Book review: Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops by Shaun Bythell

If you’re a reader of any devotion, you will doubtless have an enduring and profound love with your local bookshop or, quite possibly, a great many bookshops.

Part and parcel of that great and enduring romance with the retailer to end all retailers – that last phrase alone should establish where this reviewer’s affections irrevocably lie – is this overly romantic idea that everything that happens in a bookshop is idealistically wonderful, with only the very best examples of humanity frequenting its endlessly welcoming doors.

Let bookseller Shaun Bythell amusingly dispel this notion, at least in part, with Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops, a hilariously thoughtful collection of observational snippets on the array of people who find themselves in bookshops, not all of them dedicated to a love of reading or the glorious storytelling properties of the written word.

A bookseller of some twenty years standing, who owns a second-hand bookshop in Scotland’s book centre, Wigtown, a reader’s paradise where bookshops outnumber all other types of retailing, Bythell, drawing on a quote by Roy Harley in Antiquarian Books: An Insider’s Account (David & Charles, 1978), jokes that he dreams of his business “making as much as a even a laughingly trifling dent in the global economy”.

He is honest enough to admit that you don’t go into bookselling to make your fortune – he somewhat ruefully refers to booksellers such as himself as “the miserable, unfortunate few who have chosen to try to sell books to make a pitiful living” – but because of a love of books (well, hopefully) and as he discovered during COVID lockdowns which shut his store, along with so many others, an enjoyment of human interaction whose absence he surprisingly missed.

“No doubt those booksellers of a more generous disposition would paint far kinder portraits of their customers than those that follow this introduction, but these are drawn from my experiences over the past twenty years of suffering in the trade, and I am unaware of any booksellers with a generous disposition – towards their customers, at least.” (P. 4)

Reflecting on the various people with whom he interacts, a sizeable number of whom are so lovely that they donated money to his shop to keep him afloat when he wasn’t able to trade, he acknowledges that there are seven distinct genus of customers, some of whom are delightful and a joy to have on the other side of the counter, and many who, he honestly admits in ways, he says, will “surely seal [his] financial fate”, he would be happy to never see again, though they seem to keep popping up with annoying regularity anyway.

The seven genus are:

