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Seven kinds of people you find in bookshops

Former bookseller A.S.H. Smyth enjoys a bestselling bookshop owner’s taxonomy of bookshop people

I – Bookselling: my part in its downfall

For the better part of 2006, while studying for a master’s degree, I worked part-time in a branch of Waterstone’s, in *REDACTED*, the county capital of *REDACTED*.

I got the interview by stating openly in my covering letter that I was 24, still living with my mum, and asking her for train-fare had become a bit undignified. This seemed encouraging. But then the panel (2 pax.) asked what I was reading currently, and I said Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, and there was awkward silence. This set the tone for almost every “literary” chat thereafter.

I was genuinely stunned to find we weren’t allowed to read on the job

Call me an idiot, but I was genuinely stunned to find we weren’t allowed to read on the job. Instead, booksellers had to devote any time not spent actually dealing with customers (which on a rainy weekend, in the wrong bit of the shop, could be a lot) with often-fruitless searches for books which had been lost, mis-shelved, or maybe stolen, or because they had to be returned to publishers (another surprise), and at the publisher’s expense.

I also quickly realised that the layout of the shop was not an accident (even in the jury-rigged “commercial” buildings of many an English town centre), and that the unadvertised steering of a customer around a bookshop was near-identical to how the algorithms work in the online equivalents (or vice versa, probably). If you like Poetry, you’re more likely to also like Philosophy, (right here on the next set of shelves), or Music (by the window), or History books (just across the room there), than if you came in looking for the latest Jeffrey Archer novel (downstairs, on the pile-’em-high islands).

Most of the time, I was just moving “stock” about, taking maddening credit card orders over the phone, or walking people literally to alphabetised mass-market fiction. All of which required no interest in, let alone knowledge of, literature. To a middle-class nerd such as myself, discovering that working in a bookshop [cue poetic images of James Frain, or similar] was fundamentally no different from working in a Sports Direct or Tesco was about the most depressing thing imaginable. That, and waiting for the Sunday trains in winter.

Working in Waterstone’s pushed me into the arms of Amazon

I was also on what must have been about the minimum wage, and yet condemned – after losing at least an hour’s pay on a joyless, solitary lunch in Café Nero (where I could read, mind you), and figuring out that the staff discount of 33 per cent was no better than the public’s 3/2 in any case – to wander the serried ranks of enticing but unaffordable books, like some starveling who’d been admitted to an ancient library from which he couldn’t borrow. And thus, it was, with painful irony, that working in Waterstone’s pushed me into the arms of Amazon, where I discovered that a lot of books, including those now long-since out of print, could be acquired for pennies…

Til then, though, one had to keep one’s brain alive.

If you were working on the ground floor, you could play a game with yourself or a like-minded colleague (not a given) where you guessed the type of customer from the moment that they entered the front door. If they were heading to the sci-fi/fantasy section (yes, yes, they’re different) this was not too difficult. Likewise, the true crime corner – the shop being quite close to HMP *REDACTED* – though one was less likely to snigger openly at those people. Within the overwhelmingly dominant fiction floorspace, one would have to make more-particular assessments: colour of jacket (the book, but maybe also the customer), quantity of gold lettering (ditto), ratio of author’s name to title, that sort of thing.

Alas (not really, though), I was generally stationed on the first floor – History, Politics, Philosophy, Music, Poetry – with which my interests were more naturally aligned. This was the haunt of middle-aged men, or wives shopping on middle-aged-men’s behalves. A person sporting cords and flat brown shoes (gender irrelevant) could easily be headed anywhere within the first floor’s offerings.

The one place I would practically beg not to be sent was to the top floor, where there had once been a decent cafe that my mother would take me too, en route to choir or a violin lesson, but where now they kept the children’s books – especially, the ones that, when a small kid touches them, emit a basic, synthesised tune that cannot be silenced or changed, even with heavy objects. Just covering this section for someone’s lunch hour could induce a nasty case of PTSD.

