WHEN ENTERING A bookshop, whether it be a familiar refuge in my hometown or an establishment in a city strange to me, my first instinct is to do a quick recce. If it’s a store that’s new to me, before I start browsing, I check out the lay of the store, making a mental note of the organising principle behind the book display and of the demeanour of the folks running it. If it’s a favourite haunt, and even if I am rushed and only stopping by to ask for a particular title, there remains a sense that first I must look around to find my browsing equilibrium, touch base with the gentle folks who keep the business going, and only then get on with the urgent task at hand. Bookshops do that to you—or to me at least.
A new, bracingly erudite collection of essays about books, The Bookseller’s Tale, by Martin Latham provides a clue why this may be so. Latham, a long-time bookseller who has been running the British chain Waterstones’ Canterbury store, proposes the Latham’s Uncertainty Principle: ‘upon entering a bookshop, you cannot know both who you are and who you might become, because you are both memory and instinct’.
He adds, ‘If we are all a series of impersonations, and all the world’s a stage, book-browsing is a way of going backstage in our minds. Chance finds free the mind, unmoor the soul, still the windmill brain. Suddenly the engineer looks at a poetry book, or the poet reads physics, the academic remembers the Beano annual, the accountant stumbles upon Vonnegut.’ And the best of booksellers assemble their books to enable these journeys ‘backstage in our minds’. Latham certainly would have got that sense when he first, decades ago, put together a collection for the store, only to have Tim Waterstone, the founder of the chain, say, ‘Hmm, not quite… it just doesn’t have that Aladdin’s Cave feeling.’
But if the best bookshops are sites of potential transformation, their owners and staff are among the most astute readers of human character—as they necessarily must be, to enable book discovery. In his new book, Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops, Shaun Bythell provides shockingly recognisable glimpses of us browsers on our good days and bad ones. Bythell, who runs Scotland’s largest secondhand bookshop, the Book Shop, in Wigtown, previously wrote The Diary of a Bookseller. It was an entertaining and enormously instructive account of a year in his life; and by the end you understood how secondhand bookselling required constant appraisal—while acquiring the books, stocking them, pricing them, figuring out customers. Reading it definitely put me on a new alert that booksellers elsewhere too could be drawing a profile of me, and judgmentally so, based on my browsing habits, my purchases, my questions—really, just my manner.
In his new book Bythell categorises the seven (mostly irritating) kinds of people to be found in bookshops thus: expert, young family, occultist, loiterer, bearded pensioner, the not-so-silent traveller, family historian. And then he freely abandons the structural requirements of his book title, to add more categories: staff and the perfect customer. (Among the last category: ‘I doubt whether there’s a single bookseller who will ever tell you that they have anything but the purest of love for the
Bythell comes across as a kinder, more largehearted soul than he would likely have revealed himself to be if he hadn’t been finishing up his book during this pandemic year. As he writes about the book’s intent, ‘It is about our customers: those wretched creatures with whom we’re forced to interact on a daily basis, and who—as I write this under coronavirus lockdown—I miss like long-lost friends. From the charming and interesting to the rude and offensive, I miss them all. Apart from the fact that without them I have literally no income, to my enormous surprise I have discovered that I miss the human interaction.’