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Humours Op The Book Shop
by [?]

The panorama before his view is the human mind. He panders to its divers follies, consults its varied wisdom. He stands umbrellaless in the rain of all its idiosyncrasies. Why has he not lifted up his voice? He, the book clerk, that lives among countless volumes of confessions! Whose daily task is to wrestle hour by hour with a living Comedie Humaine! Has the constant spectacle of so many books been astringent in its effect upon any latent creative impulse? Or has he been dumb in the colloquial sense, forsooth; a figure like Mr. Whistler’s guard in the British Museum? Sundry “lettered booksellers” of England have, indeed, given us some reminiscences of bookselling and its humours. But they were the old boys. They belonged to an old order and reflected another day. “As physicians are called ‘The Faculty’ and counsellors-at-law ‘The Profession,'” writes Boswell, “the booksellers of London are called ‘The Trade.'” Let us look into this Trade as it is to-day, we said. So for a space we played we were a book clerk.

There are two, decidedly contradictory, popular conceptions of the man whose business it is to sell books. One is the sentimental notion of an old gentleman in a “stovepipe hat,” a dreamer and an idealist, who keeps a second-hand stall. The most delightful pictures of him are in the pages of Anatole France. He is a man of much erudition. And books are his wife and family, food and drink. Then there is the other idea. “Why is it,” we report the remark of an important looking gentleman in a high hat, “that clerks in book stores never know anything about books?” (or anything else, was perhaps not far from his thought.) This gentleman, it was readily perceived, had an idea that he had said something rather good. But it was not new. This conception of the book clerk is one of the world’s seven jokes–brother to that of the mother-in-law. The book clerk of this view is a familiar figure in the pages of humour, like the talkative barber or the comic Irishman of the vaudeville stage–a stock character. His illiteracy is classic; his ignorant sayings irresistable. He was sired by Charles Keene and damned by Punch. Phil May was his godfather; and every industrious humourist employs him periodically. These two ideas of the book business are perhaps reconciled by the popularly cherished sentiment that book sellers are not what they were. Newspapers from time to time print feature articles about the days “When Book Sellers Knew Books.” If you ask a salesman in a modern book shop if he has “Praed,” you of course expect him to reply, “I have, sir (or madam), but it doesn’t seem to do any good.”

Well, at the Zoo there is humour from the inside looking out, as well as from the outside looking in. The book clerk is in the position to remark certain human phenomena patent to him beyond the view of any other, most curious, perhaps, among them a pleasant hypocrisy. “Oh!” purls a sweet lady, pausing to glance for the space of a second at her surroundings, “I think books are just fine!” “I love to be in a book store,” rattles a vivacious young woman. “Books have the greatest fascination for me,” says another. A young lady waiting for friends looks out of the front door the entire time. Her friends express regret at having kept her waiting. “Oh!” she exclaims, “I have been so happy here”–glancing quickly around at the books–“I should just like to be left here a couple of years.” There is a respectful pause by all for an instant, each bringing into her face an expression of adoration for the dear things of the mind. Then, chatting gaily, the party hastens away. We turn to hear, “Oh, wouldn’t you love to live in a book shop!”