In those however many months, I calculate only three specific human interactions stand out.

The first was when two old ladies walked straight up and asked if we had any books on the Bermuda Triangle and I, without stopping to consider my actions, pretending to search for it on the computer, or even putting on some sort of end-of-the-pier comedian voice simply to distance myself from what was about to happen, said, “We did have, madam. But they all seem to have disappeared.” Their laughter took a disconcerting time to subside.

I can’t say that I’d found the customers – or fellow booksellers – to be an interesting bunch

The second was a repeater, a brother and sister couple – or a husband and wife couple who looked like a brother and sister couple – who both were clearly mad as meat-axes, had terrible facial hair, spoke to themselves as though in actual conversation with a flesh-and-blood companion in the room, and would routinely try to order nothing but abstruse mathematical texts that even the spottiest of work-experience kids would have known without bothering to “check the system” were at least five or six decades beyond the reach of high-street retailers. (I know, because some of my colleagues would just run away, and I would humour the odd pair by looking these things up.)

Thirdly, my girlfriend at the time, who by chance was working in the Epsom branch, once told me of an elderly and clearly quite impoverished regular customer, who on selecting an extremely slender item which he had reasonably assumed he could afford (I think it was one of John Julius Norwich’s Christmas Crackers), was then mortified to discover it cost somewhere in the region of 50p a page, and shuffled out of the store without a book and with considerable embarrassment.

I quit as soon as I discovered I could make more money singing in a short day, Sunday, than I could in the whole weekend, bookselling. All in, I can’t say that I’d found the customers – or fellow booksellers – to be an interesting bunch.

II – Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops

Shaun Bythell has made an entire second career out of the opposite view.

Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops by Shaun Bythell (Profile Books Ltd, £7.99)

Having bought a bookshop – nay, The Bookshop – in Wigtown, Scotland, back in 2001 (“just four years after Amazon started selling cut-price books online”), Bythell has had a lot of a time to gather evidence of the daily trials and tribulations of the bookseller/-purchaser (putting the “bookmen” into “bookmental”, yadda yadda). He has already produced two highly successful volumes on this experience – Diary of a Bookseller and Confessions of a Bookseller – the general outline of both being “that working in a bookshop [let alone owning one] is a singularly terrible idea”.

“I have many bêtes noires – legions of them”; but chief among these is his clientele (and for these purposes, it is a key distinction that Bythell’s shop sells only second-hand books.) “No doubt those booksellers of a more generous disposition would paint far kinder portraits of their customers than those that follow… [but] I am unaware of any booksellers with a generous disposition – towards their customers at least.”

Bythell once blew away a Kindle with a shotgun

Bythell is the sort of chap who still makes references to radio programmes as though they’re common currency (his books then end up on R4, obviously, thus perpetuating this cycle), and laments the coming of the Amazon generation, “for whom the chase has no thrill.” If I remember rightly, he once blew away a Kindle with a shotgun, making him the closest thing the bookshop world has to Hunter S Thompson. (A memorably episode in Diary… involves Bythell and the adventure/travel writer Robert Twigger discovering that one of Bythell’s other guests has plugged a Kindle in in his front room – the horror! – and so downloading niche pornography onto it, in hopes the ingrate’s wife would come upon it.)

An innately anti-establishment type, unfit for any kind of employment except his own, he emphatically does not believe the customer is always right (an “appalling mantra” picked up in the fleshpots of, say, Edinburgh). He delights – or claims to – in winding up the most egregious customers, if only just to pass the wet and windy afternoons in Galloway. Answers to “Can you recommend a book for my [sight unseen] wife/husband?” include “Yes, Madame Bovary/Lady Chatterley’s Love/The End of the Affair.”

Not just his customers, in fact. These days “I have a young family of my own,” he goes on, in his mock-misanthropic shtick, “and frequently go to considerable lengths to keep all members of it at a distance.”

