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Late, Great American Bookstores: Leary’s Books

If you love reading, you’re living in the right century. The web offers you more copy than anyone could read in a lifetime, including free access to hundreds of newspapers and magazines. It also gives you access to whole libraries of rare books at gutenberg.org and Google Books. And since you live in the age of electronic books, you can buy new titles at less than half the price of hardcover. The e-book lets you carry your library in a slim, compact notebook, and purchase new titles online anywhere, at any time.

BUT, if you love books themselves, you may have chosen the wrong century to live in. The real-world, physical, walk-through-and-browse bookstore is disappearing from the American landscape. Independent bookshops have been quickly fading away, and now Borders Books, the national chain with 642 stores, has filed for Chapter 11 status. It will close about 200 stores this year and un-employ 6000 workers. If it can’t clear its debts, publishers will have to absorb millions in losses, which may require them to cut back on the number of books they print this year.

The fate of Borders will make little difference to the people who are happy reading their novels on a Kindle, Nook, or iPad. But it will mean a great deal to devoted bibliophiles, who would prefer an afternoon in a good bookstore to a day at a theme park. For them, the online bookstore can never replace the pleasures of strolling down aisles of books, scanning new titles or picking up new releases that unexpectedly tickle their curiosity.

The peculiar lure of bookstores dates back to the 18th century, when printers began turning out books in quantities large enough for create a reading public. Bookstalls appeared in cities like Paris and London and drew a steady stream of old scholars, young students, doctors, ministers, and merchants who searched for hardbound treasures.

One of America’s earliest booksellers, Leary’s Book Store in Philadelphia, was a happy hunting ground for book lovers between 1850 and 1969. As Pete Martin described it in a 1949 Post article, “House of a Million Books,” Leary’s was the antithesis of the modern chain bookstore. It was old, dark, dusty, cluttered, and staffed by silent, reserved salespeople.

Shoppers outside of a Leary's Bookstore

"Books that stay on the shelves too long are moved to stalls out on the sidewalk, where they are offered at twenty-five cents each or five books for a dollar. If they don't sell there, they are presently junked."

In Leary’s nobody asks you anything, unless you yourself ask a question first.  Hung on the walls are placards that read:

To make you feel perfectly at ease in examining our immense stock, the employees are instructed not to offer assistance without being asked. This, we hope, will not be considered as inattention on our part. If you desire information, ask all the questions you want, without feeling under any obligation to purchase.

In theory, this means that if you felt like it you could visit Leary’s every day of your life and read your way at least partly through the 106 departments into which the store divides its more than 900,000 books. Throughout all those years spent reading, no one would ask you to buy a single book.

To booklovers, it comes close to being an American institution… Leary’s has been run for 113 years on the principle of not selling the customer. Businessmen may prove with charts and graphs that you can’t do business that way. But it’s been done that way at Leary’s ever since the elder Oliver Wendell Holmes was a youth just a few years out of Harvard.

This notion is so thoroughly inculcated on Leary’s salesmen that a few years ago one of them carried it to its ultimate conclusion. He stopped speaking to his customers altogether, even when they spoke to him, and had to be retired to pasture.

If there is such a thing as poetic justice, he is being allowed to browse there without interruption.

Leary’s “laissez faire” sales policy proved to be  just what serious bibliophiles wanted. Generations of book lovers became deeply attached to the old store on Philadelphia’s South 9th Street.

[Novelist Christopher] Morley pays Leary’s this tribute: “It would be as impossible for any bibliophile to pass this secondhand bookstore as for a woman to go by a wedding party without trying to see the bride.”  Morley also remarked that he would rather see one of the nation’s historic shrines demolished by fire than to be told one morning as he donned his bathrobe that Leary’s was no more.

Stories are current in Philadelphia about exciting book finds made at Leary’s. The most persistent of these has to do with the Leary’s customer who was supposed to have found a first edition of Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, for ten cents and afterward sold it for $5000. Leary’s has no way of knowing whether this story is even partly true. It does know that the peak price brought by a Maggie was about $2000. But even if true, no one at Leary’s would feel regret at having been so outsmarted.

Mrs. William S. Stuart, president of the Leary Stuart Corporation, remembers a valuable early edition of Robert Louis Stevenson that was picked up by a customer on the fifty-cent table. She also recalls that a book written by one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and presented by him to George Washington—the book bore both Washington’s autograph and that of the signer—was found in Leary’s in a basket of books previously thought to be junk.

This illustration by Carl Spitzweg was on every sign for Leary's Bookstore.

When Leary’s closed in 1968, several valuable items were discovered in the process of emptying the store. One of them was a first printing of the Declaration of Independence, which was sold for $400,000.

Learys is still fondly remembered by former customers, as you can see at books-rare.blogspot.com/2006/07/this-is-picture-learys-old-book-store.html.

Will anyone remember Amazon.com so warmly 40 years after it closes?

Next: The Curious Habits of the Bibliophile In Its Native Habitat

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  • Ima Ryma

    Leary’s Book Store is my domain,
    A paradise where I’m employed.
    We are instructed to refrain
    From assisting. I’m overjoyed.
    I feel a duty to the books,
    Not to the customers so called,
    Who mostly are just browsing schnooks,
    Ever making me so appalled
    By constantly annoying me
    With questions that are frankly dumb.
    I just ignore them smilingly,
    And keep on walking, keeping mum.

    Customers just get in my way.
    Maybe they’ll disappear someday.