Shaun Bythell’s The Diary of a Bookseller (Profile Books) begins with two touchstones, ‘Bookshop Memories’ an essay by George Orwell on the world of bookselling published in 1936 and Jen Campbell’s 2012 book Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops (Constable). Orwell’s essay, written from personal experience in Hampstead in the mid-1930s, is woven throughout Bythell’s year long reflection on the life of Wigtown’s largest second-hand bookshop. The reader comes to see the eery common ground Orwell identifies in Bythell’s monthly reflections on different points from this essay. Onesuch is a rumination of Orwell’s that the second-hand bookshop was ‘so easily pictured, if you do not work in one, as a kind of paradise where charming old gentlemen browse eternally among calf-bound folios’. Bythell joins in qualifying this dream with a partial glimpse of the

‘constant barrage of dull questions, the parlous finances… the incessant arguments with staff and the unending, exhausting, haggling customers’.

Nevertheless, passion shines through, and the passions of bookbuyer and bookseller remain.

Jen Campbell’s bookshop miscellany is now as much canonical read as a myth we live by as our own customers in Grasmere frequently reference, self-aware to the point that bookshops are now recognised as deliberate destinations for quirky comments or have positively taken on soliciting such contributions. All summer spending time at the bookface in Sam Read’s whilst reading the trials of a Wigtown bookseller has left me wondering aloud why bookshops provide this material (see also cloak and dagger blogs like The Secret Bookseller). The self-propagating nature of books on bookshops provide both everyday observation and memoir but would we happily find the same in a Diary of a Butcher or a Diary of an Artisan Cheese Retailer? Would these provide such rich ballast for an insight into the lives of sales assistants and buyers alike? Whilst I’ve persuaded myself I’m ready for these retail memoirs, the bookshop’s role as a universal space of enquiry means that customers are inclined towards ever more esoteric, engaging and creative behaviour as much as reading. A familiarity is frequently displayed that other retail environments seem not to encourage. Bythell relates an April visit from a man who ‘asked “you don’t sell books do you?” then laughed uproariously’. That day 13 paying customers visited his shop. I was thinking of this exchange when first thing this morning, a September visitor to Grasmere walked around Sam Read’s, ended an immersive mobile phone conversation near the walking guides and then promptly stumbled fully into a book display before happily laughing aloud as she strolled out into the sunshine. Sure, we’ve had our fair number of requests for ducks, ice cream or directions to the Beatles’ house but the real spectrum is in response to the shop itself. For every booklover who visits there are a number who seem worried to have found themselves amongst bookshelves.

Here it’s worth considering how Bythell’s accounts and the brief notes I’ve traced above skirt a tricky line between good-natured absurdity or farce and outright misanthropy. The confidences given in The Diary also point to the perils of sharing anecdotes. In early June, Bythell receives a facebook message which suggests widely sharing any such customer exchanges is ‘a childishly backhanded way of being rude behind your customers’ backs’. Tempering this possibility, Bythell’s book illustrates the rounded life of a year in the shop, how bibliocuriosity can cross from a book search for a customer to a whole new line of reading. If bookshops can be absurd or worrying places they can also become incredibly caring, supportive spaces. The Bookshop in Wigtown plays host to regular customers who form differing degrees of friendship with Bythell. These sorts of friendship are professional but unusually intimate given that they involve the sharing of information that is often highly personal… that is to say, reading habits. Confessions of this sort may occur in libraries but the economics of bookselling add more risk to these dealings and the building of trust seems necessary to gain a many-sided understanding of both party’s ideas of literary value. Bythell’s adventures in book buying, conducting viewings and appraisals of collections are another unique dimension here and one that carries an air of ‘Through the Keyhole’. In a similar way The Diary records the shifting reading habits of everyday readers and traces their remarks, determining a real pulse of lived cultural lives. If a publisher wants to gain intense market knowledge, being a mole in a shop for a couple of weeks is a brilliant scheme (and conveniently one the Bookseller’s Association has been pushing over the last year under the stewardship of Rosamund de la Hey).

As part of the cultural life of a place, Bythell’s diary is part local history, part love letter to ‘Scotland’s forgotten corner’. Whilst reading I was reminded of a song I heard performed by Robyn Stapleton at the Wigtown Festival in 2014 (I was partially reading this book fearing that a rangy balding Englishman’s embarrassing failures at the year’s festival Ceilidh would merit a passing remark but thankfully these observations go unrecorded). The song invited the traveller to ‘catch a bus to dearest Galloway’ and the back-story to it, if I hazily recall with any accuracy, involved a competition run by the local tourist board. Bythell’s own experiments in marketing the shop seem also to be about marketing the place as the two become entwined in the virtual world of the internet. The excellent musical video ‘Readers’ Delight’ is evidence of this creative flair, and also evidence of the world of the bookshop staff so vividly accounted for in The Diary. However the online world of bookselling is a different case, with the punitive costs of online bookselling and the minefield of online feedback painting a much starker portrait of contemporary retail. The fluctuating life of the bricks n mortar shop is similarly candid, with diary entries ending with the day’s takings clearly posted. These figures illustrate the great importance of the Wigtown Festival to trade… what is termed here as ‘the last gasp before the long winter of penury’.

Regular customers are named, developing personalities. However the standout heroes of the book are Nicky, the ideal idiosyncratic bookseller and Captain the well-fed #Bookshopcat. It was no surprise to follow up a thread in Bythell’s reading, by tracking down Will Y. Darling’s wonderfully titled 1930s books on the Bankrupt Bookseller and to find Darling’s fictional bookseller waxing lyrical on the role of the Bookshop cat. The discovery of Darling’s pooter-esque fictional memoir of an Edinburgh bookseller is another wonderful outcome from this book about the joys of reading and of serendipity. Other literary references crop up in visits from Sally Magnusson, Robin Ince, Sara Maitland and Margaret Drabble but it’s a mark of the book that the real hook is in the repetition and subtle variation of everyday life from one bookshop in the booktown of Wigtown.

*Necessary commercial bulletin – Shaun Bythell’s The Diary of a Bookseller is now available at Sam Read’s, Grasmere.

— Will Smith

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