Books and Bookstores in the Roaring Twenties

Gloria Swanson and books, ca. 1920

I was shocked to learn about the scarcity of bookstores during the Roaring Twenties. People moan about Borders going under and lament the decline of the independent bookstore, but we still have far more places to buy books than people did in the Twenties. In the entire country of 123 million people, “there were only some four thousand places where a book could be purchased, and most of these were gift shops and stationary stores that carried only a few popular novels,” historian Kenneth C. Davis writes. “In reality, there were but five hundred or so legitimate bookstores that warranted regular visits from publishers’ salesmen . . .  Of these five hundred, most were refined, old-fashioned ‘carriage trade’ stores catering to an elite clientele in the nation’s twelve largest cities.”

For comparison purposes, the population in 2010 was 309 million, and no one can estimate how many places there are where people can purchase a book. There are 15,872 public libraries in the US, Barnes & Noble alone has 1600 stores, and there are an estimated 2,000 independent bookstores. But how do you count all the Costco stores, grocery stores with book racks, WalMarts, and so forth? Suffice to say, people today have many, many more opportunities to buy or obtain books than they did in the Twenties, when middle class people outside the big cities had few options. 

Published in: on July 21, 2012 at 8:58 am  Comments (3)  
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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. That is startling. People outside the big cities still *did* do a lot of recreational reading. Are there any statistics about the number of libraries at the time? I wonder how many people bought books by mail order?

    • The only statistic I could find was the number of Carnegie Libraries in America in 1920, which was 1,693.
      An article, written in 1920, says that rural libraries were attached to rural schools and that “These libraries served an excellent purpose in familiarizing the rural sections with the library idea even though their books were usually confined to the mediocre or evangelistic types.”
      I did find a statistic for the number of public libraries in the U.S. today, courtesy of the New Jersey Library Association: 15,872.

  2. I enjoy the way your writing uses factual material to spark the reader’s imagination. On this post’s subject, do you think the short story will make a comeback?

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