Confessions of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell

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Review by Simon

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As the cover of Confessions of a Bookseller tells us, Bythell is an international bestseller. A couple of years ago, The Diary of a Bookseller was a surprise hit – or perhaps not a surprise, to those of who love reading about the running of a bookshop from the perspective of a middle-aged, slightly grumpy man who has an eye for the amusing.

Well, Confessions is very much along the same lines. It’s a sequel, but you could easily read it independently. It looks over the calendar year 2015, with a short entry devoted to each day of the week except Sundays. Even booksellers have to have a day of rest. And, as before, he opens each entry with the number of orders they’ve had online and the number they’ve found, and ends each entry with the till total.

Some things don’t change. It’s still astonishing how many of the orders Bythell et al aren’t able to find in the shop. At the time of writing this review, I spotted on their Facebook page that they’ve been temporarily kicked off abebooks for not fulfilling enough orders, and I can’t say I’m surprised.

Some things do change a bit, though. Had I only remembered Bythell at his grumpiest before, or had he mellowed a bit? I did wonder if he had not fully anticipated the reputation he would garner with Diary of a Bookseller and tried to be a bit friendlier in this volume. Who knows. But don’t worry if you’re chiefly there for the caustic wit – there’s still plenty of that, and I loved it all. This isn’t witty so much as observational, but here’s a bit I enjoyed that conveys his long-suffering life:

Callum and I sent most of the day working in the bothy. At one point we were putting up some plasterboard when a customer appeared in the doorway – to get to which involved scrambling over rubble and building materials. He asked Callum ‘Is this the Garden Room?’, to which he replied that no, he had walked straight past the Garden Room. Customer replied ‘Oh, is it through the door which has ‘Garden Room’ written on it?’

You can forgive the dim-witted customers. It’s the belligerent ones that Bythell saves his most savage words for. Those who haggle for half an hour over a two-pound book, or who get angry that he doesn’t want to buy their Reader’s Digests. One does occasionally wish he’d say more about customers he liked, if there is anything interesting and bookish to say, but I suppose the majority of buyers just pay their money and get out.

It’s not all about the customers, though I’d happily read about them forever. There are, of course, the staff. Nicky is still there, with her food filched from skips and her strongly held, bizarre opinions. There is a sombre note when she stops working there, and Bythell obviously expects to miss her more than she misses him. And a similar moving segment comes in when he writes a little about the end of his relationship with Anna. I don’t remember the first book having such poignant interludes, and they are a good addition.

But the best addition in this book is not poignant at all. It’s the wonderful Emanuela. She is an Italian who is looking for a bit of work experience – which he is happy to offer, but can only give board and lodgings. Well, she is a breath of very curious fresh air. She would be a wonderful novelistic creation if she were not already a real person.

Though she is only 25 years old, she declares that she is 85 inside, and earns the nickname Granny. Her English is a little haphazard when she arrives, though she settles in quickly – readily feeling comfortable eating enormous quantities of food and swearing amiably at Bythell. She is an eccentric delight. You get the impression that Bythell either attracts eccentric delights, or is very good at isolating those aspects of their personalities that qualify them for the epithet.

My only frustration with this wonderful book is that, at the beginning of each month, he quotes from The Intimate Thoughts of John Baxter, Bookseller by Augustus Muir, and it made me desperate to read it. A secondhand copy will set you back about £100. Somebody enterprising needs to reprint it!

The book closes at the end of 2015, and I hope he was keeping notes in the following years. There seems no reason why these books should ever end, and I’ll read any and all of them that come out. They are a total treat and delight.

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Simon is Editor at Large for Shiny New Books, and once spent a happy summer working in a secondhand bookshop, where all his wages went on books.

Shaun Bythell, Confessions of a Bookseller (Profile, 2019), hardback, 336 pages

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