Reviewed by Simon Thomas
Many book lovers have fantasies about what it would be like to work in a bookshop – perhaps particularly a secondhand bookshop. There is an aura of nostalgia, romance, and indulgence put together by the picture. How could it be otherwise, surrounded by books all day long? Now, I happen not to want to work in a bookshop (though did enjoy the brief period I was employed by a small secondhand one) – but, whether or not you do, Bythell’s look behind the curtain at the day-to-day running of his premises in Wigtown, Scotland is extremely likely to appeal. It’s a total delight.
Bythell gives us a year-long diary starting, for no obvious reason, on Wednesday 5 February. From the outset, he describes himself as conforming to the ‘stereotype of the impatient, intolerant, antisocial proprietor’ of a bookshop – and there is plenty in the diary to support this. While not quite the exaggerated form of Dylan Moran, it is clear that many of his customers – or would-be customers – annoy him intensely.
Apparently the shop gets many people who enter, talk loudly about how much they love books, and buy nothing; it gets similarly numbers who distribute books around the chairs and tidy nothing away. Amongst these nuisances are lovable oddballs – the tattooed man who sells walking sticks; the older gent who orders all his books through the shop – and the not so lovable, but Hythell is extremely funny writing about all of them. Odd moments that strike him as amusing are, almost invariably, worth telling (unlike so many something-that-happened-at-work anecdotes…):
The first customer of the day was an Australian woman whose inability to pronounce the letter T left me confused as to whether she was asking for ‘Noddy’ books or ‘naughty book’. It turned out, after I’d shown her to the erotica section, that she was after Enid Blytons.
Alongside extremely funny tales of customers and their odd or annoying requests – be that for absurd discounts, or trying to sell useless books, or being confused by the very concept of the bookshop – we are introduced to Nicky. She is as much a heart of this book as Shaun himself. She works there two days a week, ignoring any instructions that she doesn’t want to follow, and (on ‘foodie Fridays’) bringing unpleasant eatables that she’s rescued from a skip. It’s never clear how she’ll react to a situation – whether by incomprehensible Facebook post or by unexpectedly giving away piles of books – but Bythell treats her like an inevitable irritant, clearly extremely fond of her beneath the surface. She would not be believable as a fictional character, but entirely plausible as a real one.
While often taking on the mantle of the cantankerous bookshop owner, Bythell occasionally shows that there is rather more of a heart of gold beneath the exasperation. I particularly warmed to him when he described the worst sort of customers:
Those who – once they find out that it is my house – suddenly start to treat me differently from the girls helping Maria in the kitchen or the Retreat, or Nicky and Flo, or Bethan in the shop. I suppose the charge could be fairly levelled at me that I don’t make a great deal of effort to find out about my customers, but I am never rude to waiters, waitresses, cleaners or shop staff and hope I have never treated anyone as a second-class citizen, and instead merely reflect rudeness back at people who are rude to me.
And there are occasional moments that are just lovely:
A small boy, probably five years old, came in on his own and asked if we could help him find a birthday present for his mother. He had £4. On inquiring, we discovered that she likes gardening, so we found him a book on container gardening priced at £6. Nicky let him have it for £4.
In between diary events, particularly at the beginning of each’s months entries, Bythell muses on various wider topics around bookselling – particularly the recurrent figure of Amazon, and its attempts to take down this sort of business. He gained some sort of notoriety for shooting a Kindle and framing it on his wall – to which I say ‘hurrah!’ – and he also has something to say about this. Above all, he is fascinated by the book trade, and by the expertise which is slowly dying out.
Yet The Book Shop cannot afford to ignore the internet. Each entry opens with how many books were sold online (through abebooks and, yes, Amazon), along with how many were found. It’s quite astonishing how many books they don’t manage to locate – partly because the stock is so large, and partly because Nicky’s methods of shelving and recording the location of the books is not the most reliable. It’s an intriguing twist on Bridget Jones opening each diary entry with her weight. And each closes with the number of people who bought books, and how much they spent. For those of us drawn to lists and figures, I found this fascinating – and it shows a surprising transparency.
What we get very little of is Bythell’s homelife. His girlfriend appears only intermittently (and we learn in an afterword that they have since broken up, amicably); this truly is the diary of a bookseller, rather than the diary of a man who happens to be a bookseller.
There is nothing twee or cosy about this book – but, despite that, it is a total joy. I tore through the pages, but I was also rather sad when it finished – I could have read much, much more. Any bibliophiles should race to get a copy – but don’t be surprised if it puts you off any long-held dreams of owning a bookshop.
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, The Diary of a Bookseller (Profile: London, 2017).BUY the pbk at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)