  1. Peritus (Expert)
    These are the customers who know everything about everything, or at least, one nauseatingly intensely defined subject and will regale you endlessly about it, whether you want them to or not, in a manner than Bythelle notes is largely “eye-wateringly tiresome”, though there are exceptions with some of this number “some of the kindest customers I’m fortunate enough to encounter”. Beloved of long words where short words will quite clearly suffice, these people are aghast when you don’t have books on their chosen subject, or the right books, or when staff don’t know as much as they do. Granted they are there to give you the benefit of their wisdom and will interrupt anyone and everyone to do so, but at the root of it all is the need to be seen to know a lot.
  2. Familia Juvenus (Young Family)
    Bookshops, Bythell observes, you would think rather obviously, are not child care centres. and yet, time and again many parents are happy to dump little Johnny or Sally in the kids’ section of a bookshop and saunter for an hour of browsing or lunching while the staff are left to keep an eye on their flesh and blood. Dividing this genus up, as he does all of them, into various species, the author concedes that there are plenty of hands-on parents who delight in their children reading and are happy to spend time with them while they choose their books and pay for them. But not all, and it’s the ones who dump-and-run who are the source of this inspired and very funny section.
  3. Homo qui maleficas amat (Occultist)
    Dressed in black, but of course they are, and devoted to the Dark Arts and worshipful of Satan in the same way that some modern cooks are devoted to their Thermomix, these customers tend, in Bythell’s incisively amusing words, ” to have a bearing of smug superiority, which is a little strange to say the least, considering their firm conviction in the utterly unbelievable”. Socially unchallenged and often alone, they encompass a number of species including practitioners of the dark arts, Wiccans and yes, even conspiracy theorists, all of whom are convinced there beliefs are not “bullocks” though Bythell would beg to archly differ.
Shaun Bythell (image courtesy thisNZlife)
  1. Homo qui desidet (Loiterer)
    You may think, if you’re a reader, that heaven on earth is loitering in a bookshop. It is, of course, but that is usually loitering with glorious intent to peruse, buy and add to a To Be Read pile so tall it will likely fall and crush you one day while you sleep beside it. The loiterers to which Bythell refers are those people who “seamlessly manage to combine a certain listless quality with the illusion that they are conducting some sort of very important business when it is patently obvious that they are not” and they include a range of species including the Erotica Browser, who will do everything possible not to be seen to browsing said section (save for women who don’t care if they noticed), the Loiterer Without Intent, killing time until the real reason they have come to town is resolved and the Bored Spouse, who all but sits a ticking clock to remind their book-loving significant other than book browsing has very well defined time parameters.
  2. Senex cum barba (Bearded Pensioner)
    Roaming the land in motor homes driven at annoying speeds and luxuriant in the surplus of time at their bounteous disposal, this genus usually makes a great deal of noise and fuss, usually while parking their travelling behemoth, and usually buys nothing when they do enter your store. Happy in their own echo chamber of likeminded souls, these customers will sometimes come in selling books, the Downsizer species particularly, but they are usually the ones no one wants because well, aren’t they getting rid of them too?
  3. Viator non tactics (The Not-So-Silent Traveller)
    These people like to draw attention to themselves. Unpossessed of the need to engage in the world around them with “quiet observation” like Chiang Yee who wrote as The Silent Traveller in the early twentieth century, they whistle, hum and sniff, doing so loudly and apparently unheeding of the glares and harrumphs of fellow shoppers. They even fart or tut, the latter being a particularly awful person to have in the shop because they have never liked or enjoyed anything in their life and are hardly about to begin now, even in a bookshop with 100,000 books like Bythell’s Wigtown gem.
  4. Parentum historiae studiosus (Family Historian)
    Convinced, quite rightly, that most people’s lives are not that remarkable and do not deserve to be placed proudly on a family tree, Bythell doesn’t have a lot of time for this genus who seem, interestingly, to be largely American. (This could be, the author speculates, because they are mostly from a country defined by immigration and need some place that is uniquely theirs on which to hang their familial hat.) Bythell firmly believes it would save everyone considerable amounts of time if they simply responded, when asked where they are from, with ‘The Great Rift Valley’.

“There is literally nothing you can do to satisfy a tutter, other than to disappoint them. Not only is it extremely easy; it’s also tremendously good fun. On the rare occasions they come to the shop with books to sell (they don’t tend to be great readers) they will always refuse your offer – no matter how generous – and storm out of the shop with a furious ‘I’d rather give them to a charity shop that accept that’. Which, in a nutshell, typifies the tutter: a person so convinced that the world is conspiring against them that they would rather receive literally nothing for their almost worthless Jeffrey Archer collection than the £20 you’ve offered them in a misguided sense of pity.” (PP. 105-106)

Bythell does cheat a little in Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops by throwing in an eighth genus but it is worth the titular sleight of hand.

This final unannounced genus are the staff, the loyal and often knowledgable footsoldiers of the bookshops whom Bythell says tend to suffer at the hands of their customers, largely in bookstores selling new books because second-hand bookshops tend to mostly be owner run.

While he has some fun with this group, referring to Student Hugos and Student Marys who work in stores during their summer breaks, and also, fittingly to second-hand booksellers, he is for the most part deferential to this group who usually know lots about books, love them and the sublime act of reading and who are too happy, in the best way possible, to share this love with their customers; in fact, many of the stories of the stories in this indication underscore how lucky we are to have these people are our book shopping disposal, and that it is amazing they haven’t run from their place of bookish employment screaming.

There is a love letter of sorts in the postscript to the perfect customer, that rare breed who love their particular type of book, and for whom “a day spent in a second-hand bookshop [is] a day well spent”, and who whether they are sci-fi fans or railway enthusiasts or “normal people” (those who wander in, find books they are delighted to find, and pay without any negotiation or difficulty), are a joy to have in any bookshop.

It is clear that for all his witty curmudgeonly observations, all of which are cleverly and non-damningly articulated, Bythell loves what he does and the majority of people with whom he interacts, his love for bookshops infusing every page in Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops which for all the fun it has with various sorts of customers, functions ultimately as a gloriously effusive paean to bookshops and the way they enrich everyone’s lives, even if not all of their customers return the favour.

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