Networked NY Q&A: Kristen Doyle Highland

As part of our ongoing series of interviews with Networked New York participants, Kristen Doyle Highland weighs in on her work, which examines the nineteenth-century bookstore in New York City. Moving between the rise of the dedicated bookstore in nineteenth-century New York City to contemporary battles to save the independent bookstore, Highland’s presentation at Networked New York explored how the physical space of the bookstore has come to frame ideals of urban life and community. She is a doctoral student in the English Department at NYU, specializing in Early American and antebellum literature.

Your paper crafts a compelling analogy between contemporary lamentations over the fate of today’s independent bookstores and the mid-19th century sense that stores like Daniel Appleton and Company’s bookstore sell “more than just books”—that what they offer, such as communal/civic aspirations, transcend the materiality of market commodities.  What motivated your focus on Appletons’?

I should start by saying that my larger research project focuses primarily on the nineteenth-century NYC bookstore. But the Networked NY conference was a great opportunity to begin to think about the relationship between yesterday’s bookstore and the status (often described as the “plight”) of today’s bookstore—point here being that I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on the modern bookstore.  It seems an obvious point to us today to say that the bookstore isn’t just about selling books—it’s about a lifestyle, about values, about community, literacy, culture. Though the loss of any independent store—consider the rapid decline in the family hardware store, for instance—is an occasion for expressing regret over a changing, more corporate retail landscape, the closing of a bookstore (or just the threat of closing) inspires particularly vehement defenses and alarming predictions of the future of neighborhoods, of communities, even of knowledge itself. This emotional investment in the bookstore has always fascinated me. It’s not just about the books; there’s something about the physical space of the bookstore—it’s environment, it’s people—that has such deep resonance.

But was this ‘deep meaning’ in bookstores always there? Certainly, bookshops have been a gathering place for literati to share news, ideas, and conversation for centuries. But with the rise of the dedicated retail bookstore—increasingly, though not always, separate from publishers—in the 19th century, we have the opportunity to consider how the bookstore imagined and produced itself as a venue for books in an urban landscape that had libraries, reading rooms, and street-corner book peddlers, among other book spaces. I focus on New York specifically because by the mid-19th century, it had become the national center for the book industry and had a lively, diverse bookselling trade. D. Appleton & Co.’s bookstore [see photograph at left, the facade of the Appleton building in 1854, courtesy of New-York Historical Society], operating from a number of different locations in the decades before the Civil War, seemed a promising case study to examine the forms and “meanings” of the bookstore for a couple reasons. First, a practical one—the Appletons’ success as book retailers and publishers made them very visible in the contemporary media. Each new move prompted energetic press coverage (and not just in NYC), commentary, and detailed descriptions of its space. Along with other surviving resources and unlike the vast majority of 19th-century bookstores, the archive can support a close analysis of Appletons’ stores. And second, also a result of their success, D. Appleton & Co. had the means to design their own spaces, and after 1860, their own buildings, revealing deliberate spatial strategies for staging the bookstore.

What I see happening in Appletons’ stores is an increasing dedication to investing their bookstore with what we would term today as capital “C” Cultural significance—making it aesthetically impressive, exhibiting books as art (and actual fine art pieces as well), drawing on classical and monumental design, spatially isolating and separating the commercial functions of the store. Designing the bookstore, in other words, as more than a commercial outlet for books—rather, as a space for communal engagement, individual improvement, and for performances of reading and consuming. Of course, this was also a marketing strategy—offer patrons rich, pleasing surroundings, and they will buy their books here. But if we consider Appletons’ in a sort of genealogy of the bookstore, we see an early example of a bookstore aspiring to a position as cultural institution. Over time (and with lots of other variables, of course), we’ve naturalized this cultural-institutional definition and function of the bookstore and further rhetorically and materially separated the cultural and commercial functions of the store.

You ask what it is about bookstores that makes them intensely local but also subject to being abstracted as the “soul” of a community.  How would you answer your own question in the cultural landscape of 19th-century antebellum New York?  Why do you think such easy resonances emerge between that historical context and the present-day? I’m thinking especially of how you use the comments section from EV Grieve

First, I want to thank EV Grieve and the individual writers whose letters to Cooper Union he posted. I probably should have asked for permission to quote from them. They’re such great examples of the passionate defenses of and symbolic significance invested in the modern bookstore.

On the intensely local aspect of the bookstore—One of the dangers in talking about “the bookstore” as a general thing is that it elides all of the local pressures that shape the bookstore and inform our experiences and associations of it. The big box store in Union Square, for instance, occupies a very different historical, physical, and symbolic space than the small neighborhood bookseller, and, as Ted Striphas has shown, different than the exact same big box store in Durham, NC where it is the only bookstore for miles and is enmeshed in that region’s own racial and economic history.  And of course, individuals form their own distinct associations and experiential geographies of bookstores. Nineteenth-century luminary, William Templeton Strong, loved Appletons’ but derided the bookstore just next door as a “citadel of humbug.” One of the appeals, then, of investing the bookstore with the symbolic significance of a cultural institution is that it can both capture the local significance of the bookstore to a certain vision of “community” while also linking one bookstore’s survival to a larger cultural preservation project.

But I don’t think many nineteenth-century New Yorkers would have talked about the bookstore in a similar way, as both locally and symbolically significant. It didn’t yet have the widespread cultural cache (or sentimental attachment?) that it does now. By the early 20th century, however, trade publications like Publisher’s Weekly reveal a growing panic about the future of the bookstore and attach to the physical space of the threatened store larger concerns about literary values, modes of reading, and cultural authority—not too far from concerns of the “soul.”

 As a “landmark” in the way you describe in your paper, can the bookstore be understood as a civic space apart from its status as a “commercial institution of culture?” When you write of Appleton’s that to “buy books here was to assert one’s own taste and membership in a fashionable community,” are there other acts of civic or public participation that perform a similar membership?  Where else might these members self-identify—or are you arguing that bookstores present a unique and distinct occasion or space for membership or community formation?

I think most people today consider the bookstore a civic space—for participation in a community, for sharing ideas and information—independent of its commercial functions. To the detriment of the bookseller’s bottom-line. That’s the fascinating paradox of today’s bookstore—locating a “higher value” in its role as an enlivening cultural space for readings, conversation, or leisure and not in its more mundane commercial role as a place where books are commodities to be sold, and crucially, bought, risks the bookstore’s survival. Certainly, there are a variety of ways individual booksellers have found to strike a balance between a store’s commercial and cultural functions or to make the cultural profitable. But I wonder, what might the bookstore look like in the future if it was actually classified as a cultural institution and funded primarily by donors or government entities and not solely by the sale of books?

Appletons’ built the cultural significance of their stores on the foundations of its commercial functions. In that way, his stores mid-century and later might be aligned with the emerging department store model. Any act of consumption—buying a dress, decorating a drawing room—could be argued to incorporate an individual into a fashionable community and communicate values through physical objects, but I do think that the bookstore, by nature of the books it sold—objects already circulating in intellectual and social economies, and increasingly in the 19th century with advances in binding, cover options, and illustration technologies in a material economy—offer a unique and complicated space for individual identification and community formation.