‘I’ve finally realised that (and this time the grimace has become a wince – I can barely look at the screen as I type these words), I miss the social interaction of life in a bookshop.’
Confessions of a Bookseller
By Shaun Bythell
Published by Profile Books
I never thought that I’d write these words (and I say this with what I can only describe as a nostalgic grimace), but I miss my customers. Not only do I miss them, I really miss them. Apart from the obvious fact that without them I have no income, I’ve finally realised that (and this time the grimace has become a wince – I can barely look at the screen as I type these words), I miss the social interaction of life in a bookshop. From the kind to the rude; from the friendly to the hostile, they provide me with material to write about, and a huge variety of conversations, most of which I would rather not have, but which I’m starting to crave. I’m fortunate to be locked down with my wife and our one year old daughter, so as silver linings go, I couldn’t have wished for more – although without the excuse of work, I’ve changed considerably more nappies than I normally would have done. Having a beautiful garden, and the most extraordinary spell of weather has also added a coat of sugar to the pill. I’ve built a sandpit, and we now have a paddling pool (mostly full of leaves) and I have ticked an embarrassingly small number of jobs both in the garden and the house off my ever growing list. But I miss the shop. I even miss Gillian the Ginger Menace, who works three days a week here, and spends most of her time and energy berating me for a litany of supposed inadequacies.
With the extraordinary weather, we should have been having barbecues with our neighbours and friends, going to the beach, and hillwalking, but even the absence of those opportunities has opened up others: every day we walk around Wigtown we try to find a new route. Incredibly, for such a small place, I’ve discovered things I didn’t know about. Restrictions on movement has meant that we’ve moved a lot more within our restricted area and learned to appreciate what we have. Other constraints have also revealed surprising unintended consequences. Having to queue outside the Co-op has often resulted in conversations with people with whom you would normally have a nodding acquaintance, but little more than than. When you’re standing near them on your socially distant strip of gaffa tape on the pavement, you find the time to learn more about them. A few weeks ago I started chatting to someone who I only know well enough that they inhabit that grey area between being an acquaintance and a friend, and discovered that he’d bought tickets for the Davis Cup (obviously couldn’t go) and that he’d been co-opted onto the board of the Wigtown Book Festival committee. He’s someone I’ve always liked, and I hope that I’m stuck in the queue beside him again soon.
Of course, there’s a dark humour to be found in these times too. Shortly afterwards, again in the queue for the Co-op, I was behind a Northern Irish woman called Chris. Sadly her husband is suffering from memory loss. There’s no humour in that of course, but she told me that one of her friends had seen a neighbour, a 75 year old woman who didn’t want to be seen visiting her equally aged neighbour by going through the front door, so instead she’d scaled a 6ft fence to have a lockdown cup of tea with her in the garden.
The customer who I most miss is Sandy, the Tattooed Pagan. He has been a regular visitor to the shop since I took over in 2001, and in that time we’ve become good friends. He lives alone, and has no mobile telephone, no computer, and never answers his landline, so when several people asked how he was (he’s in his 70s) I had no choice but to write to him. I didn’t know his address, but this being Galloway, an envelope with his name and a rough description of him found its way through his letterbox. I write letters to friends (and reply to some from strangers) every week – it is my preferred method of communication, so corresponding with him has not proved to be a challenge – in fact, it has been quite the reverse – almost as much of a pleasure as it is to see him in the shop. We’ve now exchanged three or four letters in each direction, and he recently sent me a poem about life in lockdown. Other correspondence from strangers continues, most of which comments upon how grateful I must be for ‘the internet’ as a means of selling my shop stock online while the shop is shut. But ‘the internet’ is now little more than Amazon when it comes to selling books online, and Bezos is not a devil with whom I’m prepared to sup. Even with a long spoon. I don’t sell online, and have no plans to do so ever again. My hubris may well finish me off financially.
Confessions of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell is published by Profile Books, priced £16.99