Shaun Bythel’s The Diary of a Bookseller (London: Profile Books, 2018)
Reviewer: ESA member Wendi B: As an initial disclaimer I have to admit that this isn’t the kind of book I would have been inclined to purchase, let alone read. A diary? About a shop? Hmmm… yet Santa with all his infinite wisdom apparently knows me better.
Well, you love books, don’t you? Gosh knows you have enough of them. I thought you were collecting them. And I’ve never known you to walk past a bookshop – so you better read it!
Needless to say, after I finally did get around to picking it up in the new year, I couldn’t put this book down. Let’s start with the cover: the image beautifully sums up the colourful and eclectic genre that is both the diary and the booky related events and philosophies within. As it says on the cover blurb, the bookshop in question is the now famous Wigtown second-hand bookshop, internationally acclaimed and most recent addition to the tourists’ site-seeing must visit list, in the Western region of Scotland. (You can visit at www.the-bookshop.com.) Apparently there aren’t many tourist hot spot destinations in that vicinity but that’s beside the point; although we do get a lovely feel for the town and region, by book’s end. The frequently patient and longsuffering author, Shaun Bythell, a confessed misanthrope – and you quickly understand why – stumbles his way through daily life via the inhibitory and labyrinthine on-line commercial book-selling regulations, hand in hand through a dying industry and bad weather, with a know-it-all assistant, vagabond cat and medieval plumbing. Just to share the many trials and dilemmas that are what make the 21st century book trade what it apparently is. And he doesn’t like kindles – see the one of the two illustrations in the book.
One of the nice surprises about this book was Bythell’s casual commentary about the rare book finds frequently made. This offered an interesting comparison to Australian secondhand bookshops – well, the many I’ve popped in to in an old and well-established literary society such as Great Britain, the potential for such valuable, rare and old books to keep revealing themselves is immense, and they do – usually through the clearance of personal libraries at local, private estates. He knowingly commented on several such finds, with such sincere and quiet passion, that I found myself underlining those book names for the benefit of my own future research. The find of each special, rare tome, a fascinating story about the life journey of that individual book and its worth.
After the final diary entry, a touching epilogue gives a brief account of where the main characters were, a few years later, by the time of publication. This is nice, as I had almost come to look upon them as friends – more than just well written characters from a novel, and of course they are real people. I felt a touch sad by the last page, as I’d started looking forward to meeting the next characters, particularly the author/book/writing events and their accompanying tribulations, with the humorous and maddening outcomes. Yet I was heartened to see on-line, whilst searching for the publication details, that the ever-intrepid Shaun has written a sequel – and I’m looking forward to reading about his upcoming “confessions”.
If you are a bibliophile, committed or otherwise, I’d have no trouble recommending this for your imminent enjoyment. In the very least it gave me a new appreciation for the privileges of living in a warm climate – yet in equal amounts it is heart-warming, funny and exasperating. And about books. What else could one want?
What do others think? Four and a half star rating out of five, on Amazon, from 470 reviews.
Republished from Ephemera Newsletter and What’s On # 12, June 2021.