Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 09 Oct 2017

Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell

Anyone who has ever worked in a book shop – second hand or not – will know that there is endless entertainment to be had from some of the more eccentric customers and colleagues you mingle with on a day to day basis. Going back some 40 years to my own experiences I have a very clear memory of the customer who diverted attention with some query about the edition of one book or another in order to steal the elastic bands we kept on the till. Or the man who loved to transcribe the printing and publishing details of the most mundane paperbacks into his tiny notebook, always writing in minute green script. Needless to say his promise that he’d return to buy the book never materialised. I could go on.

Quite a lot of book shop owners or workers have gone on to write more or less amusing squibs about their time behind the book shop counter – a few, like Brian Aldiss have done it very well and pretty much all of them owe some debt of gratitude to George Orwell’s acidic memoir of working in books. Shaun Bythell, owner of the biggest second hand bookshop in Wigtown has now added his name to the list.

Bythell’s year long set of diary entries is crammed with the usual array of laugh-out loud anecdotes and frustrations of being a bookseller and he’s enhanced the daily observations with some itemised breakdowns of how many books and customers came and went each day and what the till takings were. Often these numbers are frighteningly low if you like to think you could make a living from owning a second hand bookshop.

Bythell isn’t beyond striking a pose of his own. Taking a leaf from the Dylan Moran Black Books style of customer care, Bythell comes on as some part grumpy, some part hard-nosed and always seemingly bewildered as to why he’s ended up in the career he has. There’s plenty of evidence here though that he’s much more interesting and complex than this and I think it’s a shame we don’t get to see more of the man who loves the books and is capable of seeing the better side of his customers. The fact that the book was, to some degree generated by his Facebook entries which grew in popularity as he became more abusive about customers tells us something rather sad, I think, about the impact of social media. Translating that into book form does run the risk of the content becoming a rather spiteful tirade.

Bythell also has the pleasures of his rather flaky shop assistant to deal with. Nicky is, I guess, a bit of a hippy who doesn’t deal well with rules and subscribes to some of the nuttier fringe ideas – getting rid of anything from her home that uses electricity, for example. Her eating habits are genuinely vile.

I think this is strictly a book to dip into as diary entries, maybe reading two or three at a time, and in that way it will stay fresher. I think I made a mistake in reading this from cover to cover because by the end the fun of the anecdotes rather got lost and I was left feeling that I just wanted to hear that maybe selling books can be fun sometimes. It seems to be a default setting amongst book dealers that they moan about everything and I get a bit impatient about that. Clearly running a bookshop isn’t all roses but, even though I’m well aware of the downsides, I’m pretty convinced it’s not a bad life either as long as you don’t want to get rich.  

Shaun Bythell writes well enough and has a good line in sardonic commentary but I couldn’t help but think that the book could have been more than it is and that he’s got some really interesting things to say about the book trade, Amazon included. Not enough of that comes through for me and I’d rather those in the book business tried to encourage others to come into it rather than expending such efforts seemingly trying to deter anyone else from starting up a shop for themselves.


Terry Potter

October 2017