My first real “job” in publishing was working as a sales clerk at Brentano’s flagship bookstore on 5th Avenue in the summer of 1962. I was deployed to the paperback department, which had opened only weeks before.
In those days, almost all real consumer paperbacks were “mass-market”, rack-sized paperbacks. And almost all of what we now call trade paperbacks were academic. My father had really started the concept of consumer-oriented trade paperbacks with the Dolphin line at Doubleday in 1958 and was just then building the Collier Books line for Crowell-Collier (which later acquired and became called Macmillan; all now owned by S&S and not today’s Macmillan via Holtzbrinck.)
In this new department, downstairs in the basement, housed with a tiny foreign language department off in a corner, the trade paperbacks occupied chin-high bookshelves through the middle of the sales floor. Against a wall were the mass-markets, displayed by publisher. That was because the Pocket Books, Bantam, NAL (Signet and Mentor), Ballantine (and other) reps came in and did detail work on their books on a weekly basis. So the store made it easy for them to take inventory and manage their restocking.
The sales clerks, including me, took the inventory of the trade paperbacks and recorded the data on cards that went “upstairs” to Lillian Friedman and the buyers to make restocking decisions.
So you had to know who published the top authors, like Steinbeck, because that was how you found them.
This was a long time ago, but I remember two incidents as clearly as if they happened yesterday.
Because I am seriously hard of hearing and this was before the digital hearing aids I have had for ten years that now mask that problem, I had to do all sorts of things to compensate. In those days, there were no credit cards. When people wanted to charge something, they just told you their name and you wrote it down on the slip recording what books they were buying, along with their address, and the store sent a bill.
When people told me their names, I almost never could hear them well enough to get it straight, so I routinely would ask them “please spell it.” That was the simplest way to for me to get it right.
The embarrassing moment came when I asked John Dos Passos to “please spell it.” I became mortified on the “capital P-a-s…”
Another time a young man came to the register and said the charge was to “Mrs. Robert F. Wagner.” I heard that. “Address?”, I asked.
He looked at me like I was from another planet and said, as if I should have known, “Gracie Mansion.”
It is a good thing I found other work in book publishing then because I was really not well equipped to be the best bookstore clerk.