Sometimes when I’m at the library, a book will literally leap from the shelf into my arms and shout ‘take me home with you!’ Not always, just sometimes.
So it was with The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell. One minute the book was sitting on the shelf, the next it was in my custody, despite having no previous inclination to read it. The randomness of this book coming home with me meant I had no expectations for it. Low expectations + a pretty good book = delighted reader.
As the owner of Scotland’s largest second-hand bookshop, Shaun Bythell is well qualified to sketch out what it’s like to sell books for a living. However, after I’d read the first few pages of his diary I didn’t think I’d finish it. As keen as I was to know more about a bookseller’s life, this book struck me as an exercise in pomposity and vanity. Three hundred pages of Bythell’s navel-gazing, bleak world view? Nah thanks.
Yet, I’m really glad I stuck with it. As it turns out, Bythell neither naval gazes nor is unreasonably bleak – he’s just Scottish. Almost in spite of himself, Bythell has written an engaging and comical account of what it’s like to run a book shop. He isn’t an immediately likeable character; he readily admits (and frequently proves himself) to being impatient and antisocial. He puts this down entirely to the consequences of running a bookshop: ‘the constant barrage of dull questions, the parlous finances of the business and … the unending, exhausting, haggling customers’. Get one-third of the way through the book, and you can see his point of view.
There are countless anecdotes about his customers that simultaneously made me grimace and laugh:
A customer bought three books to the counter, pointed to two of them and said, ‘I’ll take those two; you’ll have to put that one back on the shelf’. He subsequently asked if he could pay for the two books that he wanted with Tesco Clubcard points.
While I was repairing a broken shelf in the crime section, I overheard an elderly customer confusing E.L James and M.R. James while discussing horror fiction with her friend. She is either going to be pleasantly surprised or deeply shocked when she get home with the copy of Fifty Shades of Grey she bought.
A customer started rummaging through a box of unpriced books and found a Penguin edition of The Day of the Triffids, priced in pencil at 12p (presumably from a charity shop in the 1970s). When I told her that our price would be £1.50, she decided that was ‘outrageous’ and that if that was the case she’d ‘just get it from the library’. I have a feeling that ‘outraged’ may well be her factory setting.
As well as their behaviour, Bythell’s snide asides extend to customers’ reading habits:
One of the orders today was for a book called Liquid Gold: The Lore and Logic of Using Urine to Grow Plants.
Sold a book called The Dieter’s Guide to Weight Loss During Sex to an American woman.
And he takes unmasked joy from being petty:
Ken… found a book about St Kilda that he had been waiting for me to reduce in price. I had spotted him looking at it a few times so after his last visit I raised the price from £40 to £45. He wasn’t very pleased but bought it anyway. I reduced it back to £40.
In amongst this snarkiness, the diary is peppered with excellent book recommendations including Blindess by Jose Saramago (‘draws the reader in almost as a participant in the story rather than an observer’) and William Boyd’s Any Human Heart (‘possibly the most recommended book I have been advised to read… absolutely adored it’).
Amazon casts a long and ominous shadow over almost every action and transaction in the bookshop: how to price books (to sell cheaper than Amazon or stay solvent?), haggling by customers who expect and demand books as cheap as online; and, how the discounted book trade has created such financial instability that publishers don’t take risks with books anymore, limiting the publishing pool to books guaranteed to be commercially successful. It has strengthened my resolve to continue to boycott Amazon where I can (including Audible, Goodreads, Book Depository…. it’s endless!)
In this light, it seems perfectly logical when Bythell tells us:
After lunch I went to my parents’ house to get my shotgun and shoot a Kindle (broken screen, bought on ebay for £10)… It was remarkably satisfying to blast it into a thousand pieces.
If you’re a bibliophile, fond of Scotland and its grumpy men, and possess a Larry David- esque sense of humour, you’ll love this book. Let it leap into your arms next time you see it.