Book Review: Seven Kinds of People You Find In Bookshops

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

If the number of review copies arriving through my letter box is anything to go by, publishers are on as big a push as ever to capture the Christmas market in book sales, despite the difficulties put in their way this year by bookshop closures and the ever changing rules on social contact. This little title, however, was the first to arrive that I would describe as a stocking filler. Please don’t think from that classification that I am putting it down. Any reader finding this book in their stocking on Christmas morning should feel lucky. It contains plenty to amuse – an excellent diversion for a recipient doing their best to avoid interacting with rarely encountered relatives, ones who insist on sharing distasteful opinions or recounting anecdotes about people only they have any interest in.

Of course, I digress, as does the author of this book on many occasions. It is these digressions that make the contents so entertaining. Like Bythell’s previous two publications – Diary of a Bookseller and Confessions of a Bookseller – the tone is one of caustic wit woven through complaints about the behaviour of the customers encountered in the second hand bookshop he has owned and run for the previous two decades. There is, however, a greater generosity of spirit than was apparent in his earlier books. Perhaps this is due to the lack of people he has been permitted to observe and serve this year.

In the introduction, the author explains the focus of this latest work.

“It is about our customers: those wretched creatures with whom we’re forced to interact on a daily basis, and who – as I write this under coronovirus lockdown – I miss like long-lost friends.”

He then goes on to categorise and castigate these much missed providers of his income. Using what he describes as ‘a sort of Linnaean system of taxonomy’, the reader may muse over the failings of such customers as: expert, young family, loiterer, bearded pensioner. He introduces the last of these thus:

“This genus includes both males and females, although it tends to be dominated by males (by a whisker).”

Each chapter is further subdivided as the author sees fit. His Genus: occultist, includes the species, ghost hunter. He quotes from a YouGov survey from 2014 in which:

“alarmingly, 9 per cent of people claim to have communicated with the dead (although technically this could include shouting at a gravestone, as it’s unclear from the question whether or not the dead were required to respond).”

In amongst Bythell’s complaints about conduct within his shop are tangential rants about typical behaviour of various customers beyond his walls. Motor home drivers in particular are vilified for driving slowly and emptying their chemical toilets inappropriately.

The sartorial choices of each species are derided and compared – hipsters ignite the author’s ire even more than Goths; the pantalons rouge brigade are encapsulated with relish.

Habits highlighted are, of course, being mined for their entertainment value. In that, the writing succeeds, albeit in a mordant manner. For each smile or chuckle elicited there may be a tremor of guilt in the reader who wishes to regard themselves as of a more generous nature.

Such generosity would, however, be severely tested by regular and unavoidable encounters with many of the customers described within these pages. The corollary is that, as a bookshop customer, the more anxious may ponder how staff have judged their dress and behaviour.

Any Cop?: Many readers will doubtless enjoy pigeon holing themselves and their acquaintances into the genera and species depicted. Just as booksellers come in shades spanning Shaun Bythell to Frank Doel – both adding colour and interest to their métier– so I would counter that life would be a lot less interesting if all customers were of Bythell’s final genus – perfect.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Confessions of a Bookseller

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“It is an irony of my position that – although I’m surrounded by books every day – most of what I know about them is imparted by customers, the self-same customers whom my first instinct is to discourage from talking.”

Shaun Bythell wrote The Diary of a Bookseller in 2014. It was published three years later and went on to become an international bestseller. Confessions of a Bookseller has the same structure – short entries for each day of a year in Bythell’s life. Each month opens with a quote – in this volume from The Intimate Thoughts of John Baxter, Bookseller by Augustus Muir – followed by some personal thoughts on various aspects of books and bookselling. Bythell muses on: the habits of customers, the latent excitement and inherent risks of book acquisition, and the challenges he faces due to the existence of Amazon.

The author is proprietor of The Bookshop in Wigtown, a business he purchased in November 2001. He buys and sells second hand books, both in the shop and online. He is a native of Galloway and writes of the place with deep fondness. He is less complimentary about the part-time staff he employs and many of their customers, including regulars. 

Written with caustic wit the daily entries take the reader through the seasons detailing tasks that must be completed associated with the business. Bythell has converted several rooms and buildings linked to his shop – which he lives above – to form meeting rooms and accommodation. These are well used by both locals and visitors to the region, especially during the Wigtown Festival in late September.

The diverse cast of characters are presented in less than flattering cameo although there is no rancour in the writing. Brief descriptions of encounters form the backbone of a book that strips away any dreamy preconceptions around the reality of running a bookshop. Unforeseen expenses include the need for a retrospective planning application and repairs to a collapsing chimney. Bythell must come up with ideas to offset costs as they may not be met by profits from book sales. Daily entries conclude with a tally of customer footfall and till receipts which provide a salutary reminder of the decline in high street spending as the public embrace the ease and convenience of the internet.

