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Thursday, June 23, 2011

A bookseller's battle with Wall Street


Location, location, location.

The old adage for a key to a business’ success apparently came into play for bookseller W.I. Whiting in New York during the 1890s. He thought if he hitched his wagon to the wealthy Wall Streeters, he’d make a killing himself with his impressive inventory of a quarter-million books. That was not to be. Not even close.



It's always fun to find a piece of ephemera for a business whose proprietor shares my surname. Even more so when the proprietor is a bookseller. And the possibility that I might be remotely related to him is intriguing. I hope so, for he appears to have been quite the character and would make an interesting addition to my genealogy.

William Ivan Whiting had trouble getting his banking neighbors to come by his shop and buy books. Seems they’d rather hit the 400 bars in the area instead. His book shop near Wall Street had trouble selling two books a day to that crowd. Two sales against a quarter million books makes for a pathetic ratio. So Whiting got angry and it earned him the nickname, Bibliooddio. Odd perhaps, but colorful definitely!

For seven years, he hung his shingle at 7 Beaver Street. When he decided the location was hopeless, he moved the business to the address indicated in the ad piece above (complete with another trademark bit of verse). But he couldn't leave without a printed slap-in-the-face to his neighbors. In the October 10, 1896 issue of Publisher's Weekly, Whiting wrote the following about his book shop's demise, while indicting the character of his neighbors:
THE FACT THAT A 250,000 VOL. BOOK-STORE cannot live where 400 liquor saloons thrive is a disgrace to the imperial city of New York.
The entire Publisher’s Weekly article about Whiting follows at the end of this post.

Whiting's anger could not be assuaged with a one-sentence volley lobbed at Wall Street. He penned an ode to his losing battle with the 400 saloons and liquor establishments as well, which he saw as his evil competitors for the Wall Street business: Four Hundred to One; or, Pegasus to Purgatory via Wall St. Abattoir (written December 1895, self-published).




The Preface gets you warmed up for the Prologue, which sets the tone for what is to follow in a 23-page rambling bit of poetic (self) indulgence at the expense of his wealthy, bookless (his opinion) would-be patrons. Bitter about his experiences near Wall Street.? Yeah, I'd say so.

I'd be curious to know how he fared at his new address and, if that didn't work for him, whom he might have blamed and what he might have written about them. One thing for certain--he would not have kept quiet about it.

The 1896 Publisher's Weekly article about W.I. Whiting's troubles and attack on his neighbors:

OCTOBER 10, 1896.


THE IMPORTANCE OF A PROPER LOCATION FOR A BOOK-STORE. W. I. Whiting, who is what Mr. Ruggles, of Bronson, Mich., calls a " bibliooddio," has made up his mind to close his book-cellar in Beaver Street, New York, and has fired a parting shot at his neighbors in the shape of the following advertisement in the Mail and Express:

THE FACT THAT A 250,000 VOL. BOOK-STORE cannot live where 400 liquor saloons thrive is a disgrace to the imperial city of New York.

W. I. WHITING, 7 Beaver St.

For seven years Mr. Whiting has fought an unequal battle, as he thinks, against the ignorance of and indifference to literature of the bankers and brokers by whose offices his book cellar is surrounded, and against the influence of the 400 liquor saloons which turn into their tills the dollars which he thinks of right should belong to him.

"In the imperial city of the West, here in Wall Street where the brains of the country are supposed to be gathered for the nation's welfare," Mr. Whiting complains, he can't sell two books a day at any price. They won't even " buy a picture-book to take home to their children." And as for Mr. Whiting's own poem, " Four Hundred to One," it might have been still-born for all the bankers and brokers seem to care for it. What they do want, and what they seem to get in plenty, according to Mr. Whiting, is rum-shops.

And so Mr. Whiting is about to withdraw the only civilizing influence from that neighborhood, and after the first of May next the bankers and brokers will not be able to get any of his quarter of a million books. He does not say whether he will go higher up-town and give the men who now slight him another chance to redeem themselves in his opinion.

This would be his only hope for retrieving the losses he has sustained during his seven years' vigil on the steps of the down-town cellar. He has learned to his sorrow that his neighbors have no time during the stay south of Wall Street for anything but business, and the imbibing of stimulus to keep up the mad rush after the almighty dollar. These same men, however, when their stint of work is done, become men of leisure, and on their way uptown are apt to drop into the book-shops for prizes or bargains. Mr. Whiting made a mistake when he thought he could catch the dollars of these men where they make them, forgetting that in their money-making haunts they are close as new steel traps, while away from them they become reasonable and tolerably liberal buyers.



We give prominence to Mr. Whiting's dilemma because it illustrates a mistake made by many of his colleagues in this and other cities. In many cases little or no consideration seems to have been given to the suitability of the location chosen by some booksellers. These are apt in case of failure to attribute their ill success to the indifference or the ignorance of the public, to the department store, their bad luck, or to the inevitable "hard times," because they overlook the simple fact that their difficulties are due to the mistake they originally made in opening a shop in a neighborhood where there was no demand for their services.

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