Read | Diary of a Bookseller in Lockdown

13 June 2020


The Kindness of Strangers

The author of the bestselling Diary of a Bookseller, Shaun Bythell, on how he has coped with with shutting his Wigtown shop during lockdown. 

I never thought that I’d write these words (and I say this with what I can only describe as a nostalgic grimace), but I miss my customers. Not only do I miss them, I really miss them. Apart from the obvious fact that without them I have no income, I’ve finally realised that (and this time the grimace has become a wince - I can barely look at the screen as I type these words), I miss the social interaction of life in a bookshop.

From the kind to the rude; from the friendly to the hostile, they provide me with material to write about, and a huge variety of conversations, most of which I would rather not have, but which I’m starting to crave. I’m fortunate to be locked down with my wife and our one-year old daughter, so as silver linings go, I couldn’t have wished for more - although without the excuse of work, I’ve changed considerably more nappies than I normally would have done. Having a garden, and the most extraordinary spell of weather has also added a coat of sugar to the pill.

I’ve built a sandpit, and we now have a paddling pool (mostly full of leaves) and I have ticked an embarrassingly small number of jobs both in the garden and the house off my ever growing list. But I miss the shop. I even miss Gillian the Ginger Menace, who works three days a week here, and spends most of her time and energy berating me for a litany of inadequacies.

While the lockdown has revealed the loo-roll hoarding tendencies of some, it has also exposed the kindness of others.

Tuesday 28 April 2020

This morning’s post contained the usual assortment of bills, but completely unexpectedly, there was a £300 cheque from a woman in Monaco who had read a piece in Time magazine written by Margaret Atwood in which she urged readers to support small businesses in whatever way they could. By way of return, all she wanted was a handful of books, worth little more than £30. The generosity of this complete stranger is something which I will never forget, and for which I will be eternally grateful.

At 6pm we had a virtual beer with Ben and Beth, The Bookshop Band, via Skype.

I’ve created a rod for my own back by hosting a Facebook Live event at 5pm - "Live at Five from The Bookshop". Every day I go live and ask three questions from a book called Literary Trivia, by Aubrey Malone. For the first few days, I diligently responded to the small number of answers from viewers, but I’ve become a bit lazy about it and now have about 100 emails to respond to. Each day there’s a prize for the first person to respond with the correct answers. I’ve only sent out two, and one was only because the winner lives on a place called "Nagging Road" and I feared that she might have a severe case of geographic nominative determinism.

With the extraordinary weather, we should have been having barbecues with our neighbours and friends, going to the beach, and hillwalking, but even the absence of those opportunities has opened up others: every day we walk around Wigtown we try to find a new route. Incredibly for such a small place, I’ve discovered things I didn’t know about. Restrictions on movement have meant that we’ve had no choice but to move a lot more within our restricted area, and learned to appreciate what we have. Other constraints have also revealed surprising unintended consequences. 

Having to queue outside the Co-op has often resulted in conversations with people with whom you would normally have a nodding acquaintance, but little more than that. When you’re standing near them on your socially distant strip of gaffa tape on the pavement, you find the time to learn more about them. A few weeks ago I started chatting to someone who I only know well enough that they inhabit that grey area between being an acquaintance and a friend, and discovered that he’d bought tickets for the Davis Cup (obviously couldn’t go) and that he has joined the board of the Wigtown Book Festival committee. He’s someone I’ve always liked, and I hope that I’m stuck in the queue beside him again soon.

There has been more generosity in the post. I’m slightly ashamed to have been so rude about people from Yorkshire in the light of this letter from a man who was born in 1929 who wrote recently. He wrote a letter, kindly telling me that he’d enjoyed my books, to which I replied telling him that I’m now married and have a daughter. He responded with a most moving letter about the recent loss of his wife, and another unexpectedly generous gesture, which I’ve transcribed in the following entry.

Saturday 2 May 2020

Letter from Geoff in Leeds. He writes:  "World War II wasn’t a very good time either, people being bombed nightly. I was 10 in 1939 so my teenage years were rather different. I left school in 1944 and started work when I was 15. I enclose a cheque for £50, will you buy a present for your little girl’s first birthday, a toy or something you both feel appropriate, and that she will enjoy, say about £25. With the other half, please will you buy an arrangement of flowers for your wife to enjoy. If this is difficult in the present circumstances, perhaps something personal - perfume - anything that will bring pleasure."

Inevitably, there’s a dark humour to be found in these times too. Shortly afterwards, again in the queue for the Co-op, I was behind a woman who I only know because Captain, our cat, was a regular visitor to her home back in the days when he could fit through the cat-flap. He’s far too large to manage such a feat these days. Sadly her husband is suffering from memory loss. There’s no humour in that obviously, but she told me that one of her friends had spotted a neighbour, a 75 year old woman who didn’t want to be seen visiting her equally aged friend by going through the front door. Instead, she’d scaled a 6ft fence to have a lockdown cup of tea with her in the garden.

