I have been researching some of my husband's ancestors who lived in the poorest parts of Liverpool during the second part of the 19th century. Two of his female relatives who had been widowed turned to bookselling to make a living. The trouble is I suspect that these women were illiterate, I know for certain that the daughter of one of them was. Were they really selling books or was "bookseller" a euphemism for some shadier activity?

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    I don't think you have to be literate to sell books, though I'm sure it helps. Here in the Philippines, you can find people selling books in English who can barely speak the language. Commented Nov 17, 2021 at 4:16
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    In poorer less literate areas, it seems to me books would have been heavily marketed with the narrative of "Encourage your family to read". I remember in the 1950s and 60s (long after literacy had become universal) there were a lot of encyclopaedia salesmen - trying to persuade parents of children who, perhaps had not got into grammar schools and who could not have afforded private education, to buy a set of highly priced Brittanica's - on easy payments terms, of course. "Encyclopaedia salesman" became a sort of a euphemism for "unemployed". (Think Avon, think Tupperware).
    – WS2
    Commented Nov 17, 2021 at 7:34
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    While I've never met a car salesperson who couldn't drive, I'm sure there are plenty of aircraft sales representatives who don't have their own pilot's license.
    – Robert Columbia
    Commented Nov 17, 2021 at 16:25
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    Intriguing question. Can anyone find any examples of illiterate booksellers? That might help to narrow the research.
    – MCW
    Commented Nov 17, 2021 at 18:18
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    Are there any historical instances of "bookie" (dealer in gambling bets) being called "bookseller"?
    – shoover
    Commented Nov 18, 2021 at 18:25

1 Answer 1


The job description of Bookseller in England was defined from 1800-1802 as "proprietor of circulating library" (see bookhistory.blogspot.com, [Exeter Working Papers in Book History] by Ian Maxted)

“Circulating libraries were commercial enterprises that rented books to patrons, typically for an annual or quarterly fee. Developing out of informal arrangements for renting books by a handful of booksellers during the later seventeenth century, these businesses flourished from the 1740s (when the term “circulating library” and trade practices became standard) into the mid-twentieth century. Circulating libraries played a major role in creating the modern popular culture of reading, in part by making books affordable to a wider spectrum of the public, but more importantly by increasing the number of books any single reader could afford to read. Between the 1740s and 1840s circulating libraries also contributed significantly to the production of books, with proprietors of the largest libraries consistently ranking among the most prolific publishers of their day, especially when it came to novels.” Oxfordreference.com

In 19th century London, the Statute of Anne (Copyright Act of 1710) afforded independent Authors & Publishers the legal right to exclusively sell & publish their registered literary works.


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