Shaun Bythell’s “The Diary of a Bookseller” is a gem of a book. Bythell, the owner of Scotland’s largest second-hand bookstore, gives us this day-by-day account of his life as a bookseller. It’s a warm and funny book marked by Bythell’s dark, dead-pan humor. He begins by admitting that he fits the stereotype of the “impatient, intolerant, antisocial proprietor.” But this wasn’t always the case: he began when he bought his shop as eagerly and naively as any thirty-one-year-old embarking on their first business venture. The shop, though—with its haggling customers, arguing staff and the “constant barrage of dull questions”—turned him into a bit of a misanthrope.
Would he change any of it? He resoundingly answers “No.” There is love here—for books, the paper-and-board books, the smelly and smudged books, the handled, creased books perfumed by time and care, the second and third-hand books that come his way—which line his shelves and fill his life.
There is also an idiosyncratic cast of characters—customers, employees, a cat (of course); the estate sales, literary festivals, girlfriend and the small businesses that must be run to supplement the income of the bookshop.
All of this is fun enough, but Bythell’s book is not just an account of the life of a bookseller. It is the life of a bookseller of real—not digital—books, as sold by a store owner, not as sold by Amazon and shipped from a distribution center. And this life is not an easy one. It is life in the shadow of Amazon and its Kindle, where the “haggling” customers are often comparing Bythell’s prices to what might be found online. They will sit for hours in his shop reading, perusing the shelves, not buying and then deciding to purchase through Amazon. Bythell is quite clear: the Kindle is killing bookshops like his. In one hilarious but important moment, he takes a Kindle out to the forest, shoots it, and mounts the destroyed machine on a shield like a hunting trophy.
I’ll be honest, hopefully without sounding judgmental: I have always loved the “real” book. I could never read a digital book with the same relish as a paper-and-board book and I never really saw the need to. As a high school English teacher, though, I have heard colleagues turning towards electronic books as a way to hook our tech-savvy kids into reading. The rationale is simple: put words on a screen, get a tap and a click involved and kids may fall in love with reading like they’ve fallen for gaming. I didn’t buy it. Words are words and can never compete with the colors, the sounds, the fast pace, the sensory immersive world of digital games. Also, our teens are simply reflecting adult values: most adults are not spending even an hour a day in sustained, silent reading—the kind of reading that grows focus, fluency and, really, thoughtfulness.
From The Diary of a Bookseller
On the evocative life of used books:“…there is something that makes you feel connected to those people when you handle material like this. Perhaps the most interesting mystery is that you never know who has handled all the unsigned, uninscribed books that come into the shop, and what their secret history has been”
When we ask, even require—as teachers must—our kids to read, we are bucking a trend; but buck on we do. And there are rewards. Like fifteen-year-old Daisy who is always by my bookcase now finding her next read, the fatter the better. There is no digital bookcase that will draw her in like the colored spines of books lining a wall.
Even though I didn’t need Bythell to convince me of the merits of “real” books, his account was a turning moment in my own relationship to book-buying nevertheless. I have been a “one-click” Amazon shopper. I’d read about a new or interesting book, find it on Amazon, order the book and it would be mine in a few days. And so my beloved “TBR” (To Be Read) pile on my nightstand grew. Such a righteous kind of sin.
Who could find fault with the buying of books? Ultimately these books would help me become a more intelligent, empathetic, well-rounded person. All of this sounds so commendable. But here’s what I learned from Bythell’s book: we don’t have to acquire—I don’t have to acquire—books so quickly. It is the speed of acquisition, the learned reflex of consumption, that we know is harming our world in so many ways, and that is the problem here. Bythell is inviting us to slow down. Hunt around for a book, walk or ride a train to a bookstore, make a call; use our beloved technology to find what bookseller has the book and buy it that way.
It is much more work for me and my book-buying is slowed down to the pace of what it takes to actually finish a book. The TBR pile is diminishing, but so is the anxiety, the rush, of consumption.
Sandy Joshin Del Valle, MRO is a Student in the Mountains and Rivers Order living in Brooklyn, NY.