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Now and then, you need a book like this.
Unassuming, unpretentious, and with no grand designs towards the dreaded “-ism”, or an aim for the choice award in the art-house niche of the month, the point for Confessions of a Bookseller’s existence isn’t to break ground. For that same reason, trying to find anything to dislike feels like you’re doing it a disservice honestly. It is not an insult, in this case, to say it precisely does what it says on the tin.
If you’ve ever taken a look at its predecessor, The Diary of a Bookseller (which I strongly advise you do), Confessions’ basic makeup is of much of the same. Nothing short of a day-by-365-day diary into the public and private lives and times of Shaun Bythell of Wigtown, Galloway, the one and only owner of its long-since famed bookshop, The Book Shop. Every one of its colourful guest stars earns their irreverent slice in its cake of rural life, from familiar (marginally hefty resident tom Captain) to eccentric (25-year-old itinerant volunteer Granny) and the utterly oddball. It’s a syrupy, hot-chocolate of a book, which you should read in regular doses with a warm blanket.
An unexpected joy is what puts the independence in a book shop. There is no universal chain store catalogue, despite what some of The Book Shop’s customers might expect. This aspect is the click to the lock of Bythell’s charm; the element of chance runs through it with the reassuring clink of loose change (on the matter of budgeting, the inevitable BBC Films adaptation should consider that in this case, the lower, the better). I’d love to see what he could do with a full-length novel, but that would be taking a machete to the beating heart of its appeal. Wigtown and its surrounding environs are all too delightfully humble, and hilariously, often painfully real, for its comings and goings to be given a fictional sense of justice.
Bythell’s crucial lesson is to pay attention to this, in-between the episodes of his blow-by-blow account of a seemingly pyrrhic struggle to wrest free from Fulfilled by Amazon’s icy grip. The value of your local bookshop, and most of all, the people in it, cannot be oversold or overstated, despite the reality of the bad days maybe not quite matching up so well with the postcard dream of the perpetually good. Bythell himself is wry, and often sharp, speaking tersely, often brutally, but is never cold. He’s an admitted curmudgeon that you want badly to know in person. Perhaps the best part is that you can, a prospect that so many of his customers seem to pursue to inexhaustible ends met, of course, with a silent, well-placed snark.
The best kind of person to recommend this to other than aspiring booksellers themselves would be fans of Bill Bryson or anyone who is fed up with scrabbling for the next big thrill in the post-Booker Prize heat. Let’s be honest; you could easily hate it. It’s repetitive and routine – it even has a whiff of formula. This slant is not, however, a bug, but a feature, and a far too addictive one than it has any right to be. A little nugget of epistolary brilliance, it deserves your time and your ears.