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The Diary of a Bookseller

Review

The Diary of a Bookseller

I’m proud and very grateful to report that a handful of authentic, locally owned independent bookshops are still scattered around the core of my mid-sized Southern Ontario twinned city. One sells mostly new books, and the rest sell mostly used ones.

When I walk into any of them from one week to the next, I can recognize the same dedicated people behind the counter or in the stacks, working as if their jobs are not mere employment, but a vocation whose urgent mission is to preserve the noble but slowly dying art of mindful reading. I’ve often wondered what drives them on to persevere. And now, thanks to Shaun Bythell’s THE DIARY OF A BOOKSELLER, much has been revealed, leaving me simultaneously humbled and enlightened.

If I were to combine some of the eccentricities, mannerisms, attitudes and expressed opinions of my fine local booksellers about the current state of their chosen profession, I might come close to the bravely outrageous Bythell, who leaves few warts hidden in this gem of a book.

"[THE DIARY OF A BOOKSELLER is] the best inducement I’ve ever come across to set aside my occasional flirtation with e-readers, walk into a bookstore and get my hands on the real thing."

In 2004, almost on a whim, he bought Scotland’s oldest and largest second-hand bookstore in the remote coastal village of Wigtown, which has since become world-famous for its proliferation of niche book retailers and an annual literary festival.

In a recent (early October 2018) interview on Scottish radio, marking the first anniversary of THE DIARY OF A BOOKSELLER’s UK publication, Bythell confides that his outspoken, hilarious and thought-provoking memoir --- a literal diary, kept from February 2014 through February 2015 --- was first intended to be a therapeutic aide memoire for a more serious book sometime in the undetermined future.

After a hard day (it seems all of them are hard, in one way or another), it gave him an outlet far preferable to banging his head against the concrete columns of piled tomes that grace The Book Shop’s doorway, posting uncensored social media rants, or going insane. It turns out that Bythell’s daily entries about random people and events that caught his attention, interest, admiration or ire stood up so well that with a few discreet language adjustments and name changes, it went to publication almost as is.

Besides regaling the reader with character sketches (ranging from brutally honest to startling poignancy) of customers, clients, staff, friends, literary notables, the store cat and others, THE DIARY OF A BOOKSELLER reveals just how physically, financially and emotionally demanding running a bookshop can be.

Many times a year, Bythell leaves his business in the dubious hands of dangerously independent staff or barely trained volunteers, driving his overworked van near and far to purchase book collections sight unseen, on the chance that they’ll contain more treasure than trash. Like his retail colleagues in Wigtown and elsewhere, he depends on the vagaries of weather, the tourist season, festivals and various major holidays in which to make enough income to tide him over the long Scottish winters when customers hibernate (hopefully reading through the books they purchased over the summer). The seasonal risks of the business are revealed in the till totals at the end of each day’s entry; many days result in two-digit sales, paltry in either pounds sterling or dollars.

Another significant statistic in THE DIARY OF A BOOKSELLER precedes each day’s reflections --- a count of “online orders” and “books found.” On a good day, the two numbers are the same. On a bad day, his reputation in cyberspace may plummet to “fair.”

Like so many independent booksellers who rightly feel economically threatened and bullied by giant international enterprises such as X (like Voldemort, it cannot be named), Bythell is also reluctantly dependent on the e-commerce network, which brings in daily orders from around the globe. But the worst of it is watching walk-in customers go to his shelves with iPads in hand, pick out a book they want, check for a lower price online, and (usually) leave without buying a thing. I’ve even seen this unspeakably rude practice going on in a couple of my favorite local bookstores.

Yet, after a decade-and-a-half, The Book Shop in Wigtown still sails on with Bythell at its helm, far from insane but admirably notorious.

THE DIARY OF A BOOKSELLER isn’t the only captivating memoir of life spent in this glorious but all-consuming profession. For our times, however, it's the best inducement I’ve ever come across to set aside my occasional flirtation with e-readers, walk into a bookstore and get my hands on the real thing.

If we all did that at least once a month, places like The Book Shop in whatever town we call home will still be around for the next generation of readers.

Reviewed by Pauline Finch on October 12, 2018

The Diary of a Bookseller
by Shaun Bythell

  • Publication Date: September 4, 2018
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Melville House
  • ISBN-10: 1612197248
  • ISBN-13: 9781612197241