“There is a stereotype of the impatient, intolerable, antisocial proprietor….There are exceptions, of course, and many booksellers do not conform to this type. Sadly, I do,” admits Shaun Bythell.
From the very start of the The Diary of a Bookseller (Melville House) author Shaun Bythell is anything but an idyllic bookstore owner. At The Bookshop, Scotland’s largest secondhand bookstore, he holds nothing back, giving his raw and often pessimistic opinions on his role as proprietor, his customers, and the industry itself in the face of the looming Amazon machine.
Whatever romantic notions you have about the glamour of running a bookstore swiftly vanish facing the stark reality the author presents of the daily grind with heart and humor, which he does not hesitate to dispense liberally throughout the accounts he takes down in his diary.
“Before buying the shop I recall being quite amenable and friendly,” writes Bythell. “The constant barrage of dull questions, the parlous finances of business, the incessant arguments with staff, and the unending, exhausting, haggling customers have reduced me to this. Would I change any of it? No.”
From customers who leave dentures on top of books to those who dispose of their shoes at the door, we are treated to many peculiar characters that populate the store. While these descriptions often do poke fun at the bountiful oddities of his staff members and customers, he also looks with an endearing eye at his community and the characters become all the more lovable for it.
Bythell’s right-hand woman Nicky is my favorite of his real-life caricatures. Called “as capable as she is eccentric,” Nicky is detailed comically as someone in the winter who regularly wears a ski outfit that resembles a lost Teletubby and is quite miserly in her spending. However, Bythell also balances this unfavorable description by admitting that she is always extremely generous with what she does have, and never fails to bring character to the shop. Bythell’s dry humor is at play, as well as his sympathetic heart.
The structure of Bythell’s book reads like an actual diary, with accounts from selected days accompanied by the number of online orders, customers, books found, and till total. In this way, we can better appreciate his anxieties and triumphs as a person cognizant of the economic pressures.
Amazon looms as a large shadow over independent bookstores, and though, like Bythell, many have adapted to incorporate Amazon into their online market, the digital giant still controls the majority of buyers and profit. Bythell’s diary highlights the need for stronger support for independent bookstores. Nonetheless, despite this fierce competition, in his epilogue he proudly states his store is still standing.
Surely one attraction for readers is to see what it’s truly like being surrounded with books all day and the highs and lows of the profession. But what also comes through in Bythell’s interactions is his genuine love for books. Besides being gut-grippingly funny, the beautifully accessible manner Bythell uses to describe books and recommend to his legions confirms a love for literature that will resound with many readers and makes The Diary of A Bookseller a winning tale.
The Diary of a Bookseller is available now for purchase.
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ABOUT SHAUN BYTHELL:
Shaun Bythell is the owner of The Bookshop in Wigtown, and also one of the organisers of the Wigtown Festival.