Sunwise Turn: A Human Comedy of Bookselling, by Madge Jenison

Cover of first U. S. edition of 'Sunwise Turn'
“Separated from Fifth Avenue by about a hundred feet of sidewalk, but by an immeasurable difference in atmopshere, is the shop that most booklovers have dreamed of, a place in which to meet old friends in books and to discover new ones, to browse alone by an open fire, or to discuss your literary hobbies–and incidentally, but never obtrusively, to purchase books you really want.”

So opens a profile of the Sunwise Turn bookshop published in the Independent magazine in 1916. At the time, the shop had been open for just a few months, and though it was to close about ten years later, it had a significant impact on both American bookselling and American culture.

Sunwise Turn: A Human Comedy of Bookselling, published in 1923, is an account of the shop’s first few years written by Madge Jenison, who founded it along with Mary Mowbray-Clarke, wife of the sculptor John Frederick Mowbray-Clarke.

Jenison and Mowbray-Clarke were, like many novice entrepreneurs, long on enthusiasm and short on common sense. They took an evangelical approach to bookselling. For them, the shop was more than an outlet for merchandise–it was a way to inform and expand the awareness of their customers. “Our function was to pass on what had been nobly created, to see that it circulated, instead of lying lost in a dust heap to keep the wind away.”

And they were not interested in mass marketing. Indeed, their first notion of a target customer base was “fifty patrons who bought $500 worth of books a year.” With this in mind, they started to build their collection: “The first day we went out to order our stock we bought everything that we liked and everything that we especially wanted people to read.” This included a hundred copies of Hunting Indians in a Taxcab, a slim 1911 comic piece by Kate Sanborn about collecting cigar-store Indians. It was an utter flop.

Sunwise Turn is something of an early forerunner of contemporary gospels of entrepreneurship such as Paul Hawken’s Growing a Business. She describes how the care they put into every aspect of the shop: not just the books it carried, but its location, its decor (“We intended the room to look like a place in which you could read a book,” not a “denaturalized warehouse room”), its packaging, and what today one would call its corporate image (although that statement probably sent Jenison spinning in her grave). They also published about a dozen or so books, most of which can now be found on the Internet Archive, under their own imprint, including a study of the sculptor Rodin written by Rainer Maria Rilke.

Were Jenison around today, she might be considered a subscriber to the tenet, “Do what you love and the money will follow.” In a discussion on advertising, she writes,

The chief factor in making a thing known, outside of the forced methods of advertising, seems to be to make it honest in the best sense–something of your own, and alive, and not drawn from the general vat of experience. Only give the world something with character to talk about, and it will carry your name to sunset.

On the other hand, toward the end of the book–written, to be precise, before the shop went out of business–Jenison discusses various practical and economic aspects of bookselling, but notes: “Nobody knows much about bookselling. It is a trade in which there has been little constructive research.” She advocates for an analytical approach to the business that would take more of the risk off the bookseller’s back. However, as even the experience of Amazon has shown, no matter how much data about customers’ interests and behavior you gather and crunch, reading and book-buying is still rife with failures and serendipitous successes.

The shop’s name, by the way, came from an anecdote that Amy Murray later included in Father Allan’s Island, her 1920 book about the people and culture of Eriskay, a small island in the Hebrides. “They do everything daesal (sunwise) here, for they believe that to follow the course of the sun is propitious. The sunwise turn is the lucky one.”

Sunwise Turn is still something of a dangerous book. Reading it will almost certainly lead to fantasies about opening one’s own version of the Sunwise Turn bookshop: Do not attempt this trick on your own, however.

Sunwise Turn: A Human Comedy of Bookselling, by Madge Jemison
New York City: E. P. Dutton & Company, 1923

5 thoughts on “Sunwise Turn: A Human Comedy of Bookselling, by Madge Jenison

  1. Yes Gurdjieff and I believe A R Orage met his future wife there. She was working there at the time. Her name was Jessie Dwight.
    Can anybody tell me what is on the site of the Sunwise Turn bookshop site now?

    Cheers, Rod, Australia.

  2. This is an amazing book. It was mentioned in another neglected book (that I don’t have at hand right now) and I sought out a copy. My mother and I have had our small bookshop open for just over a year now and Sunwise Turn could be our story, with obvious updating for modern times. With the turn of each page, I recognize the humor and hard-earned rewards of a bookshop run by two women who took on something they didn’t know much about (owning a bookstore) because of their love of something (getting books into people’s hands).

    It is a delightful read – one I wish I could encounter new again, over and over.

    Spinster Books
    Ashland, Wisconsin

  3. I most enjoyed the story about how a young man who worked in a Brooklyn shipyard came in and requested a very expensive book about shipbuilding that had to be special ordered from the UK. He got a card in the mail saying it had arrived (I’m barely old enough to remember when this was still a thing, and I suppose some antiquarian sellers might still do it that way). He came in, and she wrote with evangelistic fervor of how he insisted on showing the book to her, explaining it, caressing the illustrations with his fingers. She asked him why he didn’t get his co-workers at the shipyard to chip in, and he said he had the money, and he wanted it for himself.

    She and her friends may not have been the most practical of business people (she describes with embarrassment one horrible mistake they made in allowing the discounts they got from publishers to be made public knowledge) , but I’d say that one experience alone made the enterprise worthwhile.

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