In Richard Nash’s review of Ted Striphas’s outstanding The Late Age of Print — a book I still need to say more about here — Nash reveals this little historical nugget:

In the history of shop design, it is bookstores, strangely enough, that were the precursors of supermarkets. They, alone of all types of shop, made use of shelves that were not behind counters, with the goods arranged for casual browsing, and for what was not yet called self-service. Also, when brand name goods and their accompanying packages were non-existent or rare in the sale of food, books had covers that were designed at once to protect the contents and to entice the purchaser; they were proprietary products with identifiable authors and new titles.

You learn something new every day. Or I do, anyway.


  1. I've not yet read Striphas's book, although I love the cover art.

    On a related note, Henry Petroski's The Book on the Bookshelf, the first edition of which was published almost exactly ten years ago, explains that books weren't always displayed the way Striphas describes. Petroski, an engineer, focuses on how books, as objects, have been stored, collected, and displayed. He points out that books didn't always have spines displaying useful identifying information; in fact, in the Middle Ages, the spines were placed facing inward. Among the reasons for this was the sense that "the spine of a book was the 'back,' the mechanical side of the artifact, not something to display to the world…. [T]he spine of a book might quite likely have been considered the least presentable aspect of it, and as such was to be faced away from sight…. The spine of a book was no more meant to be in plain view than was the underside of a table or desk or than is the back of a computer today. (How often do we see in advertisements for new computers the tangle of cords and cables that are so difficult to hide at home?)"

    Petroski's book explains much of what you see in the library pictures Alan linked to a while back.

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