THE DIARY OF A BOOKSELLER, by Shaun Bythell. Melville House, 312 pp., $25.99.
If you like your bookstores warm and cozy and your booksellers chatty, you might not like Shaun Bythell or his shop.
You might, however, like his memoir, which is entertaining and dryly humorous, despite Bythell’s apparent loathing of most humans. In particular, he loathes his customers: those who want to chat; those who hang around for hours but don’t buy anything; those who try to bargain down prices, and — understandably — those who check their phones to see if they can get the books cheaper on Amazon.
The ideal customer, he tells us, is the steadfast Mr. Deacon, who “never browses and only ever comes in when he knows exactly what he wants.” Even better, Mr. Deacon never chats.
Bythell’s misanthropic memoir, “The Diary of a Bookseller,” covers one year in the life of the Bookshop, his used-bookstore in a drafty, leaky stone house in Wigtown, Scotland.
Over the course of that year, not much happens. He sells some books. The computer goes down. The front window leaks during a driving rain. Bythell’s girlfriend (as perky as he is grumpy) visits from London. He drives out into the countryside to buy books from people who are downsizing. His cat goes missing. His cat returns.
And yet, the book is fascinating.
At the end of each entry, Bythell notes how many customers visited that day and how much money was in the till at closing. The amounts are so shockingly low that you wonder how the shop can survive.
Despite Bythell’s taciturn ways, I found myself liking him, if only for his eloquent, measured seething about things he cannot control — his messy customers; his quirky staff (assistant Nicky — who calls Bythell “the ginger conundrum” — is constantly shelving books where he cannot find them); and, above all, the “relentless march of Amazon,” which, he notes, threatens not only his store, but all bookstores, as well as distributors, publishers and authors.
Relief comes when Bythell heads out to buy books from private libraries. He is usually disappointed in the collections, of course, because that is who he is, but his gorgeous descriptions of the countryside reveal a deep love for that corner of Scotland.
At one house, the owners had an impressive Antarctica collection, and as Bythell loaded up his van he was uncharacteristically moved to ask why. The man grew animated, telling him how he had lived there for several summers as a researcher.
“I really ought to be less dismissive of customers and people selling books,” Bythell thinks as he drives off, but of course that is not his nature. These missed connections — this recurring small surprise that not all people are idiots — is one of the book’s themes. When, at the end of the diary, Mr. Deacon reveals that he has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, it feels deeply sad. It is too late, now, to start chatting.
But here and there, a bit of humanity shines through. When an elderly man is delighted to find an old book with his father’s name inscribed on the first page, Bythell — ginger conundrum that he is — lets him have it for free.
And while he is too restrained to express regret or joy, it is clear that Bythell is, if not happy, at least content.
“Whatever is required to keep this ship afloat will be done,” he writes near the end. “This life is infinitely preferable to working for someone else.”