In Review: The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell
Written by Diyar Keyhanfar
There’s always been a daydream sequence that I would waltz in and out of during lessons, when travelling on the northern line in London, on the train to York, when seating on a bench by the Ouse or the Thames and when thinking of my own characters and plots.
The daydream is simple: one of my characters works in a second hand bookshop as it rains outside and people find shelter in between the shelves and converse with her.
It’s romantic in many ways; feeling safe and isolated amongst books whilst they all contain hundreds and thousands of stories and facts, making you think that you might not be truly isolated. It’s romantic because the very idea of spending all your hours in a bookshop is the kind of escapism that anyone who’s ever picked up a book would crave every now and then. So many different places and people are living in the confines of printed papers and hard and soft covers, ready to drag you in and let you live in the simulated reality that you illustrate in your mind.
It’s quite the daydream.
So when I picked up Shaun Bythell’s The Diary of a Bookseller, I expected to read something that would contradict this idealised perception of what being a bookseller would be like, and I got just that.
Bythell’s epistolary novel is made up of his daily diary entries, all of which document his life as a bookseller at The Bookshop in Wigtown, Scotland. He expands beyond the shelves of books and makes a case for why books and bookshops are probably more vital than ever to us.
He documents his trips to others’ houses to price and buy their book collections and it’s absolutely bewildering to read how many do not realise that these mostly inherited collections should be treasured. He reads people just from observing what books they buy or don’t buy and at times seven their sense of style and the way they walk between the books and glance at their binds. He writes heartily about Amazon and online book purchasing and how they advance and damage independent bookshops.
The ongoing relationship with all facets of book business is something that he writes with love and despise, perfectly capturing the parts of bookselling that are not often thought about. The parts that do not have a place in the daydream or in a 90s romantic comedy (Well, You’ve Got Mail does show book business but, it’s no secret that that is not truly realistic).
Bythell is a quick-witted narrator and he communicates his joy of writing the diaries, as mundane as they may become at that point, very well. I tried reading the book in one day and about sixty pages in, I realised that this was not a book to be read at once. I would recommend that readers take their time with the book; read a diary entry or two a day and really embark on this day-to-day journey with Bythell.
With a usually rainy backdrop, a George Orwell motif, moments that remind you of Bernard Black from Black Books and a naughty cat, these diaries paint a sensual picture of Wigtown and its beloved bookshop and provide laughter and loathing, surprise and typicality and much sarcasm to enjoy or read only to pass time.
I can confirm that though The Diary of a Bookseller has provided me with too many truths about bookselling, the daydream has not been altered and will probably live on forevermore.
Here is a list of some cosy and warm bookshops in our lovely York: