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Door-To-Door Bookstores

A depiction of a 19th century book agent canvassing a farmer.

“Success in book selling is not a matter of luck,” advises a small pamphlet written at the beginning of the 20th century for new door-to-door agents who had signed on to peddle a special memorial edition on Queen Victoria. “No matter how valuable or attractive a book may be,” it continues, “the strong features must be shown and the customer convinced that it is valuable for himself or family before an order can be taken.” This sage advice was given time and time again to new book canvassers who were expected to wander the dusty roads of rural Canada with the latest titles from a fledgling book industry.

As early as 1871, Canadian book publishers were reporting some impressive sales through door-to-door canvassing. Although precise figures are difficult to find, a now-defunct magazine, The Canadian Bookseller, reported that a print run of 3,000 to 5,000 was standard for most works sold through bookstores. However, if a publisher marketed his book through the door-to-door trade, the print run could be expected to jump to an impressive 10,000 to 20,000 copies.

Peddlers hawked every kind of book imaginable, but mostly works of non-fiction. Fiction was left to the growing number of free libraries that were springing up across the country, and against which no door-to-door agent or bookstore could hope to compete.

The memoirs, biographies, dictionaries, encyclopedias, atlases, songbooks, catechisms and art books that were sold by agents tended to appeal more to the senses than to the mind. They were often printed in a large type so that they would be bulky and would seem to be a great buy for the price. Their lavish woodcuts, steel engravings, gilded pages and fine leather coverings exuded a sense of quality and refinement. But best of all, the books looked great on the parlour table.

And so who were these door-to-door agents who willingly canvassed rural Canada for weeks at a time with little or no stock? Indeed, the only tools most of them had were a sales contract and a handy pen. In an 1881 interview, one agent explained to a reporter from The Globe newspaper in Toronto that agents generally fell into one of two types: “There are those who like the work, and have adopted it as a permanent vocation” and there are those “who take up book canvassing as a last resort or a temporary employment till something else opens.”

Unfortunately, it was this last type of agent who quickly brought the door-to-door book business into disrepute. “They have no liking for the work,” admitted the agent to The Globe, “and (they) go at it very often in a spirit of desperation–not caring who they offend, or whether they leave a favourable impression or not, so long as they can make a few dollars.”

On further questioning, the book agent estimated there were probably not more than 20 or 30 honest book canvassers in the province in the late 1800s. Considering there were close to several hundred book agents wandering the back roads of Ontario at any one time, the estimate certainly did not speak well for the industry.

Although door-to-door selling was lucrative business for the publishers, it did not always turn out that way for the agents. “When we employ new men,” reflected one recruiter of agents for a Chicago publisher, “we know in advance that out of every hundred thus employed, five will remain over a month, and one will meet with reasonable success, and that out of every hundred of that successful class, one will develop into a ‘star.'”

For the ‘stars’ the rewards were considerable. Word of their success, especially stories from south of the border, got around and served to entice people into the trade.

On his tour of pre-Confederation Ontario, Issac Fidler tells of meeting an Englishman who spent two years canvassing northern New York State to sell copies of a school textbook. The profits from the book’s sale enabled the man to open a successful private school for boys and girls, and to find himself a wife. But American J.H. Mortimer was probably the epitome of the successful book agent. He claimed to have sold $1,000,000 worth of books over a 20-year period.

Most agents, however, ended up like Corydon Fuller. The Colton Atlas Company had guaranteed Fuller a handsome profit of $6.50 for every $15 atlas he sold. Fuller set out thinking he could not help but make money. However, after months of canvassing, his meager sales were barely enough to cover his expenses for food, lodging, the upkeep of his horse, and freight charges from Colton.

According to one experienced manager, successful book agents were those who had a good rounded education, were well read, and could talk to a prospective customer on any subject. Agents without these qualifications, or with no literary knowledge, could still sell books but they usually had to work a ‘graft,’ as it was called. Some of the ‘graft’ agents sold books by the yard; some worked rich old ladies given to acts of philanthropy; others prowled the factory floor. One female agent in Toronto was particularly inventive. She called on women in their homes during the day and offered them a $20 book package that was supposedly endorsed by the Board of Education. She sold a number of the pricey packages before the board was able to warn its citizens that it had authorized no one to make such a claim.

Publishers were always on the lookout for new recruits and advertised widely through broadsides and pamphlets. The methods they used were often just as misleading and deceptive as those used by the agents themselves to secure customers and, almost without exception, were given to hyperbole. They portrayed the door-to-door book business as honourable employment that benefited all of mankind. “The accomplished book canvasser,” boasted one Canadian circular, “is necessarily intelligent in mind, courteous in manner, a benefactor to others.”

In one Canadian trade circular, Reverend John Todd was even more positive in his assessment of the industry. “I rejoice in this carrying the waters of knowledge to the very doors of the people, and almost coaxing the people to drink,” he wrote. “It is the beginning, I doubt not, of a great system of creating an enlightened community.”

While recruiting new agents, publishers were quick to point to the romantic side of the work: the unregulated hours, the lack of factory walls, the surprisingly little capital to get a start in the business, and the minimum training required. But most of all, it was the promised financial rewards that were the primary drawing card. “With a few hours’ drill,” claimed one Canadian promoter, “an inexperienced man who has the natural qualifications (a good address, gentlemanly appearance, energy and perseverance) may be taught to produce even better results than an old canvasser. And there are many who make $5,000 per annum, and even more, out of the business.” In an era when one dollar a day was a standard wage for a labourer, the promise of something more profitable was certainly very appealing.

Since all peddlers were offered the same compensation no matter their age or sex, the work seems to have had a special attraction for seniors and women. One agent in Saint John, N.B., was 73. For their part, publishers always welcomed young women into the business because, so the reasoning went, it was easy for them to sell not only to other women but to young men as well. As pointed out by one writer for the Winnipeg Daily Times newspaper, a female book agent could use her “beauty and winning ways” better than any male agent to tackle “the blushing young bachelor and the susceptible young man.” After all “no single man would dare to refuse a pretty charming woman.”

The promise of easy financial rewards was certainly the main drawing card for a former schoolmistress. Her decision to give up teaching in order to canvass New York State and eastern Ontario had little to do with her love of literature or her sense of benevolence for those living in isolated communities. For her, it was the magic of money.

Secretly, the schoolmistress also hoped that her travels would help her find a man. Joking to her friend she hoped people would surmise that she is “an heiress traveling (sic) in disguise, to find a true lover.”

The regular book retailers found door-to-door agents a serious threat to their business. Many, including the Brimacombe Brothers in Vermilion, Alta., provided their customers with the latest titles. However, unlike door-to-door agents, bookstores had considerable capital tied up in their business.

The agents, meanwhile, carried no stock, had no capital invested in a store, always got cash and made a healthy profit on each sale. For example, the Methodist Book Publishing House and C.R. Parish, both of Toronto, gave retailers the standard 33 1/2 per cent discount, but door-to-door agents got anywhere from 35 to 50 per cent on the same work.

In 1872, editor Graeme Adam advised Canadian book retailers not to fight the door-to-door business, but to see it as
a means of “inciting a taste for reading, and increasing the number of book buyers.”

Twenty years later, the Canadian editors of Books and Notions suggested retailers follow the lead of the door-to-door agents and start canvassing their customers. One bookseller in southwestern Ontario took the advice to heart and soon reported that, through canvassing, he had sold 25 copies of a Christmas illustrated rather than the usual 12.

Many of the canvassing houses that set up business in eastern Canada were satellites of larger American publishers. They generally preferred to avoid the retailers altogether and marketed their titles exclusively through the mail or through agents where there was a much higher guarantee of sales.

