Women in the Literary Landscape
Excerpt from “Bookselling as a Profession for Women,”
Madge Jenison, National Business Woman, February 1926
From Pages 159–160
Once a woman came to talk to me about opening a bookshop in Montclair. She said that she had three children to educate and five thousand dollars in the bank. What did I advise her to do? I told her that I could not possibly even guess for her. I did not know how much imagination she had, or will, or culture, or power to work. It takes a great deal of all these to keep a bookshop. But she was insistent, and she was plainly in need of a helping hand from somewhere to keep her from being simply a mother of three children with an uneasy heart. She went away, saying
that she would come back in two weeks. Would I think it over and tell her what I thought then?
It gave me three headaches and spoiled a performance of “Il Pagliacci” for me, but when she came back I advised her to do it. Five thousand dollars would not educate three children. It would not educate half a child, or buy their clothes or keep them in overshoes. But if she would get out in the world of affairs, even if she failed, somebody would be watching her, and she would get an experience which would help her to do something else.
Probably five hundred women and a hundred men in the United States are at this moment planning to open bookshops, and thirty or forty thousand more regard them as one of the romantic possibilities of life, like sitting on a stone in the moonlight or finding that there is oil on the farm your grandfather left you, appraised in the last bill for taxes at one thousand dollars.
There is some golden spell about bookselling. If you love books you can check, dust, label, wrap, bill them, and still they give you out some phantom joy. I have loaned books, sometimes ten at a sitting; I have bought them, and spent evenings rearranging them after various theories; but to sell anybody one hundred and eighty—pile them up so that all the surrounding chairs and tables are toppling with them, is a kind of fever dream. “The work is the wages” in bookselling more than in most things with which we occupy ourselves, I think.
Joyce Meskis, Response to Madge Jenison's Article, "Bookselling as a Profession for Women"
From Pages 166–168
[Madge] Jenison’s bookshop, the Sunwise Turn, co-owned with Mary Horgan Mowbray-Clarke, opened in 1916, in New York City on 31st Street. It is hard to imagine now what it must have been like in those years—really not so very long ago—when women were denied membership in the all-male American Booksellers Association. It was during that era, in 1920, that the women’s suffrage movement finally won access to the voting booth! And it was thanks to women’s activism and the efforts of so many others, that the talent, entrepreneurial spirit, and contributions of women were brought to light, shining on our institutions, cultural endeavors, and business interests—not the least of which was the bookshop.
During the ten years it was open the Sunwise Turn Bookshop made its mark on the culture of a nation. At the same time, it must have been gratifying to witness the transformation in the roles women played in the book industry. As Jenison observed, “Women…have overrun bookselling.” Stores were being opened in greater numbers by women; women were managing the book departments in major department stores; and they were opening bookshops, lots and lots of bookshops. Through various means, these women found the capital, locations, inventory, and the knowledgeable staff to sell books to a welcoming audience of readers. By 1923, Jenison had written a book, Sunwise Turn: A Human Comedy of Bookselling, which documented her own development as a bookseller, capturing the pleasures and confusions inherent in the business of books. As a well-connected observer, she chronicled the unique creative expressions of her sister booksellers in their efforts to bring books to the people: through her own intellectual soirées; a focus on the political anarchistic interests of the day; books by mobile caravan; books for children; good books of all kinds.
All of this is not to say that there are no more hurdles to overcome. To stay in business requires constant oversight of market trends; creative enterprising attentiveness; unflagging attention to financial detail; and a passion for the business of books as strong as the passion for the creative construct of the words and ideas presented in them.
Bookselling today is not an endeavor for the hobbyist. There is too much at risk, too much to do and too much to lose, individually and collectively. Even to accomplish one’s lofty philosophical goals, a viable business plan must be in place to support such a noble endeavor. Yet today, as before, there remains a kind of dreaminess about owning a bookshop. I have heard hundreds of times the refrain, “Oh, it must be wonderful owning a bookstore, doing nothing all day long but sitting on a stool and discussing the great books with your customers.” Well, of course, there is some of that, but in reality it’s cleaning the bathrooms, shoveling the snow, dealing with a leak in the roof that the landlord is slow to fix; it’s tax forms, labor laws, censorship challenges from right and left; keeping an eye on the budget, not letting the inventory of the store get ahead of its sales; it’s paying the bills, or at least worrying about paying them. It’s hard work, heavy work requiring a strong back and a fertile mind, the latter to serve as a repository for the minutiae so necessary to answer the myriad questions from a diverse clientele in search of information, answers, edification, relaxation, or a favorite bedtime story to read to the children. Then and now, serving the critical thinkers and interests of those readers residing in a pluralistic society is a demanding job.