Women in the Vanguard of Bookselling
"We tried," said Ms. Jenison, "to make the shop a cult, something unlike other things and offering one a breath of experience even to buy a book there." They did things like painting the walls bright colors; unheard of then. They carried good art works, sculpture, textiles, and books that came into the store with local "starving authors".
"We never had an apprentice who did not want to sell," remarked Jenison about the people who worked for them. That sounded familiar, because at every bookstore where I have worked, and in my own store, stock people and shelvers start by wanting to just do their job, but before long they are out in the shelves recommending a book or writing up an order. It is the mystique of books, I think.
Many of the ways in which Jenison and Clarke brought in customers still work today if a bookseller can find the time to implement them. Our modern systems are more efficient because of computerization while theirs were all hand-written; no emails, no computerized inventories, no credit cards. Each receipt was done by hand and a clerk needed to remember if a book was gone so they could inform the next customer who asked about it.
They sent out monthly postcard book reviews on the eight or ten books they had read and liked that month. They created lists of "must read" books for customers on all sorts of subjects in a particular field then sent the lists out to different businesses, clubs, libraries, and even retail stores recommending books for specific groups of people. "When you are confronted by 20,000 books, you may read nothing, but if you have at hand 15 books which you feel to be the best current material on any subject important to you, you will probably read them all," said Jenison. Now, we just put a subject in Amazon or ABE and we come up with fifty books on that subject.
Jenison and Clarke did tenacious book searches, sometimes finding the books quickly, sometimes finding them two years later, but always going out of their way to send them along to delighted customers. With the dawn of the internet book search engine, that process is sped along at lightening speed but the customer's delight is still the same.
In this day and age of computers, Game Boys and videos, getting children to read is a challenge. I have heard parents say that they don't want to give children books because they don't take care of them. I disagree and so did Madge Jenison. "Books are not to be taken care of," said she, "A book is a tool of life. A child must communicate with a book if he can - have it live on the floor with him. He will surely not learn the power of books by being exiled from them because he tears a sheet of paper."
The next time you go into one of those rapidly-disappearing, small bookstores with well-worn, polished, old wood bookshelves you can thank Madge Jenison and Mary Mowbray-Clarke, the women who were in great part responsible for beginning the era of the cozy, comfortable bookshop. These are the shops that still have real flowers on the table, big squishy chairs to sit in, lamps to read by, a knowledgeable staff, and a great selection of books from classics to modern prose. These are the stores that can take us back in time for a slower, less stressful hour or two.