The Uncensored Diary of a Bookseller

Posted by Wally O Neill on

I have this strange fascination with books about bookshops. Maybe I think I’m going to learn some long-hidden trade secret which will keep me out of the clutches of financial dissolution for another few weeks, or maybe I’m trying to harmonise the romantic notions of bookselling presented in these guides with the real-world fight-or-flight state of the industry.

Then I caught Covid and decided to record my own bookselling diary. An uncensored diary.
Because, as much as I adore memoirs from notable booksellers like Shaun Bythell and Richard Booth, something about them seems to miss the wider meaning of what I always loved about a bookshop. The idea of a bookshop as a community. Or even as a sanctuary for readers and ideas.

And the customers it attracts of course.

George Orwell wrote in his 1936 essay “Bookshop Memories”, an account of his own bookselling experiences, the following;

Many of the people who came to us were of the kind who would be a nuisance anywhere but have special opportunities in a bookshop.”

While I think Orwell recognised the very real opportunities a bookshop offers to such people, he is remiss in not recognising the opportunity that such customers offer to a bookshop. We live in a world where genuinely rich characters are becoming obsolete in favour of Instagramesque fakeness. Bookshops are some of the few places left on earth where you can enter freely and end up having a conversation with anyone about anything.

Bezos and the Great Beast still haven’t cracked that algorithm.

He also hasn’t cracked the smell of 100,000 individual books stacked haphazardly in a relatively small space. Or the sensory overload of exploring a maze of books. Or the alluring mystique that draws you to a book you’ve never seen before, but which you know has been sitting on that shelf, waiting for you to pick it up, so that it can radically change your life.

One of my customers, let’s call him Mosley to avoid any arguments later, used to end particularly dark commentaries on the ecosystem of our bookshop with the phrase, “You wouldn’t get this in Easons.”

Indeed, you wouldn’t and maybe that’s their loss.
It’s easy to become addicted to something you love. It’s not love anymore then. Its obsession and obsession will drive insanity.

Chance encounters, a global recession and an impulsive megalomania drove me to believe that I could do what statistics said was impossible. That I could better the failures of thousands of others.

I opened a second-hand bookshop in a converted bulls shed (the bull had vacated the property first). Then, as the trials and tribulations of selling books in the shade of Bezos Great Beast became evident, I moved the bookshop lock, stock and barrel, into a bigger property in Wexford town.
There’s a romantic ideal about booksellers. It’s usually held by bibliophilic bookworms who occasionally daydream of leaving their well-paid civil service job and opening a beautiful little bookshop in some remote scenic paradise, lined with pristine ancient folios, gentle browsers and a cat. Always a cat.

They think their days will be spent reading Keats while sipping ginger tea and selling expensive tomes without breaking a sweat.

It’s a romantic notion but entirely false. Probably fed by British chiclit and deceptive book peddlers.
The truth is far stranger than any paperback.

Try self-inducing poverty upon yourself, converting an old bottling factory into a bookshop lined with thousands of books, from the most obscure to the prettiest industry darling. Try navigating the very real but equally ethereal karmic laws of bookselling. Try holding court in a kingdom of pulp fiction, competing for the floor with every ranting lunatic and mad bastard in a fifty-mile radius.

Try bookselling. Go on.

Oh yeah, Mr Bezos does it from the comfort of his mansion and lets the algorithms shift units to lobotomised readers, but that’s not book selling.
Book selling isn’t a job. It’s a vocation. If it’s not, then you’re not doing it right.

I’ve met the majority of the independent book dealers in this state now. They’re a dying animal. We’re on extinction watch.

Book selling was once reserved for gentlemen. Now its left to the unhinged and desperate to fight the final battle. Most of the real bookdealers are in their seventies now and I’m sure they think I’m a curiosity.

The bookapocalypse is coming. The Armaggeddon of the bookselling world. There’s no point searching for our anti-christ anymore. Amazon, chain-stores, charity shops, kindles. It doesn’t matter. It’s all irrelevant this late in the game.

There was a mad Venetian bookseller who closed up his shop and declared bookselling to be obsolete six hundred years ago after Gutenberg perfected his first printer. I once used that guy as an example of the absurdity of alarmism to alarmist bookdealers but lately I’m wondering was that French fecker just ahead of the game.

A thousand bookshops fell during the recession. Closed their doors forever and disappeared into the abyss of nostalgia. A thousand vacant bookshops and a thousand extinct book sellers. The Covid-19 Lockdowns added even more strain to an unsustainable industry. Add in hyper stagnation, World War 3, TikTok, book bannings, binge-watching horse manure, Candy Crush Saga, an overly cautious publishing industry, industrial dumbing down, recession, conspiracy theories and Jeff bloody Bezos… and there’s not much room left for us to breathe.

And then there’s online reading ‘influencers’ who glorify the deals they get in charity shops and kindle offers, never realising that for as long as there have been books, writers and libraries, there have also been booksellers. And without any of these vital ingredients, well then, nothing is secure.

No one wants to die but there’s something far more terrifying and that’s dying and leaving no one behind. I always thought that was the scariest thing about post apocalyptic fiction. Sure, you’re dying but, at that last moment before the world-ending Tsunami hits you, are you thinking about how terrible it is that they’ll be no one else left behind to mourn you or carry on your life's work.

That’s how it’ll be for me at the end. There won’t be any other book dealers left to pass the baton on to. Just thousands of books left as war orphans.

I know that I am like the books I sell. An endangered species. I sense the tide. I see the writing on the wall.

It’s not just about spreading literature and shifting units anymore. It’s about survival.
Two days after going into isolation with a virus that very nearly killed the bookshop with thirty-six weeks of lockdown, I received a message from another customer, the Scouse, telling me that ‘Covid is a great way to lose weight.’ He follows up with, ‘Nothing worse than having a scouser loose in your shop when you’re not there. Btw, you need a new key for that till. Its too easy to open.’

You wouldn’t get this in Easons.