A friend who plies his trade as a bookseller in Cornwall tells me that the only person who can compete with his level of physical grunt work, humping boxes into his van and armfuls of dusty books onto his shelves, is the local dry-stone waller. In Wigtown, Scotland, where Shaun Bythell scrapes a living in his draughty second-hand bookshop, dry-stone walls are called dykes, as he reminds us, but the principle is the same. This is the second book Bythell has got out of his travails and his back is beginning to feel the strain.
Bythell runs a second-hand bookshop so you don’t have to. Each day begins with a tally of books ordered online against books found on the shelves (they rarely match) and ends with a count of the meagre till receipts. Confessions of a Bookseller is in a line of descent from James Herriot’s books describing life as a Yorkshire vet. Picturesque scenery, hard work in uncomfortable surroundings, eccentric locals, the yearly round: all the ingredients for a gentle human comedy are here, as soothing as a bag of boiled sweets and just as tempting to dip into.
Bythell glowers past his till at a world in slow free fall. His staff and customers alike regard him as a curmudgeonly enigma. Internet uploads fail, customers annoy him with impossible requests and fatuous observations, a massive rock crashes through his leaky roof. Bythell’s suppliers of saleable stock are a fading, ghostly crew, forever succumbing to dementia, old age and death. Around his rainy southwestern tip of Scotland lie desolate lands, bereft of manufacturing. His peers are self-employed and the most common form of economic exchange is barter. The salmon are dwindling and his father, his lifelong fishing companion, thinks he won’t renew his lease on the river. All the while the behemoth Amazon continues to gnaw away at the second-hand book trade.
Yet not all is gloom. Bythell has fibre optic broadband, which is probably faster in Wigtown than in central London, and from the port at Stranraer he can cruise across the water to prosperous Belfast and be back with a vanload of sellable stock the next day. Thanks to the Gulf Stream, he can bathe in the sea by the low hills and rocky coastline to soothe his grumpy soul. The annual literary festival brings life and custom to the town, and there is always the pleasure of another baffling customer to laugh at over a glass or two with friends.
Meanwhile, his fame grows gently, making life easier in some ways. It certainly provides him with the most memorable character in this book, for how else are we to account for the sudden arrival of Granny, a potty-mouthed Italian student who enlivens his narrative? Presumably she offered to work for him wage-free because his fame had spread far beyond Wigtownshire. If there’s a whiff of ’Allo ’Allo to the resulting verbal comedy, it’s redeemed by the generosity of spirit in their friendship.
The most noticeable omission from Bythell’s first book, The Diary of a Bookseller, was any sense of what literature means to him. Now he has relaxed, unworried that his admiration for, say, William Boyd doesn’t take him far outside the mainstream. There are risks, of course, to having strong opinions about the books you sell. A bookshop owner is unqualified to be a literary critic. It’s more useful to know the distinguishing features of the first edition of The Pickwick Papers than to have read the bloody thing, and it’s always best not to bandy lit crit across the counter. Bythell keeps his commentaries light. Deciding to read Martin Amis for the first time, he tries Time’s Arrow. Impressed by the narrative device of time going backwards, he is inspired to tackle something by Kingsley next.
Now Bythell’s first book is to become a television series, his publisher claims, and ironies abound. No doubt a team of writers will be working to beef up Bythell’s on-again-off-again relationship with his American girlfriend and praying that he overcomes his fear of commitment. Hardy folk in cagoules will make pilgrimages to see the fabled proprietor in action. Meanwhile Amazon, which Bythell rails against, continues to provide him with a virtual platform to market his wares (including his ‘Death to Kindle’ mugs) and promote his writing. What Bythell may dislike most is the fact that his book, with its conventional structure and short daily entries, is pretty much perfect for reading on a Kindle.