I spoke to Shaun Bythell, owner of The Bookshop and author of The Diary of a Bookseller, about books, bookshops, Black Books, and punters in a droll interview for Unity Books, Auckland. With a humorous semblance to Bernard Black from the start, I knew it was going to be a good’n.
“Below are the answers to your questions – apologies if they’re a bit dull, I’ve got a hangover.”
1. Has anything happened in The Bookshop since The Diary of a Bookseller was published that you would add to it now if you could?
Probably not, because I still keep the diary going every day, updating it with whatever has happened that day, so I have three more years of material and I’m working on getting the second year into shape for Jenny, my agent, so all the juicy things that have happened subsequently are there in the later years of the diary.
One thing, though, I might have added to the epilogue if it wasn’t too late is that Mr Deacon died last year, and his daughters contacted me to see if I wanted to buy his books, which I did last summer. It was a massive book collection, all of which he’d clearly read.
2. Who is the most interesting character you’ve encountered in The Bookshop?
That’s a difficult one. Because of the book festival, every September there’s a swarm of famous people from the worlds of literature, culture and politics in town and they all come into the shop. Probably the most well known person I’ve had in the shop would be Ian Paisley, who – because of his controversial political ideas – came with two armed special branch undercover police officers, but I’ve had all manner of interesting people over the years, including Julia Donaldson and her husband Malcolm who was dressed as the Gruffalo.
3. What’s the most exciting thing you’ve come across sifting through people’s collections?
All sorts of interesting things come in every day, but over the years I’ve become increasingly fascinated by bindings. The most interesting one I have in stock at the moment is an Argentinian book bound in leather which the hair hasn’t been scraped from. It’s known in the trade as a ‘hairy binding’. Children are fascinated by it. Anything illustrated also tends to catch my eye, particularly early copperplate engravings of Scottish landscapes.
4. How many times have you been asked how similar The Bookshop is to Black Books, and on a scale of 1-5 (5 being extremely similar) how similar is it?
I lost count years ago of the number of times the comparison with Black Books has been made. Thousands, certainly. It is pretty similar in many regards, particularly the customers. So probably 4/5.
5. What’s the most obscure request you’ve ever had from someone at The Bookshop?
I once had a customer crashing through the door at 9 a.m. and asking if we sold dog food. And one time a customer asked if we could order a book of reproductions of Victorian photographs for him which, when I researched it, turned out to be illegal in almost every country – it contains salacious photographs of young boys.
Sneaky 6. When are you coming to New Zealand?
A trip to New Zealand would be most welcome, I’d really love to visit, but publishers don’t tend to subsidise book tours much these days. Perhaps – if the book sells well enough – I’ll be able to come and drop in on as many bookshops as I can.
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