In the mid-1870s, London, Ont., was the centre of American operations with at least five representatives. As well, nearly every major Canadian house of the period–John Lovell, Hunter Rose, Belford Brothers, The Grip Printing and Publishing Company, The Methodist Book and Publishing House, and William Briggs–marketed a large proportion of their titles through door-to-door agents as did a host of smaller regional houses, such as P.R. Randall of Port Hope, and the Early Publishing House and R.A.H. Morrow, both of Saint John, N.B.

How did promoters of the door-to-door book trade characterize the book-reading public? First, consumers were almost inevitably assumed to be a male. Second, consumers were seen to have a great need to conform to the more influential and successful members of their community. “In starting your subscription list,” advised the writer of How To Sell The Story of South Africa, “you should see the most prominent and influential people first, and it is very essential that you should have your best description to give them.”

The trade promoters even suggested that in order to secure a contract from an influential person, the book agent should, “…spend a week in learning the description (of his book), and practice its delivery until you have brought it well nigh to perfection.”

Procuring sales from the more prominent citizens could work wonders when it came time to canvass other sections of a community. “When every argument has failed,” explained the publisher, “people will sometimes change their mind and wish a copy on being shown the names of people who have taken the work.” People were so mindful of their social standing that they would go to considerable trouble and expense to add their name to an agent’s subscription list, just so their neighbours would see it there along with the names of the rich and the elite.

Experienced agents developed a natural gift for talking, for embracing an extravagant vocabulary, and for inflating the value of the work they were selling. “People…expect to hear you talk,” advised the American publisher of General Grant’s memoir, “and you must not disappoint them …keep pouring hot shot at them…”

They suggested the agent should try to get the prospect’s undivided attention by cornering him in a fenced yard, behind a stump or on a plow beam and then keep talking. Even if it took as much as a half day, the agent was to keep talking until the prospect agreed to add his name to the subscription list. The agent’s unwritten motto was simple: Never give up! “Four fifths of all the failures in this business, we venture to assert, are attributable to nothing but a lack of that unyielding perseverance,” ventured one Canadian pamphlet that was published for book agents in 1864.

A young Elizabeth Lindley learnt first-hand how this technique worked. Canvassing small towns in New York State, she was not having much success selling books when a female acquaintance offered to show her some tricks. Her tutor had never peddled books–she usually sold cheap cosmetics–yet she was able to sell in a few hours what would have taken Lindley all week. Lindley was amazed at how easily her tutor adapted herself to the person and the situation and struck up a conversation. “If interviewing an Eastern man, she was from the East. If a Western, she was from the West,” relates Lindley. “Her place of birth was changed so many times to suit the occasion that I think it embraced every State in the Union, while her parents were English, Irish, French or German, as the situation required.” Word of such selling tactics travelled far and wide, and such tactics were also used on this side of the border.

More than anything, it was their unrelenting persistence that seems to have brought book agents universal public disapproval. Newspapers of the day are filled with anecdotes from readers who fell into the clutches of a determined agent. If there was a murder or robbery to report, and if any of the players were book agents, the media was always ready to pass the information along. Editors seemed to take great delight in getting some revenge on the industry by putting book agents in an unfavourable light, or by making them the subject of a practical joke.

In 1883, when the Winnipeg Daily Times newspaper declared book agents along with mosquitoes, houseflies and mad dogs as the summer’s worst pests, there were probably few people who had any time for the canvassers. It is no wonder The Brandon Mail newspaper concluded in 1886 that there “is probably no class of workers…that has received more abuse, has had more ill-natured flings thrust at it” than the book agent.

Nevertheless, first-class standard books would not have received a proper circulation if some agent had not visited rural families in their homes and pressed his claim.

Despite the public’s negative perception of the industry, book agents at least allowed publishers to bring their titles to the attention of a larger number of readers and gave the industry a means by which to organize and control their own machinery for distribution. Without book agents only a minority of the larger cities would have been serviced by proper book retail outlets.

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