For obvious reasons, his sympathies (a strong word) lie predominantly with the men and women who work in bookshops: “the interface, the front line, and the foot soldiers of the industry – and they suffer for it.”

I don’t recall if Bernard Black was mentioned in the previous books, but a) he is here, and b) book-culture folk could hardly fail to join the dots. (My time at Waterstone’s must have been marginally more diverting than I remember, because I perhaps-inevitably told friends that somebody could carve a sitcom out of it. “You mean like Black Books?” they replied. And so, I went away and watched it, and said, “Oh. Yes. Exactly like that.”)

Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops (a parody of the sort of self-help titles Bythell absolutely loathes), is a series of Orwellian-incisive character sketches, on a Linnaean schema which, before the intro’s out, he has shruggingly acknowledged will not even stay the course. Format aside, it allows the continuation of his tried-and-tested themes from volumes one and two, while also retaining 110% of the sardonic side-eye of the natural diarist (or, these days, Facebooker).

Even allowing for “Normal people” (sub-type three of his “Perfect Customer”) being “so rare that to categorise them as normal people seems somewhat of a misnomer,” there are at least nine “kinds” of bookshop people in his somewhat flexible taxonomy (“all a bit too late now – the press release has gone out”).

These include:

  • “Experts” – invariably not – with overblown vocabularies (“the easily scratched veneer of intellectual superiority” in Bythell’s superb phrase)
  • The monarchical pretensions of a local bore called Alfred
  • The ones who tell you they’re a “bit weird”, or self-identify as a “character” (always = pain in the arse)
  • Idiotic, wannabe-goat-shagging (or v.v.) occultists, with their lack of social skills and basic hygiene, and inability to agree on the spelling of the word “magic”
  • Conspiracy theorists (just Gillian Anderson fetishists, he reckons), who will not pay by contactless

He has no time whatever for any of these semi-educated loons, who are, of course, inexorably over-represented wherever (second-hand) books are sold, despite never meeting with the ecstatic hail-fellow-intellectual-well-met reception they so apparently expect. Not that they notice.

The same goes, albeit at varying degrees, for:

  • Loiterers who are only killing time before the bus to Newton Stewart
  • People who do “crafts”, and never know which book they’re looking for
  • Men in red trousers and their wives in “a sort of green tartan waistcoat” (these shop in Military History, Dogs, or Hunting)
  • Gossipy locals, lonely (but opinionated) farmers, bored spouses
  • Erotic browsers, who ditch their well-thumbed objects of affection in the Railway section

Then there are the whistlers, sniffers, farters, tutters and other enemies of the people (the tutter, NB, is “convinced that the Daily Mail has wandered a bit far to the left”), tourists, Americans (not that “there’s anything wrong with identifying as being American”), downsizers, misers (old or young), and – not quite a subset of the avaricious – the antiquarians/book-dealers.

You get the impression he likes the people he buys books from more than the ones he sells books to

These last are perhaps more interested in the book-as-object than its contents – and have exceedingly keen eyes when it comes to the potential value of things. One recently paid Bythell £800 for a set of books he’d not had time to get around to properly researching. The dealer later told him to his face he’d auctioned them for £19,000. Bythell accepts that this is all part of the game; but his diaries also do double service as a form of public punishment, letting such people know their sharp behaviour has not gone unnoticed.

He even goes as far as to enlist a bookshop’s staff (Genus: Operarii). “Type three: Stultus cum barba” is blush-sparingly rendered as “hipster”. “These abominable creatures have only one redeeming feature, and that is that they believe that books are cool.”

In fact, by and large, you often get the impression he likes the people he buys books from more than the ones he sells books to or has to work with – but perhaps that’s just because there is a change of scene for all concerned.

Of course, notwithstanding the sort of book dealing Hannibal Lecter persona Bythell been carefully cultivating over the past five to ten years, he does not by any means dislike all his customers. “It is [only] types one and two whom you literally want to kick out of the shop.”

