Confessions of a Bookseller

From The Wall Street Journal:

In the coastal Scotland community of Wigtown, tourists can pay to operate a bookstore called The Open Book for a week or two and live in an upstairs apartment, fulfilling their dream to run their own bookshop. The rental attraction is typically booked years ahead, proving that running a bookstore is a popular dream for bibliophiles.

Wigtown, known for its many bookstores, is also home to Shaun Bythell, who’s owned the prosaically named The Book Shop—“Largest in Scotland”—since 2001. Mr. Bythell has a more cautionary view of the business, as he made clear in “The Diary of a Bookseller,” published in an American edition in 2018, and “Confessions of a Bookseller,” just out in a U.S. edition, too. “Confessions,” which like its predecessor unfolds in the form of a daily journal, excels at the same kind of acid comedy that made “Diary” such a guilty treat. Those who can’t peruse the shelves of their local second-hand bookstore during this lockdown season will find Mr. Bythell’s diaries a sharp reminder of what they’re missing. But it’s probably better to shop at a bookstore than to own one, or so readers gather from Mr. Bythell’s wryly observed accounts of his tribulations in the trade.

In “Diary,” the 40-something author takes as his muse a 1936 George Orwell essay, “Bookshop Memories,” in which Orwell pointed to his time as a bookstore clerk as a personal purgatory. For outsiders, Orwell noted, old bookshops can easily seem “a kind of paradise where charming old gentlemen browse eternally among calf-bound folios.” In reality, Orwell countered, bookstores draw a lot of hapless souls “because a bookshop is one of the few places where you can hang about for a long time without spending any money.” Dealing with this clientele, Mr. Bythell writes, has turned quite a few bookshop owners into “a stereotype of the impatient, intolerant, antisocial proprietor.” He counts himself among them. “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,” Mr. Bythell tells readers.

In his diary, though, Mr. Bythell gets the last word. His wicked pen and keen eye for the absurd recall what comic Ricky Gervais might say if he ran a bookshop. A “short man with a wispy beard” buys a copy of “The Hobbit,” which suggests a theory: “I am putting a mental jigsaw together,” Mr. Bythell writes, “of what a hobbit looks like, based on a composite of every customer I have ever sold a copy to.” 

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

2 thoughts on “Confessions of a Bookseller”

  1. Wigtown is not a million miles away from me although sadly I won’t be going there for a while as our lockdown continues. A very beautiful little town. But you’ve got to admire the barefaced cheek and the initiative of the person who gets people to pay to run the shop. And to be fair, a week or two isn’t long enough for disillusionment to set in. We used to run a crafts and pottery shop many years ago. Large turnover, but massively hard work for small profits. The buying was fun. Everything else not so much. People who have never worked in retail always seem to have false ideas about it.

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