I like to read all sorts of things. In fact, I’d almost go as far as to say I have a bit of a morbid fear of not having anything to read. Never mind worrying about crashes, delays or even *gasp* running out of tea, my worst fear is a long journey without a book. I’ve been known to read, in great detail, the ingredients list on a pack of buffet-car crisps or every word of the inflight magazine and the safety instruction but, of course, I prefer a book. I’m not, as you may be able to tell from this blog, fixated on one type of book – I’ll read lots of fiction genres, history, biographies, science-writing as well as books written for children and young people – but I do have my favourites. I love history (both in fictional and non-fiction forms), to wallow in a good post-apocalypse or books that make me cry a bit: but the one things that will almost guarantee my interest is a book about books themselves. Like most people I enjoy reading about someone I can identify with – I like stories about booksellers. That sorts out my fiction needs but, generally speaking, booksellers aren’t really famous enough to feature in the biography or history sections. Although, of course, most booksellers aren’t Shaun Bythell, who runs The Bookshop in Wigtown, Scotland’s Book Town. We visited the town (and most of its bookshops) a few years ago on a short holiday in the Galloway area. We stayed at the Galloway Astronomy Centre so that Rob could play with big telescopes at night and during the day he ferried me round various art galleries and bookshops. A blissful few days marred only by the total elusiveness of the local red squirrels. The visit to Wigtown to see the bookshops (and pick up a book or two, obviously) was a highlight – if I’d read this book first we may have had to visit every day instead of just once.
This book is, as it says on the cover, a diary of a year in a secondhand bookseller’s life. On the factual side we are told how much the till took each day and how many online orders the shop received (and was able to supply) – this gives quite an insight into how financial vulnerable small independent retailers are. But the bits that I, and many others by the look of the reviews, really enjoyed was the no-holds-barred account of each day’s interactions with staff, neighbours and customers (both the paying kind and the looky-loos). I’m sure anyone who has ever worked in retail has had ‘moments’ where they have been confused, amused or shocked by the comments and reactions of customers – although I don’t think many could describe these interactions as amusingly as Bythell does. Not always in the most polite way (especially when talking about some of his staff) but with honesty, wit and a fair amount of dark humour. Think Black Books and you won’t go far wrong. What does shine through though is the love of the job itself – buying in stock, working with authors and helping people to find the books they want (even if they didn’t know what that book was) – and of reading. I’m a little bit jealous of Bythell’s life – the job, the beautiful part of the country he lives in and the community he is a part of – but his sales figures make me worried that it’s a life that is under threat. The best thing I can think of to do is to plan a return trip to Galloway – taking lots of book-buying cash with me. It’s a tough job, but I think I could manage it…
The best books (and films, tv, songs, whatever) are often the ones you can connect with. The ones where you understand what the characters are going through because you’ve been there. I mean, maybe not quite in the same way – I enjoyed Pride and Prejudice but I don’t live in Regency England and I’ve never been proposed to by Mr Darcy: but I have experienced the cut and thrust of family life and none of us are immune to judging people based on first impressions. I do enjoy books which seem to be totally beyond my own world but, in the middle of the dystopias and post-apocalypses I love, the part of the story I really want to read is human experience – the reaction of people like me to situations totally unlike anything I’ve ever been through.
The main character in Lost for Words, Loveday Cardew, is nothing like me. She’s tattooed, uncomfortable in social situations, writes poetry and spent most of her childhood in care but she is very much like me because she is a bookseller. A real bookseller. Not just someone who works in a bookshop – she’s the real thing. It is a bit self-indulgent but I absolutely loved the parts of this book where the bookshop, its customers and Loveday’s feeling for books are described. I may even have done the odd little fist-pump and shouted out ‘yesssss!’ with a sense of total understanding. However, I would imagine that you don’t need to be a bookseller to sympathise with Loveday’s position. She is trying her hardest to live a quiet life: she works in a second-hand bookshop in York (where I lived for 3 years in my student days), has a reasonably good relationship with her eccentric boss and tries to avoid much contact with almost everyone else. She feels she is not worth other people’s effort, unless they are looking for an obscure or hard to find book, and she certainly is not looking for love.
This was an unusual bit of chick-lit. Yes, it was about a young woman and her relationships but it was about quite a lot more. It looks at Loveday’s difficult past and her gradual acceptance of her future: she is a central character in a chick-lit novel that we could all find something in common with if we are honest – awkward, often grumpy and unreasonable. I really liked her. If you like something more than just romance in your chick-lit then maybe Loveday’s story is one for you.
I live in Bradford and was born in Basildon, Essex. What both these places have in common is that they have spent a lot of time being thought of as inferior to some other nearby (or not so nearby depending on your access to transport) town or city. In Basildon for many years any unobtainable item always resulted in the need for a shopping trip to London (which was called ‘going up to town’ as opposed to ‘going down to town’ if you were just shopping in Basildon itself – there’s an Essexism for you). In Bradford the opinion has often been that the only place worth going – for shopping, a night out, a decent football team, gigs – is Leeds. These things are not necessarily true but a reflection of how smaller towns and cities can almost wallow in their perceived inadequacies…*
Broken Wheel is another such town. It is described at one point as ‘a complete waste of brick, asphalt, and concrete’ and its inhabitants have become used to using the neighbouring town of Hope for anything beyond the basics. They are fine people – warm and welcoming when a newcomer arrives in their midst – but they are certainly not fully satisfied with their lives. The newcomer is Sara, who has come for an extended visit from Sweden, but who finds that the woman she was coming to visit, Amy, was a) rather older and more ill than she let on in her letters and b) dead. The townsfolk (who are welcoming, remember) invite her to stay in Amy’s house for the two months she was planning to stay. And, since the thing that bought the two women together in the first place was a love of books, it is not long before Sara decides to pay the townsfolk of Broken Wheel back for their kindness by opening a second-hand bookshop with Amy’s extensive collection. The town is unsure at first but, gradually, Sara (or rather the books themselves) work their magic as the right reader is matched with the right story.
I’m sure some of you may be thinking this sounds a bit twee and cheesy. You are not alone – some of the Broken Wheel residents have the same fears but it is more than that. This book is about a town which is broken and on the point of dying and about people who have, largely, given up hope. Although the books are very important ( especially, to Sara) it is the people who keep you reading. Each character has a back story which is developed and then, eventually resolved: on the surface by books but maybe mostly by someone taking the time to understand them enough to place the right book in their hands. And of course Sara’s unique approach to shop signage and recommendations made my bookseller’s heart beat a little faster.
I really loved this book. It is heart-warming without being sentimental and full of good old-fashioned decent people. There are love stories, tales of sadness and despair and parts that made me laugh out loud. I’ve seen a few reviews complaining that, when Sara talks about the books she loves, she often gives away spoilers. It didn’t bother me to be honest – what book-lover worth their salt doesn’t already know how Jane Eyre ends, for example?
*By the way, I can recommend a visit to Bradford if you want to see a city which is restoring its love for itself. As a wise man (okay, Rob) once said ‘Bradford will come back once it stops trying to be Leeds – Leeds is a fine place but Bradford has got heart> Just like Broken Wheel.