If you love to read books, then in your journey as a reader you desire, at some point or other, to be part of the bookshop experience, to either own a bookshop or work in one. As a book lover, one tends to romanticize the bookselling experience. Reading the bookselling experiences of George Orwell and Shaun Bythell made me realize that the real life bookselling experiences are far from being pleasant, in fact bookselling can be a frustrating profession for a booklover.
George Orwell worked in Booklover’s Corner, a bookshop in Hampstead, London for some time in 1934-35. He wrote about his experiences of working in a bookshop in an essay, ‘Bookshop Memories’, first published in 1936 and later reprinted in ‘The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell’-1968. Shaun Bythell, owner of the largest second-hand bookshop in Wigtown, a country town in Scotland, chronicled everyday occurrences at his bookshop, in his book ‘The Diary of a Bookseller’, published in 2017.
Two publications, written eighty years apart by different writers; one an essay and the other a book, narrate compelling experiences of bookselling. Orwell’s disdain for bookselling is completely visible in his writing. And Bythell too agrees with him and in his own admittance writes,’…The constant barrage of dull questions and unending, exhausting, haggling customers have reduced me to this end.’ The end being that he no longer is the ‘friendly and amenable’ bookseller he started as, rather now he fits well into the stereotype of a grumpy and disgruntled bookseller. In spite of this, ‘The Diary of the Bookseller’ is a warm and funny book, full of humor and wit. Orwell on the other hand is more somber and solemn in wording his experiences. What sets the two writings apart is the time gap between them. In the twenty-first century bookshops face stiff competition from two sources – online selling of books by Amazon and digital versions of books available on Kindle. In fact, Amazon has been a doomsday spell for bookshop owners who have lost a lot of business to online buying.
In spite of these changes, the essence and nitty-gritty of the bookshop business remains the same. The true master of a bookshop is still the customer. Most of the customers in a bookshop are rarely bookish people. Bookshops serve a range of customers, stretching from first edition snobs, to students looking for bargains to vague-minded women looking for books as gifts to men looking for a particular title. Bookshops are also a favorite place for those who want to roam aimlessly in a shop without spending a penny. The occasional customer who tries to sell worthless books for a bargain is still present.
Orwell observed that the book sales are not the true representative of the literary tastes of the people. The real literary taste of people was revealed in lending libraries and not bookshops. The classical English novel lost its sheen in the library and was discarded as being too old, whereas it was easy to sell Shakespeare or Dickens in a bookshop, they rarely had any takers in the lending library section of the bookshop.
Universally accepted gender preferences in book reading, that is men don’t read fiction or fiction is for women, has remained unchanged overtime. George Orwell, wrote in Bookshop Memories, ‘It is not true that men do not read novels, but it is true that there are whole branches of fiction that they avoid’. On the other hand, Shaun Bythell observed,’ On the whole (in my shop at least) the majority of fiction is still bought by women, while men rarely buy anything other than non-fiction,…’. Unlike Orwell’s time, the bookseller now no longer has the privilege of the customer who orders a large number of books with no intention of buying, because that can be done at comfort of home, thanks to Amazon.
The glory of the book trade are the rare instances when ‘real book readers’ visit a bookshop and buy a stock pile of books. Such instances reassure a passionate bookseller. Shaun Bythell writes, ‘These things happen far too rarely, but when they do they serve as a welcome reminder of why I chose to enter the world of bookselling, and of how important bookshops are to many people’. The downside of bookselling for a book lover is that one may end up developing a distaste for books in general. ‘A bookseller has to tell lies about books, and that gives him a distaste for them; still worse is the fact that he is constantly dusting them and hauling them to and fro’, wrote George Orwell. Shaun Bythell seconds this view,’ While I still love books, they no longer have the mystique that they once had….the moment books enter your possession – they suddenly become work’.
There is no denying the fact that a book lover who wishes to join the book trade may be dissuaded by these insights and may develop instant fear of losing love for their beloved books. But I think this would only be partial and temporary because each one of the book lovers wanting to get into bookselling will like to make one try of their own.
Livneet Shergill, Ph.D. in Economics. Works as an Independent Researcher, who chooses to be a free agent, for better or for worse.