Women in the Vanguard of Bookselling
At the same time that thousands of women all across America awaited the Senate's vote on the proposed 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which would give women the right to vote, a group of women booksellers were excluded from membership in the all-male Bookseller's League. Jenison and Clarke were charter members. They met in the fall of 1917 at a bookstore in downtown New York to form the Women's National Book Association. According to their present website, "Its unique characteristic was that membership was open to women in all facets of the book world--publishers, booksellers, librarians, authors, illustrators, agents, production people--the only criterion being that part of their income must come from books. The WNBA is still a vibrant organization with more than 800 members and so open-minded that they even let men join!
In 1917, when Clarke and Jenison started the Sunwise Turn Bookstore, it was believed that any bookshop must do $20,000 a year to survive. They did $12,000 the first and second years, $18,000 the third, $38,000 the fourth, then they moved the store to a more populous location near Central Station, and by the end of the fifth year they did $70,000. They had budgeted $7500 for the first year's expenses, with $125.00 a month for their two salaries, but "we never drew them except the first month." With hard work, perseverance and three times more work than they anticipated, they caught on and succeeded.
They wanted the store to be different. Of course, they would carry all the great classics, but they also carried some of the more risque authors of the times such as D. H. Lawrence. They took the First Amendment as much to heart as most of us booksellers do today. To quote Jenison, "To do a thing as nobody else could have done it--if you can wrench that out of yourself--is style." They first stocked books that they liked because they felt that if they liked it, it would be more likely to sell. That is my own philosophy; sell what you know first and foremost. Then you can spread your tentacles outward into foreign waters.
The women agreed that they had to read every book they possibly could before it came into the store; a daunting task then and an impossible one now. But in those days, a good bookseller needed to really know good books in order to recommend and sell books. And it is still true. A really GOOD bookseller must be a prolific reader. That has unfortunately changed somewhat with the era of the schlock novel and box stores. Powell's in Portland used to be clerked by highly knowledgeable, well read staff. Now, one goes to a section in the bookstore, takes a book off the shelf that has a pretty cover or that sounds as though it might be good, goes to the cashier, pays, and leaves. There are few bookstores left where one can have a fascinating literary discussion with the people behind the counter or even just talk about the weather, politics or the kids.