Rating 5 stars
Weezelle at Words and Leaves recommended Shaun Bythell’s memoir of running The Book Shop in Wigtown before I’d been to Wigtown or knew The Book Shop existed. Indeed, when I visited by accident in 2018 on the way home from a holiday the other side of the Galloway Forest, diverted by the Misogynist in Chief sojourning at his gaudy golf shack, I didn’t even realise that the book Weezelle had recommended was about that shop.
I picked up my copy of the book for free from the Sedbergh Book Shelter later that same year and that’s when I made the connection.
I’d added the book to my 20 Books of Summer list, intending to read it ahead of our next holiday to Scotland. I only managed 9 books from that list because I kept getting distracted by books from the library. But I’m still going on holiday to Scotland and we’re planning to visit Wigtown on purpose this time. Wigtown is so lovely that visiting it by accident made us vow to go back.
I loved The Book Shop for its mezzanine bed, its labyrinthine layout and its vast range of books on every subject imaginable. I was also a little overwhelmed by it because bookshops tend to overwhelm me when I don’t approach them with a plan, especially large sprawling bookshops. I did come away with a beautiful Folio Society edition of Death Comes for the Archbishop, though.
All of which is to say that reading about The Book Shop having accidentally visited it has been fascinating. I now know why there’s a mezzanine bed. I also know how hard Bythell works to keep the shop afloat.
That has been the most interesting part of the book for me: reading about what is involved in running a secondhand bookshop. Bythell is by turns entertaining on the subject and philosophical about it. He seems to derive an odd pleasure from the customers who come into the shop, particularly the cranks and eccentrics. At times he finds them infuriating, at others there’s affection for how odd they are.
Bythell describes himself as transforming from an amenable, friendly person into a variation on Bernard Black, and it’s all down to the bookshop.
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. Would I change any of it? No.
I used to take part in the 50 Books reading challenge group on LibraryThing, where I would chat with an American secondhand bookseller called Jerry. He was always keen to let people know that being a bookseller wasn’t the idyll that most readers of books think it is. Bythell makes the same case for it not necessarily being a dream job, just because you like reading. If you think you want to run a bookshop, I recommend reading Bythell’s account of what it’s like.
There are perks, in the form of the library at your fingertips that means you can pluck a book from the shelf as soon as it takes your fancy and the way in which you can instantly spin off down a bookish rabbit hole following recommendations and references in other books you read. Bythell also talks movingly of the privilege it can be to get to know strangers through the books they leave behind. He likens the book collections of the dead to a form of literary DNA, providing clues to who they were as people. Sometimes, as in the case of the farming couple who had no children, their book collection is all they leave behind as a record of who they were. I hadn’t thought of books in that way before. Like Bythell, I will probably start looking at other people’s bookshelves in a different way, still with an eye out for things I can borrow but also with a curiosity about what their books reveal about them as people. I’m blind to my own books, of course, but now I wonder whether visitors to our house know things about me from my bookshelves that I don’t know that I’m revealing.
I was fascinated by Bythell’s necessary relationship with Amazon, too. There is a tension for booksellers between loathing this mega company that seeks to absorb the entirety of the retail world and needing to use it to sell books online that wouldn’t shift in the shop. Bythell describes Amazon at one point as being like a boss in the workplace, removing the independence of its pseudo-employees by criticising their lack of sales performance and threatening to sack them. I had a similar conversation the other day with someone who runs their own record label and needs to use Amazon as an online shop window to increase their exposure to the music buying public. I would hate to be in that position, reliant on Amazon for the sustainability of my livelihood, knowing that Amazon’s ultimate intent is to destroy me through assimilation of that livelihood.
But I am in a similar position in relation to ebooks in that my ereader is a Kindle, I have 100s of books on it, none of which I would be able to access if I moved to a less proprietary ereader. I mainly use it to buy weighty tomes that I don’t want to carry in physical form on my commute and books that aren’t published in the UK that other bloggers’ reviews of make me need. Amazon makes it too easy for an avid reader like me to buy books in electronic form. I’m glad of things like Project Gutenberg, where I can find out of copyright works in the Kindle format, but I’m aware that I have a bit of Amazon embedded in my life now. I try not to use Amazon to buy physical books, preferring to find them in independent bookshops or at the very least Waterstone’s.