The customer who I most miss is Sandy, the Tattooed Pagan. He has been a regular visitor to the shop since I took over in 2001, and in that time we’ve become good friends. He lives alone, and has no mobile telephone, no computer, and never answers his landline, so when several people asked how he was (he’s in his 70s) I had no choice but to write to him. I didn’t know his address, but this being Galloway,  an envelope with his name and a rough description of him found its way through his letterbox within 24 hours. I write letters to friends (and reply to some from strangers) every week - it is my preferred method of communication, so corresponding with him has not proved to be a challenge - in fact, it has been quite the opposite - almost as much of a pleasure as it is to see him in the shop. We’ve now exchanged three or four letters in each direction.

Friday 15 May 2020

Card from Sandy the Tattooed Pagan (a Christmas card, which he told me that he hoped it was my first of the year) to say that he was doing well, but without a television or a mobile phone, or a computer, he was finding himself more isolated than most people. He also told me that he’d seen a swallow, and that normally he would have expected them well before now. He’s reading even more than usual, and at the moment is engrossed in a book about a shipwreck which he bought from my shop. One of his friends has seen a white tailed sea eagle, and that he’d recently seen six hares when he was out for a walk.

As a consequence of the hot, dry spring, everything in the polytunnel is considerably further ahead than I would have expected, the courgettes are coming along at a pace, and we should soon have strawberries, but the fields and rivers surrounding Wigtown look almost drought-ravaged by the lack of rain.

Friday 22 May 2020

Another letter from Sandy, who enclosed the following poem which he’d written in his confinement:

LOCKDOWN

I wake each day, arise and say, I’ll try and carry on

Get into "corona dreamtime" and this day will soon be gone

Nothing’s the same anymore, there’s no work, rest or play

Don’t hurry to lift the lockdown, and steal my dreamtime away.

No friends come to visit me, to grumble and to moan

My peace is seldom shattered, by my family on the phone

The radio reminds me, there are many thousands dead

I sit down to rest for a while, now I see it’s time for bed!

Coronavirus dreamtime, just what is and isn’t real?

Numbed by lies and statistics, so how do I know how I feel?

In splendid isolation, I exist therefore I am

Yet I’ll tell you without hesitation, I couldn’t give a damn.

One day it will all be over, though it won’t be anytime soon

I stand at that doorway and wonder, has everyone gone to the moon?

And yet the air is cleaner, with no aircraft in the skies

The buzzing I hear, loud and clear, it’s the bumble bees and flies.

In my world of corona dreamtime, I’m like a child once again

It’s a realm of love and laughter, no place for tears and pain

Here I meet my boyhood companions, I can hear their running feet

And the lassies songs and chatter, echo ghostly in the street.

Do I wish to return to "normality"? Am I even sure that I could?

I have lived in sweet serenity, and I have found it good

Brought to you by corona virus, when covid 19 came to call

It said "Welcome careless human race, mine hosts one and all".

Other correspondence from strangers continues, most of which comments upon how grateful I must be for "the internet" as a means of selling my shop stock online while the shop is shut. But "the internet" is now little more than Amazon when it comes to selling books online, and I decided last year that I am no longer prepared to sell through a company which I dislike so intensely. My hubris may well finish me off financially.

Monday 8 June 2020

Went to the Co-op. Scad - who owns the sweet shop next door to the Co-op and is one of the town’s best known and well-loved characters - was sitting on his plastic chair outside his shop. He’s clearly making the most of the queue which passes his door to chat to people and catch up with everyone.

Picked more strawberries from the polytunnel.

The elder is flowering now, and the clematis has finished, blown away by the strong winds of recent days. Must pick some elderflower and make some cordial.

My mother turned 80 during the lockdown, we went to visit her on what was a baking hot day. We were allotted a time slot, as she had other visitors scheduled for the day, and under the lockdown rules, our visits are forbidden to overlap. She’d set out chairs and a table in the garden, all the requisite distance away from her and my father, and we shouted across the lawn at one another in celebration.

Friday 12 June 2020

Drove to Sainsbury's after lunch so that we could pick up a few things that we can’t get in the Co-op. Farmers are now taking their second cut of silage, and the short grass remaining after the harvest - which was a parched yellow, is greening up again after a few days of intermittent rain. On the way home, I received a telephone call from Sarah, one of our neighbours, to say that she’d had a "baking disaster" which she thought we might enjoy. When we arrived back home, we discovered, on the bench outside the shop, a doughnut which looked exactly like a massive dog turd. It was delicious.

Shaun Bythell is the author of 'Diary of a Bookseller' and 'Confessions of a Bookseller', published by Profile

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