Type two of the “Perfect Customer” genus is Homo qui libros de via ferrata colligit – or railway dork, as the rest of us would know him (sic). Bythell is also disarmingly respectful of those who read only Haynes manuals, or other DIY stuff: “the people for whom movable type ought to have been invented … who use the written word to actually do something practical with it.”

He’s fairly sympathetic to young families, so long as parents don’t use The Bookshop as a crèche while they run errands. And though he is down on “family historians”, whom he views as snobs if not eugenicists, he has a notably soft spot for the humble, and often-as-not self-published, local historian, without whom so much vital oral history would be lost.

Even the bonus “Staff” section, which (he says) is not entirely based on his own employee spectrum, features a comedy-curmudgeonly attack on “Student Hugo”, the posho intern who will soon be making piles of cash at Lloyd’s of London, just as soon as he finishes his degree in Grouse Studies (cf. “Student Mary”, who is doing an MA in something to do with William Faulkner, thereby rendering her good for nothing in this life but working in second-hand bookshops).

Very little in the book could be considered openly harsh – let alone actually unreasonable. (I note merely that the Wigtown Book Festival is heavily dependent on the volunteer forces of Bythell’s customer base, and – presumably? – readership.) In fact, it’s abundantly clear that he dislikes all manner of ungenerous behaviour – such as Random House suing the artists Miriam and Ezra Elia for their timely, playful Ladybird satires, before then purloining the idea wholesale for their own catalogue.

Getting books to Sri Lanka is completely out, at present, and so I had to read Bythell’s on… a Kindle

For every bit – on lycra-clad pensioners, e.g. – that seems amenably like just more of him venting about local life, there’s the occasional foray into the realm of anthropological insight (warning to teenagers: if once your parents almost catch you reading porn in a bookshop, whatever you were pretending to pore over so assiduously is the sort of book you’ll now be getting every Christmastime. Choose carefully.) And if I didn’t really want to know that any author genuinely goes into the recycling (OK, sure, Dan Brown, Alan Titchmarsh, and that Rees-Mogg book on the Victorians), I suppose even with the printed word, the bookseller must of necessity be unromantic every now and then.

The text itself could have used one or two tweaks, but who knows what sort of turmoil the publishing world is in, these days. Bythell will, I think, suffer with me when I say that getting books to Sri Lanka is completely out, at present, and so I had to read his [clears throat] on a Kindle, and with large “PROPERTY OF PROFILE BOOKS” watermarks on every page, which makes things hard to read, let alone to re-sell locally. But for the rest, it is a brisk page-turner in which – for good or ill – you really get the sense of being in Bythell’s company. (If further evidence is sought, the launch of Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops, compèred by the incompèrable, beardy children’s author Philip Ardagh, is watchable in its entirety, here.)

The author-bookseller has enough of a following these days that no-one should be expecting a cuddly neighbourhood primary-school teacher’s take on bookselling. But writing in the UK’s first Covid-19 lockdown (no doubt a quite pragmatic project – and now being read, neatly enough, amid the second), he realises, ultimately, he has begun to miss his customers.

Bythell is not about to change the formula that got him where he is today

This will only be a very mild surprise to those who’ve read his first two books and/or followed The Bookshop’s Facebook page. Bythell gets a certain amount of “feedback” from people – including those who claim to work in retail – for his (largely faux) grumpiness regarding people who provide him with his bread and butter. This seems like envy to me, from those who didn’t think of weaponising – let alone monetising – complaints about their own quotidian frustrations. So, it’s nice to see him double down, and thumb his nose at the complainants.

What’s more, as with several of his more obsessive regulars, this kind of detailed portraiture and categorisation is surely nothing if not a kind of love. And it’s returned, in spades. If nothing else, his customers are certainly a gift that keeps on giving.

Still, treat ’em mean, and all that. Bythell is not about to change the formula that got him where he is today. He knows this book is not about to do him any meaningful commercial harm. “Generalisations are unfair,” he acknowledges of his cod codification; “but so is life. Suck it up.”

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