Contemporary books like those in the Harry Potter series and The Hunger Games are known far and wide, dominating today’s literary market; they’ve been made into movies and top The New York Times bestsellers list. But what were the bestsellers that people were reading in the 1930s? The San Francisco Public Library can tell you. This year, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Library is displaying an exhibition, Bridging Minds: San Francisco Reads, 1933-1937.
The Golden Gate Bridge is the icon of San Francisco, featured in movies and T.V. shows, an instant reminder that a story is set in the foggy city. However, what most people don’t think of when they think of the Golden Gate Bridge is that it was built during the Great Depression, which lasted throughout the 1930s. People were losing their homes and their jobs while this massive bridge, signifying a promised grandeur for San Francisco, was being built over them. The Golden Gate Bridge, while ostentatious, gave people jobs. Someone had to build it, after all.
The exhibition at the library gives a little history of the bridge being built, but also highlights the books, booksellers and bookmakers that were popular at the time. Despite the Depression, or perhaps because of it, books were being read a lot, and not just the kind of quick paperbacks sold in airports, easily disposed after a flight. People read deeply intellectual books like An American Doctor’s Odyssey by Victor Heiser, an autobiography of a doctor who traveled the globe. They also read books that remain literary classics today, like Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. Sure, there were also romance novels being read. (Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind is also on display.) But many of the books were very serious, such as Grim Journey: The Adventures of the Emigrating Company Known as the Donner Party by Hoffman Birney, or In the Second Year by Storm Jameson, about a British fascist regime. Other books that were major successes in their day and were made into movies, like Anthony Adverse by Hervey Allen, are now all but forgotten.
First and early editions of these books are on display on the 6th floor of the Main Library, just outside the San Francisco History Center. The exhibition also gives information about where people bought the books, as well as the printers and publishers. Jonck & Seeger were among the local publishers of the time, and booksellers included the Gelber-Lilienthal Bookshop, Newbegins and Paul Elder & Company.
The Great Depression was hard; books provided people with cheap (or free, if using the San Francisco Public Library) entertainment at a time when spirits were low. It also resulted in a large increase in library use in San Francisco, with circulation nearly doubling during this period and libraries staying open from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. most days. In addition, several neighborhood libraries and “deposit stations” opened during this period, recognizing the city’s need for literary diversions.