Bythell reminded me, though, of the role Waterstone’s played in ending the Net Book Agreement and the impact that had on independent booksellers as well as on publishers. In some ways, Waterstone’s is as culpable as Amazon for making life harder for independent booksellers. Waterstone’s at least has staff who can advise on books, but their ability to discount books is a negative pressure on smaller shops who can’t compete. Much as Waterstone’s can’t compete with Amazon’s slashed prices.
Bythell’s attitude towards his customers made me reflect on who I am as a customer. I’m a reserved introvert who prefers not to engage in conversation but I have the skills to do it when necessary. I sometimes feel, in shops like Bythell’s, that I’m somehow under scrutiny for my right to be there and that I need to put on a performance somehow. What I really want is to slip under the radar and come away with literary treasure with minimal human interaction. Perhaps some of the customers that Bythell finds so painful are the same.
Some of them aren’t, of course. Some of them are self appointed experts who want to show off their erudition. Others seem to want to engage with the bookseller, to feel they are part of a community, not realising that a bookseller’s main job is to sell books and know their stock, not share the enthusiasms of every person who comes through the door. As an archivist who looks after a wide ranging collection, I sympathise with Bythell on this. I only really need to know what is in the collection so that I can point a researcher towards relevant source material. I often find myself on the receiving end of their passion for their subject, expected to be as enthusiastic about it as they are. Sometimes that’s a really hard thing to do.
That’s the social contract, though, I guess. Close friends and family aside, our interactions with each other are fleeting and require us to feign interest in order to navigate safe passage to the next social interaction. Occasionally, we do share interests with each other, making life that little bit more fun.
Bythell’s description of the subscribers to his Random Book Club made me smile. He set up a forum for subscribers to discuss the books they receive.
… nobody uses it, which gives me an insight into the type of person who is attracted to the idea – they don’t like clubs where they have to interact with other people.
That sounds like me. I gave up on the LibraryThing reading challenge group because of the conversations I felt I had to have with other participants. It felt like a competition. It’s why I’ve never joined a reading group. Too much pressure. My blog is different because I see it as a place to record my thoughts on books I’ve read and if other people gain something from my ramblings and want a chat it’s a bonus.
One thing in the book that definitely isn’t me are the people who try to haggle over the price on a book. Why would you do that? It’s a secondhand book. The bookseller has priced it according to its rarity and condition. And this is their livelihood. I love a bargain and have been known to haggle when I thought the shop I was buying from might cut a deal, but to me asking a bookseller to give me a discount because I’m buying four books is like asking a greengrocer for a deal because I’m buying four potatoes. Fair play to Bythell, he often engages with these hagglers but his offer is never enough. If I were in his shoes the first thing I’d install at the till would be a sign saying “No haggling”.
Quite delightfully during the course of the book, Bythell reads two of the titles with which my now husband wooed me back when we were merely ‘going out’: Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. I’m always delighted when I come across references to these books in other people’s reading matter. The other book through which my canny husband captured my heart was Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. Bythell doesn’t mention that one, but he did remind me that I’ve yet to read Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls.
I loved the depiction of life in Wigtown and the regular characters that pepper Bythell’s life, from his eccentric assistant Nicky to fellow shopkeeper and dour Ulsterman William, who Bythell takes pleasure in engaging in trivial conversation just to see his discomfort, via the 93 year old woman who rings to order books and remind Bythell that she’s blind, Nicky’s unrequited and Brut 33 doused paramour, and dear Mr Deacon whose condition, revealed at the end of the book, I saw coming. I felt like I was there in the shop sharing in their lives. I was sorry to finish reading. The good news is that Bythell’s sequel, Confessions of a Bookseller, is out soon in hardback. And I’ll be back in the shop in a matter of weeks armed with a list of books, hoping to see Captain the cat asleep in a box somewhere.