I don’t think I’ve ever made any secret of the fact that I love (esp. second-hand) bookshops and I know that, alongside proper pubs, they’re a curious institution that is under threat and needs our support these days.
But there does seem to have been a bit of a breakdown in relations between the owners and workers in these shops and the members of the public who patronise them. Maybe it began with Dylan Moran’s very funny Black Books sit-com, set in an elegantly faded London bookshop with a less than elegantly wasted and grumpy owner, Bernard Black. I doubt it, I think Moran merely bottled, or tapped into something that had always been there.
Second-hand booksellers are a beleaguered species – they’re up against the ruthless might and avarice of the online giants but they’re not trying to win our affections, at least not quickly. It’s taken me many years to get on first name terms with a lot of booksellers, and that’s after spending hundreds of pounds in their shops. There is now even a humorous sub-genre of journal-like books written by bookshop owners who have observed the endlessly baffling weirdness of the vagaries of their customers. First there was Jen Campbell’s series Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops and now we have two instalments of Shaun Bythell’s diaries as a bookseller and owner of ‘The Bookshop’ in Wigtown.
The sad fact is that I suspect that Bythell will be making more money through these two ‘bestseller’ books than he has done trying to peddle second-hand or antiquarian books for many years. Compared with Bythell’s ‘year in the life of a bookseller’ approach, Campbell’s admittedly funny series, is rather shown up as perhaps being a little contrived, or maybe embellished – the anecdotes are simply too polished and bizarre. Bythell’s by contrast are more believable and curmudgeonly, showing us that there’s ‘nowt a queer as folk’. But if he takes the piss, affectionately or otherwise, out of his customers, who does he expect will read his own books? Maybe you read them thinking to yourself, ‘well at least I’m not one of those’ but the truth is the Bernard Black attitude will do its best to make you one of the legion of annoying time wasters.
I’ve been to ‘The Bookshop’ in Wigtown about four times over the years, being where it is, it’s almost impossible to reach from Northumberland, about a round trip of eight to ten hours. I did once try to buy a book from the shop over the phone – a signed copy of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Sorley MacLean’s great poem ‘Hallaig’. It was listed at (I think £150), and the attitude was one of someone being massively put out. I was told they’d phone once the book was tracked down. No phone call ever came. I bought an unsigned copy a couple of years later for £15 from Last Century Books in Innerleithen.
I don’t think I’ve unwittingly given him any material for his books in my encounters with him, and I did buy a number of books each time, but I do recall him being prickly in general. Again, this is no personal criticism of Bythell – this seems to be the default defensively haughty mode of most booksellers. Perhaps they become inured against customers from years in the trade and having to put up with a lot of bollocks in general. Years ago, I was in Armchair Books in Edinburgh when I realised that a number of books in stock had belonged to the poet Sydney Goodsir Smith. At that time a lot of rather toffee-nosed Edinburgh students were employed in the shop. I went up to them to ask if they’d seen any other books in the shop with this signature of these initials in, to which they actually snorted with laughter. They were thrilled because I’d given them license to go into ‘Bernard Black’ mode. ‘It’s not our policy, har har har, to memorise the names in all of our books, har har har’. I did bite back and say it was their loss, because they should be aware of famous associations, because that’s where a lot of a value in a book lies.
The treatment of customers in bookshops is merely a symptom of a larger issue that I’ve noticed – in any public space that is set up for cultural or intellectual reasons, there’s this off-putting ‘de haut en bas’ attitude of those in charge. You’re more likely to be treated with a modicum of friendliness or politeness in a pub than you are in somewhere more highbrow, like a bookshop or an arts centre / hub. I’m a book collector with a literature PhD, and I’ve often been made to feel small or stupid or not worthy in these places, asking perfectly reasonable questions. I will say that via a war of attrition after many years of going back to the same shop, most booksellers open up as genuinely lovely and friendly people, others are resolutely disagreeable, even if you buy a £200 book off them. But please don’t try to be Bernard Black – it’s funny when Dylan Moran does it, tiresome when anyone else does.