Shaun Bythell’s Diary of a Bookseller: On reading, retail, and regrets

Shaun Bythell’s Diary of a Bookseller: On reading, retail, and regrets

In case you’re beside yourself with curiosity, there is more than a smidge of Dylan Moran’s gorgeously disheveled elegance in this scrupulous account of a small-town bookshop’s daily comings and goings. However, to slap on Shaun Bythell’s narrator a generic “misanthrope” label would be a cruel negation of the devotion, patience, and more than the occasional act of clemency bestowed upon rude customers, insubordinate employees, and the merciless meat grinder of online retail. To own and operate a bookshop, in case it’s not already painfully clear in the era of Amazon blitzkrieg on all manner of retail, one must sweep away the idealist confetti of fantasies in which a bookseller is a sagely wizard, sprinkling his paperback and hardcover magic onto the souls hardened by their routines and devices, awakening that proverbial inner child, thawing the frost of transactional interactions, breathing life back into the community, blah blah blah. No. That never happens maybe once or twice a year. The rest of the time it’s long hours, slobs, curmudgeons, cheapskates, ingrates, tech failures, estimating, pricing, haggling, packing, lifting, and delivering of boxes across and beyond the quiet corner of southwest Scotland where this heaving epicentre of literary activity is situated. Wigtown and The Book Shop (and its allegedly obese cat) are very much real (and tantalizingly cozy as per Google Maps), which makes the sardonic everyday encounters even more hilarious:

“When the old man in the crumpled suit came to the counter to pay for the copy of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, I discreetly pointed out that his fly was open. He glanced down – as if for confirmation of this – then looked back at me and said, ‘A dead bird can’t fall out of its nest,’ and left the shop, fly still agape.” 

There’s more Rabelaisian stuff in here:

“The source of the shit became the subject of discussion for the rest of the day. Nicky leading the investigation with forensic scrutiny, which included rifling through the bin to retrieve it so that she could measure it. She became increasingly convinced that an elderly visitor had done it without noticing, and that it had slipped down their trouser leg. Other theories included the suggestion that it was actually icing from my birthday cake, which Anna has made. When Stuart suggested that the turn may have been Captain’s, Nicky’s instant and vituperative response was, ‘Nae chance, the bore’s wrong.'” 

Beyond assorted bits of hilarity, what is bound to spur sentimentality is a substantial quantity of episodes on the subject of legacy, heritage, death, bereavement, and the lifecycle of books as they pass hands, like orphaned treasures, sometimes for centuries. There is a particularly moving account of a two-volume Decameron finding a new home with a young woman after lingering for God knows how long in a sad little flat after coming to Scotland’s shores once upon a time in a suitcase of a courageous Italian immigrant. We die, but books stay for a wee bit longer, retaining the micro doses of our hands’ warmth deep within their pages. That’s where the bookseller comes in, the dutiful ferryman between the dead and their books which go on living…

At present, the scythe of ecommerce is merciless and methodical, so the following encounter with a witless customer seems increasingly less daft and ever more existential:

“One of the new customers was a woman who spent ten minutes wandering around the shop before coming to the counter and asking, ‘So what is The Book Shop? Do you sell the books or what? Do people just come in and take them?’ Temporarily stupefied, I was unable to answer. Thankfully, she broke the silence and ploughed on, ‘I am not from here, I am a tourist. Do people just hand you the books in? What happens in here? Is that what happens in here?'”

“Retailpocalypse” was declared by business savants two years before the pandemic has delivered its deathly punches. The future is foggy, but in the meantime Shaun Bythell has two new books out. Marvelous.

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