Confessions of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell
Bythell owns Scotland’s largest secondhand bookshop in the self-proclaimed Book Town of Wigtown in Galloway, south-west Scotland. His book Diary of a Bookseller (reviewed here) was a big hit in 2017, and for anyone returning for this second volume, it is comfortingly more of the same. The first volume covered 2014, and Confessions… it’s sequel takes up where it left off starting on New Year’s Day 2015.
Once again, Bythell prefaces each month with a quotation – this time, they all come from a spoof diary of a bookseller published in 1942 by one Augustus Muir. These and Bythell’s subsequent comments make great introductions to the month’s diary entries. Once again, each day is bookended by stats: beginning with the number of online orders for the day and the number of books located, ending with the till total £ taken and the number of customers. I must say that these figures are endlessly fascinating, some days the customers can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and may spend less than a tenner each, on other days there could be 17 spending over £25 a head, and many more customers during the Wigtown Book Festival in September – but typically spending £10-£15 each. There are the days of zero online orders, often indicating that online systems are playing up – how frustrating is that.
Interesting as the figures are, it’s the characters that Bythell describes that really get us going. There are the customers of course, from the enigmatic regular known as ‘Mole Man’ who never says a word, to all the silly requests and haggling. Of them all though, it was supermarket skip-scavenging Jehovah’s Witness Nicky whom I was most looking forward to meeting again. She didn’t disappoint as the most unique of shop assistants – that is until Emanuela comes on the scene. When Bythell is contacted by an Italian woman looking for work experience, he says yes – but for board and lodgings only. Emanuela duly arrives and proceeds to eat him out of house and home, but is determined to learn some English, she has very little at the start which is a problem for everyone. I forget how she earns her nickname of Granny, but she was as endearing to this volume as Nicky was to the former, and she fell in love with the place too, ironically fitting right in.
Sadly, this year he split with his American partner Anna; he says they remain friends, but although he loves the idea of a relationship and a family, he is a commitment-phobe. Luckily, he obviously has a great group of friends to take his mind off this missed chance, and he’s endlessly hospitable to them – not quite the curmudgeon he’d have us all believe he is. Although this second volume of diaries is based upon events that occurred before the first volume was published, and it is hard to tell how much rewriting went on in the editing process, he has definitely become willing to share more about himself with us, which ultimately made Confessions of a Bookseller a better book than the first, and I loved the first. If Bythell and his publisher continue to produce further volumes, it’ll be interesting to catch up with the books’ genesis and how they have improved his fortunes, if indeed they have. (9.5/10)
Source: Review copy – thank you!
Shaun Bythell, Confessions of a Bookseller (Profile, 2019), hardback, 336 pages.