cover image The Bookshop: A History of the American Bookstore

The Bookshop: A History of the American Bookstore

Evan Friss. Viking, $30 (416p) ISBN 978-0-593-29992-0

In 1993, there were 13,499 bookstores in America; in 2021, there were 5,591. Yet historian Friss (On Bicycles) offers an upbeat and immersive take on bookselling’s much ballyhooed demise; “bookstores have never felt more alive,” he asserts (he also cites a famous quip made by a bookseller in 1961 that books have “been a dying business for 5,000 years”). Friss’s jampacked account spans from early America to the present day, beginning with precursors to the modern bookstore like Benjamin Franklin’s Philadelphia printshop (where the first novel was printed in America—Samuel Richardson’s Pamela) and Boston literary hangout The Old Corner (where Nathaniel Hawthorne liked to loiter), and ending with chapters on Amazon Books and Ann Patchett’s Parnassus in Nashville, Tenn. (Friss gleefully notes that, while Amazon closed all of its 24 brick-and-mortar stores by 2022, Parnassus has experienced double-digit growth since it 2011 founding). Along the way, he chronicles the history of over a dozen notable bookstores (many of them now-defunct New York greats, like the Midtown modernist stronghold Gotham Book Mart and the Greenwich Village paragon of gay rights activism Oscar Wilde), interspersing these chapters with ruminations on the role of the buyer, the importance of the UPS driver, and other bits of bookstore arcana that refreshingly focus on the behind-the-scenes experience of bookselling. It’s an entrancing deep dive into the book industry, reports of whose death have been greatly exaggerated. (Aug.)