Limits of the Gift: Exploring Interaction in Antiquarian Bookshops

Frederic Bill, Lena Olaison


This article is based on an ongoing organisational ethnography of antiquarian bookshops. It argues that studying the exchange of antiquarian books offers new insight on the phenomenon of gift-giving. First, the general tendency in the literature on gifts (i.e. Bourdieu and Derrida) is how gifts are commoditized, while in the antiquarian bookshop it makes more sense to consider how commodities are transformed into gifts. Second, the literature on gifts argues that actual gifts are either impossible or at least undecidable since they cause the receiver to be indebted to the giver, and a separation in time is necessary either to evaluate the gift or to make it possible. However, in the antiquarian bookshop this situation is different since such a debt is directed towards the book rather than the giver. The receiver is indeed indebted but the debt takes the form of a responsibility to care for the book. In analysing our material, we argue that every meeting between antiquarian and bookshop visitor results in liminal ceremonies that produce a space (what we, adopted from Lefebvre, call a representational space) for their interaction. Such analysis suggests that the interactions are taking place somewhere on a continuum of spaces stretching from commodity to gift. The role of the antiquarian thus stretches from seller to giver, the visitor, from buyer to receiver, and the bookshop, from shop to collection.

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