Personally I blame such television programmes as Antiques Roadtrip and Bargain Hunt. The general public seems to think they have the right to walk into a shop and say, “What’s the best you can do on this?”, a phrase rarely uttered in the big supermarkets or small corner-shops. Or as Bythell puts it, when being told that £20 is too expensive, “there’s a difference between a book being too expensive and a customer being too cheap”.
Time for the embarrassing full disclosure. Not only do I know Shaun, but I appear in this book (again). He is not someone given to generosity in his pen-portraits of the various locals of Wigtown and the slew of cranky customers, or indeed his staff, who often out-do him in rudeness, but he has been overly generous to me. I just worry about what to expect from a third volume. But since I do know him, and Wigtown, and many of the people (especially “Eliot”, the director of the Wigtown Book Festival, who is allowed a pseudonym when others are not), I can testify to the truth of much of this book. Reader, I was there.
In this instalment, and I think we must now think of them as an ongoing series, there are three major differences. Each month is prefaced by a quote from Augustus Muir’s The Intimate Thoughts Of John Baxter, Bookseller (Methuen & Co, London, 1942). The first thing I did when reading this was to go to the British Library’s catalogue because, unfairly, I was fairly sure that Bythell has made it up. It is in fact a real book. Thereafter comes a brief essay on the state of the second-hand, antiquarian and rare book trade, and then a tally of the number of online orders received and the number of online orders found. This is an eloquent way to show how much has changed.
Bythell knows me well enough to know that I wouldn’t falsely puff a book (I never provide pre-publication endorsements on point of principle). His prose has a languorous lilt to it which is in keeping; there are days where you get a sense of “I just can’t be bothered”. One entry just reads “Callum in again”, another “Spent the day in Edinburgh”. But the best parts are irreverently funny and only borderline legal (reproducing emails from irate customers, for example).
If The Intimate Thoughts Of John Baxter, Bookseller was a Pooterish satire on reality, what Confessions Of Bookseller manages to do is show reality as satire. For those who enjoyed the previous volume, several people (not characters) are still around, such as Nicky, the Jehovah’s Witness who has a ritual called “Foodie Friday” that involves food – usually cakes – salvaged from a supermarket bin. “Eliot” is back, as is “Anna”, his now ex-girlfriend and Captain, the obese cat. But given the nature of the trade and the turnover of staff, there are also new figures. “Granny” is an Italian woman who comes to work in the shop with Fawlty Towers-style consequences and allows Bythell to quote some of the highlights of NE Genzardi’s The English Tourist In Italy, such as how to say “I have never known so avaricious a man as you” and “Your ill-bred friends gathered all the ripe peaches in my garden, and took them away”. There is also Flo, who seems to vie with Bythell in terms of sheer exasperation.
The break-up with “Anna” is actually rather affectingly described, and if Bythell can be abrupt with his customers, he is certainly not self-serving in terms of writing about what he sees as his own failures and weaknesses. It strikes me that many of the best comic books have an undertow of melancholy. The other sadness throughout is that certain online companies are squeezing profits in every conceivable way. The good thing about The Bookshop is you find what you didn’t know you wanted, rather being nudged into “other buyers also bought”.
But the best parts are the offhand, almost unbelievable encounters. “A man, who I assume was the children’s father, asked ‘Is it called The Bookshop because it’s full of books?’ How do these people feed themselves?” The very next day there is this phone call: “Eh, I’m calling from Scunthorpe in England. I’m looking for a book which has a story about my grandfather in it. He was a famous poacher.” “OK, well can you tell me what the book is called?” “Eh? No, I don’t know what it’s called. I know what he was called, though.” “Right, so you want me to read every book in the shop until I spot his name in one of them?” “Eh, that’s very kind of you.” That has kept me giggling all week. Stuart Kelly
Confessions Of A Bookseller, by Shaun Bythell, Profile, £16.99