The most noticeable omission from Bythell’s first book, The Diary of a Bookseller, was any sense of what literature means to him. Now he has relaxed, unworried that his admiration for, say, William Boyd doesn’t take him far outside the mainstream. There are risks, of course, to having strong opinions about the books you sell. A bookshop owner is unqualified to be a literary critic. It’s more useful to know the distinguishing features of the first edition of The Pickwick Papers than to have read the bloody thing, and it’s always best not to bandy lit crit across the counter. Bythell keeps his commentaries light. Deciding to read Martin Amis for the first time, he tries Time’s Arrow. Impressed by the narrative device of time going backwards, he is inspired to tackle something by Kingsley next.
One day he overhears two women walking past his shop, saying: “There’s no point going in there, it’s just books.” A lesser man might give up. But despite the gloomy picture he paints of bookselling, this is a delightfully heart-warming love letter to bookshops, one that celebrates their serendipity: the unexpected joy of coming across books you didn’t know existed. And even as a locus of chance encounters: “Often customers – not locals – will bump into people they know from a totally different walk of life in the shop.” As Flo – a student who occasionally helps in the shop (“the very embodiment of petulance”) – writes on the blackboard outside: “Money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy books (which is basically the same thing).”
Reading Confessions of a Bookseller, it is natural to feel some sympathy for Bythell on those winter days when the town is buffeted by Atlantic storms and the day’s takings drop below £20. But then we find him sloping off to go salmon fishing with his father, hosting a packed author event or spending a long drunken evening reading out favourite poems with friends, and it is hard not to conclude that he has found his idyll after all.
I was an early champion of The Diary of a Bookseller, the first curmudgeonly chronicle from the owner of The Bookshop in Wigtown. Since then, the book has sold shedloads, and remarkably has also been translated into 20 languages, including Russian, Korean and French. It is also soon to be a major TV series. Part the Second is Shaun's diary of 2015, and all our favourite characters are back, including Captain the cat, Nicky and the Death to Kindle mugs. Plus there's a new Italian assistant nicknamed Granny. It's like a north of the border Archers, but with better-read characters.