Confessions of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell review – A brilliant sequel
A heart-warming love letter to books and bookshops, by an amenable fellow turned antisocial old misanthrope
“I was in here two years ago and you had a book by Roger Penrose. Do you know what happened to it?” Shaun Bythell – owner of the Book Shop in Wigtown, Galloway – has 100,000 books in stock, sells 20,000 a year, and has handled nearly 1m second-hand books since he bought the shop in 2001. Unsurprisingly, the Roger Penrose volume had not stuck in his mind.
Before he entered the book trade at the tender age of 31, he was “amenable and friendly”. Now, after many years of fielding bizarre questions, constant haggling over prices (why is it “acceptable to try to screw the profit out of struggling small businesses” but not supermarkets?), and struggling to survive despite Amazon’s “icy grip” on bookselling, he has been forced to embrace the stereotype of the “impatient, intolerant, antisocial proprietor”.
In this brilliant sequel to The Diary of a Bookseller (2017), Bythell plays the misanthrope to perfection. For fans of his first book there are many familiar faces, including his part-time assistant, Nicky, a Jehovah’s Witness who shelves Darwin’s works in the fiction section and considers her boss “an impediment to the success of the business”; Anna, his Californian partner who helped set up the Open Book in the town, which people can hire for a fortnight to experience the joys of bookselling (it’s apparently booked out for the next three years); and Captain the cat, who is “nudging the borderline of morbid obesity” and likes to leave dead birds around the shop.
A new addition to Bythell’s cast of colourful, not to say eccentric, characters is Emanuela, a 25-year-old Italian who comes to work in the shop in exchange for bed and board and who earns the nickname Granny by declaring: “I am 85 years old inside, like an old granny”.
Written as a diary, with daily customer tallies and till receipts (inevitably disappointing), Bythell’s morose musings on the second-hand book trade, his disintegrating relationship with his partner (“I find it hard to see a future except as a cantankerous curmudgeon, living alone”), life in Wigtown and fishing in the local rivers (“it’s the perfect antidote to everything”) are wonderfully droll and often hilarious. It’s the kind of authentic humour that has been honed by years of infuriatingly close contact with the great book-buying general public: “Massive row with a customer over whether Maigret was a fictional French detective (me) or a Belgian surrealist painter (them)”.
One day he overhears two women walking past his shop, saying: “There’s no point going in there, it’s just books.” A lesser man might give up. But despite the gloomy picture he paints of bookselling, this is a delightfully heart-warming love letter to bookshops, one that celebrates their serendipity: the unexpected joy of coming across books you didn’t know existed. And even as a locus of chance encounters: “Often customers – not locals – will bump into people they know from a totally different walk of life in the shop.” As Flo – a student who occasionally helps in the shop (“the very embodiment of petulance”) – writes on the blackboard outside: “Money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy books (which is basically the same thing).”