Bookseller from Hell Sells Up
I read a June 2017 article in The Guardian about a bookstore owner in York, England, selling his bookstore. Sad, at first, to think an independent bookstore had been forced to close due to competition from a chain or the internet, a closer reading changed both the story and my mood. Turns out, the man, dubbed “the bookseller from hell,” had gained notoriety for rudeness to customers and for charging a fifty pence entrance fee (allegedly refundable if you bought a book) to browse his shop. The village was happy to see the back of him because he was driving away tourists. (The article didn’t mention what drew tourists to the village in the first place but did mention it was the “home of Wensleydale cheese” so come to your own conclusion.) The bookstore had been bought by a “very welcoming couple” and would continue operating as a bookstore. I would have filed this under “interesting stories about English villages” if I hadn’t noticed a link to an op-ed piece written in January 2017, commenting on The Guardian’s initial article about the notorious bookstore owner. The author of the opinion declared himself a fan of the unpleasant shopkeeper. He described him as “one of the last, honourable remnants of this dying breed”. What breed? Rude, misanthropic, miserable secondhand booksellers. He stated, “Secondhand booksellers don’t like people, they like books.” He also claimed, “People who come into secondhand bookshops are…bloody irritating” and that rudeness “goes with the territory”. You couldn’t hope for better from a secondhand bookseller because you were “wasting their time” if you didn’t buy a book and were “stealing one of their friends” if you did. (He failed to explain how buying a book counted as stealing it.) “Enjoy the miserable experience,” he wrote one sentence before declaring, “book lovers are life haters.” Wow. Think this guy’s ever read a book? I’ve spent inordinate amounts of time and large chunks of my paycheck in bookstores peddling both new and used books. I’ve never met any bookstore owners or employees who hated people. Certainly, they loved books—that’s why they worked in bookstores—but they didn’t resent customers for buying them. They appreciated it. Better sales equaled a better chance of keeping the lights on and the doors open. I even met one used bookseller who gave away books when he needed to cull his inventory. Stamped them “free” and put them on a rack right out on the sidewalk corner. Hardly the actions of someone who hated people for “stealing” his “friends”. Maybe the author of the opinion piece mistakes not asking customers if they need help every thirty seconds as rudeness instead of what it is—leaving customers to browse in peace. Browsing is an integral part of book buying, as necessary as having books to buy. Browsing gives customers a chance to discover titles they didn’t even know existed, therefore, didn’t know they wanted. When’s the last time one of you life-hating bibliophiles walked into a bookstore and walked out with only the book you’d intended to buy? As for that, “life hater” comment, stuff and nonsense. Book lovers do not hate life. Book lovers love life and use books to enhance their experience of living. They use books to travel to places they might never reach in real life or to find inspiration for their next trip. They use books to travel back and forth in time and to meet an infinite variety of people—including curmudgeonly shopkeepers. Doesn’t the unpleasant, now former, bookseller sound like a character straight from one of the books he discouraged customers from buying?The opinion writer makes some bizarre predictions: that people would “mob” the bookstore to meet the “idiosyncratic” owner and “experience his unusual approach to retailing,” journalists would be “desperate” for interviews, and he’d be sought after for appearances on reality TV shows. Wrong. Only six months elapsed between the initial article and opinion piece and the news the man who “didn’t butter his parsnips” when dealing with customers had “sold up”. No tears shed for his departure from the business, no report of throngs of masochists lining up for one last shot at experiencing his “idiosyncratic” customer service, no mention of the TV show offers rolling in. The prevailing sentiment seemed to be, “goodbye and good riddance”. So much for the opinion piece’s prediction of a rosy future for the “bookseller from hell”. Here’s my opinion: the writer should avoid games of chance, go out and meet some booksellers and booklovers—I doubt he knows either—and read a book or two while he’s at it.