“I managed to get the ‘Death to the Kindle’ mug available for sale on Amazon. I wonder how long it will be before it is removed.”

Amazon’s focus on buyers rather than sellers, along with software issues processing listings and orders, provide ongoing headaches for Bythell. Customer expectations have also been altered by the behemoth, with those bringing in books to sell harbouring unrealistic views on value and purchasers demanding discounts.  

Although best read in chronological order to keep abreast of ongoing developments this is a book that can be enjoyed in short fragments. The author offers up his trials and tribulations with a mix of mockery and dour humour, unafraid to admit to his personal peeves and shortcomings.

Any Cop?: Another slice of life as a bookseller with the added quirks of Bythell’s character, this was ultimately a diverting and congenial read.

    

Jackie Law

Book Review: The Diary of a Bookseller

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

The idea of running a bookshop can conjure romantic notions among certain bibliophiles. Wigtown, Scotland’s official Book Town and the setting of this memoir, has a bookshop that anyone can apply to run for a week throughout the year. Since opening it has never been short of volunteers eager to experience this aspect of the book trade. With the recent news that a bookshop in Wales has been given away as a raffle prize, the financial viability of high street bookselling must surely be under question. But what is the reality?

The Diary of a Bookseller takes the reader through one year in the life of a proprietor whose caustic honesty had already gained him notoriety with followers of the business on Facebook. Bythell readily admits to being naive when he purchased The Book Shop in 2001. He stocks mainly second hand titles and lives in a flat above the premises. Turnover is largely seasonal and profit insufficient to pay for additional full time staff. Thus the brunt of the work – finding stock, cataloguing, selling and otherwise disposing of books – falls to him.

Each work day has a short diary entry. Bythell observes his potential customers and shares with the reader his thoughts on behaviour. He comments on the part-time staff he employs and with whom he has a less than respectful relationship. He travels to view collections offered, often due to a house clearance and of varied worth. He shares his frustrations with the process of online book selling.

Bythell was raised near Wigtown and still has family in the area. He attended boarding school, has contacts in the wider national arts scene, and has friends who own fishing rights in sought after locations. Such privileges grant him access to interesting people and places but do little to ease the workload and stresses of running his business.

As part of the local community the author is involved in the annual literary festival, including opening up his home as a writers’ retreat. He has little patience with the successful scribes he hosts if they do not treat volunteers and staff with anything less than courtesy. This is an interesting attitude given his often volatile behaviour.

Entries during the festival offer further nuggets of dark humour.

“One year one of our house guests had a bath on the morning of the first day of the festival, and, through no fault of his, the bath drain started leaking the moment he pulled the plug, and a torrent of water crashed through from the bathroom, soaking the electric cooker, which exploded with a bang.”

The old building suffers many leaks, including water damage to a window display that resulted in mugs and other vessels being placed to catch drips. One customer offered their compliments unaware that it was not intentional.

There are other issues to contend with such as difficulty heating the building through winter. Customers come in out of the damp and cold, settle themselves in an armchair by the fire and read stock for an hour or so before leaving without buying. The piles of books they browse are left for staff to return to their shelves.

The descriptions of customer behaviour go a long way towards explaining the author’s exasperation with the people he encounters. As well as those who seek out books that they will then order from Amazon, or who price check against the behemoth and then ask for discounts, are the people who request a particular title and then, when it is located and proffered, inexplicably leave without purchasing. Others wander the stacks loudly declaring their love of books and how delightful this bookshop is before walking out empty handed. I feel relieved that when my daughter visited the shop a couple of years ago, she paid the asking price for the 1928 first edition she was after. Bythell reports that fewer people, either buying or selling, understand the worth of certain books in today’s market.

The strange titles of particular books customers seek are scattered throughout the pages: Sewage Disposal from Isolated Buildings anyone? or Donald McLeod’s Gloomy Memories? So strange did some of these titles appear that I became convinced the author was inventing. A quick check on Google suggests they do indeed exist.

A short comment piece at the beginning of each month in the diary is preceded by a quote from George Orwell’s Bookshop Memories from 1936. The author ponders if he should have read this book before committing to the business.

“It was not always thus, though, and before buying the shop I recall being quite amenable and friendly. The constant barrage of dull questions, the parlous finances of the business, the incessant arguments with staff and the unending, exhausting, haggling customers have reduced me to this. Would I change any of it? No.”

Any Cop?: Bythell’s experiences may serve as a salutary warning to readers who believe running a bookshop would be delightful. For the rest of us it is a wry, amusing account that offers a behind the scenes look at a high street business I hope can somehow, despite the behaviour of its contemporary customers, find a way to survive.

 

Jackie Law