belligerent customers, the average customer was geeky and a little difficult to talk to, but there were also a lot of really fun, exceptional people. I guess it helped that we were a “weird” computer store that sold oddball stuff like surplus oscilloscopes, lab equipment, projectors, and whatnot in the warehouse “back room.” It probably also helped that I was one of the partners, so could tell someone to shove it if need be. But I supported my co-workers the same way.

  16. I’ve worked for a large Canadian bookstore chain for a few years (on and off), and I still love books. I buy so many, I have stacks of books waiting to be read on my floor.

    I think that bookstores still exist because some people (like myself) love the experience of buying books – browsing the shelves, looking at new editions of old favourites, talking to a bookseller about books that you both love – I still enjoy that experience.

  17. Cory said, “THE ROAD TO WIGAN PIER are as clear-eyed, ferocious and brilliant an exegesis on labor and the working poor as have ever been published.”

    I haven’t read it. Is it an in depth analysis of book/s that were written on the subject of labor and the working poor? Did he study Dickens and comment about how the poor are dipicted in say, Oliver? Isn’t that what exegesis [sic] are? Either way, it sounds like a good argument for socialism.

  18. If you like sex DON’T become a prostitute !
    If you like books DON’T work in a book store!

    I learned this lesson working in a photo lab.

    It was years before I could pick-up a camera again.

  19. @Jeff,
    Actually, in both Down and Out and Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell went and lived among the working (and non-working) poor. Remember, he was as much a reporter as a novelist or essayist (and for much of his life was poor himself).

  20. Great quote on the two-penny no-deposit lending library…

    “Nevertheless booksellers generally find that it pays them better to have a certain number of books stolen (we used to lose about a dozen a month) than to frighten customers away by demanding a deposit.”

    This is, perhaps, an old lesson needing to be re-learned in the digital era?

  21. Boba, I was commenting the use of the word Exegesis. It normally refers to a study of a test or other written work. “His exegesis of the Bible was demonstrated in his work called The Way…” Just wondering what Orwell might have been reading. The poor are not normally good subjects for fiction because the poor don’t read or have money to buy books, and the rich don’t want to read about the sad poor.

  22. Depressing or not, book orphanages serve an important purpose. If not for places to send those in my temporary charge, I should be overwhelmed by sad, foxed former loves. It is a unique melancholy to live among shelves of books bought new and kept till they reek of “dead bluebottles”. Altogether too evocative of the wrecks of childish hopes.

    Either that or burn them.

  23. My bad. I was sort of conflating your post with that of Jjasper while waiting for caffeine molecules to reach their appropriate receptors. The subtleties of you comment eluded me.

    To your point, Orwell did write several critical essays on the types of literature popular with working- and lower-middle class people in England. See “Boys Weeklies” and “Good Bad Books” as examples. His views on popular literature also informed elements of 1984, particularly the co-option of entertainment by the totalitarian state.

  24. “Ill-tempered rant”

    I think that’s a misleading title. I don’t find it to be ill-tempered or rant like. I read it as more of a depressed look at his state of mind post book shop experience. Like he’s look back at what used to be fun but is no longer.

  25. I will forever love book stores for that book smell. Old book smell is one of my favorites-reminds me of being a kid, being surrounded by so many new ideas…

    I can’t be the only one….

  26. My favorite quote from Orwell on books is the one we had printed on the bottom of the receipt used in my now deceased bookstore.

    “The best thing about buying a book is then you don’t have to read it.”

  27. Rats! George, you old party-pooper! I’ve always wanted to own my own used book store. Yes, I, as many here, am a bibliophile.

    I’ve worked in a commercial bindery. A small-scale outfit, but we weren’t sewing signatures by hand. I’ve done nearly every operation in the binding of small lots of books. It was one of the most satisfying jobs I’ve ever had. If only I’d been older and wiser when I had it.

    A quote from the owner of said bindery: “You’re not a real bookbinder if you have all ten fingers. No whistling!”

    And yes, there’s nothing like the smell of a library or used book store. All that moldering paper and glue.

    Fun aspects of bookbinding:


    Shaping the spine with a backing hammer.

    Learning to read upside-down and backwards when typesetting for stamping titles on the cases.

    Learning to be ambidextrous when your hand becomes too blistered and sore from the backing hammer.

    Having the calluses that come from working hard at hand work.


    Glue is unforgiving of mistakes.

    Constantly washing hands to keep them clean so you don’t smudge the end papers.

    Buckram is unforgiving of stamping mistakes.

    Constant paper cuts.

    Perfectbinding glue is molten plastic which sticks to skin.

  28. It’s true we only remember the bad customers. There were certainly plenty of good ones. I worked at my bookstore for more than 10 years. As much as booksellers love to tell war stories about the insanity of customer service it’s a job that people tend to stay in once they’re in it. And I do still love books, I just don’t fetishize them any more.

  29. It’s somewhat different in content, but Orwell’s “Keep the Aspidistra Flying,” about a failed poet/current bookstore worker’s contempt for basically everything is a great read.

  30. Another thumbs up for “Down and Out in London and Paris.”

    “Burma Days” is a total bummer, but a good antidote for revisionist trogs who think life in the Subcontinent under British rule was just peachy.

  31. Seconding the comment #7 by bjacques. Black Books pretty much embodies this. Also, Dylan Moran is brilliant.

  32. Thirding Black Books. Funniest show I’ve ever seen.

    I’m a total book fetishist. I worked in a bookstore for a few years, too, and it only augmented my obsession because of all the free and bargain deals I got there. Not saying Orwell is wrong so much as there may be other experiences out there, and mine is one of them.

Comments are closed.