North American Bookstores, 1915 & 1925

This dataset is a near-comprehensive record of bookstores and dedicated booksellers in the U.S. and Canada in 1915 and 1925, compiled by Publishers' Weekly.1 Though Americans had several non-storefront sources of books (including mail order and subscription), this dataset gives insight into the locations, volume, and types of stores from which Americans could purchase books in the early 20th century.

The Publishers' Weekly directories primarily consist of American booksellers, but they includes a significant number of Canadian booksellers as well as a few in Cuba, Mexico, and the Philippines. The directories are not precisely clear how complete they are; the 1915 edition issues two qualifications. First, it limits coverage efforts to “the principal towns of the United States and Canada.” In practice this amounts to towns with populations over 4,000, though in less populous states exceptions are made for towns with populations as low as 2,000. Second, it limits entries to booksellers that at minimum “have book departments,” excluding the broader class of newsdealers or drug stores that only carried books piecemeal and thus “can scarcely be classed as bookstores.” Publishers' Weekly was by no means the first to compile such a directory, but their subsequent annual consistency and their rigor with other records of the postbellum book trade underwrite this directory’s reliability.2

I have kept two separate datasets due to differences in the original directories. Some variables are the same in each. Population figures come from the 1910 census for 1915 retailers and 1920 for 1925 retailers; I have supplied figures from the same where absent in the directory. Retailer is retained exactly as listed, with original class parentheticals and sometimes (for larger cities) street addresses.

The two files diverge in the organization of retailer classes. The 1915 directory classifies many stores parenthetically by type. I have sorted these into two variables to maximize utility. Class categories pertain to the kind of store (ex. department store, second-hand). Subject categories pertain to the kinds of books sold (ex. medical, Japanese, Catholic). Aside from some light regularizing, I have added Class values not specified in the original document for entries that include one of the document’s established Class values in its title without also including the word “books.” It should be noted that while these variables help specify some of the variability within the book retail sector, Publishers' Weekly left the majority of retailers unclassified in 1915.

The 1925 directory was much more thorough in its classification system: multiple classes can be attributed to each retailer, and most retailers are assigned some class other than “general.” As such, each class has its own variable (ex. DepartmentStore, SecondHand), where a 1 indicates that a retailer belonged to a class and an NA indicates that it did not. Many of these classes are the same as in the 1915 directory.

In both cases, a surprisingly small number of retailers looked like the bookstores of the second half of the twentieth century with which we are familiar (or perhaps now nostalgic?). We still have a lot to learn about how book retail worked, or didn’t, and where.

Download the 1915 file here (please cite where used).

Download the 1925 file here (please cite where used).

  1. American Book Trade Manual 1915: Including Lists of Publishers, Booksellers and Private Book Collectors, Publishers' Weekly (New York: R. R. Bowker, 1915),; American Book Trade Directory 1925, Publishers' Weekly (New York: R. R. Bowker, 1925), ↩︎

  2. J. H. Dingman compiled several directories in the late 1860searly 1870s, A. C. Farley compiled at least one in 1886, and H. W. Wilson compiled several in the 1900s. I hope to transcribe some of these in the not-too-distant future to facilitate comparative analysis. That said, compilation methods inevitably varied between firms and over time as book retail itself continued to evolve. ↩︎