This week my guilty pleasure has been reading Shaun Bythell’s The Diary of a Bookseller. I am so engrossed in Bythell’s diary that I have put off finishing a work project. Bythell owns Scotland’s largest second-hand bookstore, The Bookshop, in Wigtown, which is designated a National Book Town and the home of the Wigtown Book Festival. His diary entries are short, curmudgeonly, and witty, and I am absorbed by this insider’s view of bookselling.
We’d all love to own a bookstore, or so we think, but the business isn’t always easy. Bythell identifies with George Orwell, who wrote in his essay, “Bookshop Memories,” about the difficulties of working in a bookstore. Indeed, Orwell may be the inspiration for much of this book. Orwell enjoyed some parts of the job, but was glad on the whole to have left. Bythell stays, but understands Orwell.
Bythell begins the book with an epigraph from Orwell. Then he writes,
Orwell’s reluctance to commit to bookselling is understandable. There is a stereotype of the impatient, intolerant, antisocial proprietor –played so perfectly by Dylan Moran in Black Books –and it seems (on the whole) to be true.There are exceptions of course, and many booksellers do not conform to this type. Sadly, I do. It was not always thus, though, and before buying the shop I recall being quite amenable and friendly. 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.
Bythell makes a bare living, mostly from the store rather than online sales, which I find encouraging, but he lives above his shop, as so many used bookstore owners do. The difference between Bythell and the (obviously) older semi-Luddite booksellers of my acquaintance? Bythell has Facebook, where he writes about customer behavior. One day, he hears a woman whisper to her friend to shut up or they’d get written up. His amusing descriptions of eccentric customers are riveting: the chatty customers, the smelly (some of whom have great taste in books), the hagglers, and, finally, the happy bibliophiles who spend money.
I enjoy reading about his eccentric part-time employee, Nicky, a Jehovah’s witness who seldom follows his instructions and sometimes shelves Charles Darwin in the fiction section. Driving to estates to assess the worth of a personal library sounded fun, until I learned it often means buying not just the books you can sell but the whole lot.
But perhaps he is most interesting about the changes in bookselling in the 21st century. In the UK Amazon is always the enemy–perhaps we have a bigger variety of online sellers here– and online bookselling has changed the business. The huge used booksellers with no overhead can sell in bulk very cheaply, so the prices have come down for everyone. And the ratings can be erratic. We’ve heard about writers’ frustrations with online ratings, but I never thought much about booksellers (because I never rate them).
Today an Amazon customer emailed about a book called Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing? His complaint: ‘I have not received my book yet. Please resolve this matter. So far I did not write any review about your service.’ This thinly veiled threat is increasingly common, thanks to Amazon feedback, and unscrupulous customers have been known to use it to negotiate partial and even full refunds when they have received the book they ordered.
I feel a bit like Janus: I see both sides of the online selling problem. As a non-driver in the Midwest, online shopping has been a blessing for me, because it saves me hours of bicycling or changing buses to go to malls that don’t have what I want. Like most of us, I’ve flirted with eBay and have sold a few books online. Usually it’s fine, but we sold a brand-new pristine Penguin hardcover edition of Middlemarch, which I couldn’t read because the print was too small for me! It was never read, in perfect shape. The buyer wrote angrily that the book was beaten-up and scribbled in. Really? By whom? we wondered. We gave him a refund, and we did ask him to return it, but clearly that isn’t going to happen. So he got a free book. Was it worth it?
And is that why I’m not a bookseller?
I’m a happy reader and book buyer, though, and that’s what matters.