Friday essay: do readers dream of running a bookshop? Books about booksellers are having a moment – the reality can be less romantic


My mother and I wanted to open a bookshop. We signed up for a CAE course, which was cancelled when the bookseller who ran it went out of business. I learnt this later because I went on to work in a bookshop and the book business is a small world.

As are bookshops. And books. Worlds within worlds within worlds.

My first job was in hospitality. It was hard work; physical labour. I cased city bookshops, handing out my CV, dreaming of a different life. My new boss saw me coming: I spent my first day unpacking box after box. Stacking, shelving – book after book. He tried to teach me they might as well be bricks, albeit in pretty packaging. Not-so-fast-moving, never-moving-as-fast-as-booksellers-might-like consumer goods.

But “handselling”, that mainstay of the independent “High Street” book trade, was everything I hoped it would be. I loved – love – the aesthetic object of the book. The artefact at the heart of an exchange that is rarely as simple as a commercial transaction. (Except, you might say, when someone is buying something as a gift that says “I spent this much. I know this much about you.” But even then, it seemed we were engaged in a storytelling exchange. Swapping literary histories. Imagining reading futures.)




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It wasn’t only the book-based conversations with customers and colleagues that fulfilled my expectations. Part of the pleasure of bookselling was the sense of satisfaction I got in being a bibliotherapeutic matchmaker. Reader, I had been training for this my whole life.

A photograph of an old fashioned bookshop sign

The artefact at the heart of a book sale is rarely as simple as a commercial transaction.
sylv1rob1/Shutterstock

Given the sense of community that coalesces around bookstores and the connection between people books can be a conduit for, it’s not surprising books about bookshops are popular. These stories are a genre unto themselves. They are invariably romantic, offering a different kind of (infinite) world within a (finite) world.

There are famous examples from fantasy, such as the wildly popular The Shadow of the Wind (2001), and closer to home, the wonderful adventure that is From Here on, Monsters (2020), both featuring antiquarian booksellers. Nonfiction books such as the 1970 classic 84 Charing Cross Road, a tale told in letters between a New York writer and a used book dealer in London, rub spines with historical novels such as The Bookseller of Florence: Vespasiano da Bisticci and the Manuscripts that Illuminated the Renaissance (2021).

book cover: Bookseller of Kabul

More recently there has been a spate of translations. From The Bookseller of Kabul, first published in Norwegian in 2002, to Days at the Morisaki Bookshop, by Japanese author Satoshi Yagisawa, to Welcome to the Hyunam-Dong Bookshop, Shanna Tan’s 2023 translation of Hwang Bo-Reum’s 2022 Korean bestseller.

These tales are not only set in bookshops, but revolve around bookselling itself. They describe the day-to-day work in detail, as meaningful: life sustaining and life-changing. A longed-for return to authenticity and more-than-economic exchange.

The reality is a little different.

In a 2019 essay for Overland aptly titled “Retail Therapist”, bookseller and writer Freya Howarth articulated the “desirable, intellectual, even romantic” perception of working in a bookshop and the emotional labour at its heart.

This non-unionised, highly educated, usually part-time and often under-employed workforce provided a particular service, she wrote. Booksellers care for customers: smile, listen, suggest. And retail work, Howarth argued, has historically been feminised.

The industry’s working conditions have made the news as a result of pay disputes such as a recent one at Melbourne’s Readings bookstores during negotiations over an enterprise bargaining agreement.

After a heated dispute, in which authors sent a letter to Readings calling for “a living wage” for staff, the bookseller became the second Australian bookshop to negotiate an EBA. It was hailed by the staff union as “one of the best retail agreements in Australia”.

Still, what was it some old-timer once said? Find a job you love and you never have to work a day in your life. Howarth’s point is that finding a job you love – such as bookselling, or publishing; or I would add academia – may mean you work unpaid overtime for the rest of your life.




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Contradictory worlds

One of the most famous contemporary books about bookselling is undoubtedly the Norwegian bestseller The Bookseller of Kabul. Published in English in 2003 (translated by Ingrid Christophersen), this nonfiction narrative by journalist Asne Seierstad tells the story of self-made small businessman Shah Muhammad Rais and his family, with whom the author stayed for four months.

Rais’s store, which opened in 1974, was a gathering place for intellectuals, housing a vast collection of books on Afghanistan, as well as foreign titles – when he wasn’t hiding them around the city.

Rais was repeatedly arrested, interrogated and imprisoned for his views on censorship. Seierstad makes clear her subject’s belief in the power of books and the important role they play in education and liberation. Meanwhile, however, the eponymous bookseller’s two wives were confined to their homes.

Seierstad was in a unique position: as a Westerner she had an outsider’s perspective and was able to move between public and private, male and female domains. She made the unusual decision to write some chapters from different characters’ perspectives, which somewhat compromised the book’s status as nonfiction, but there was no mistaking her political point of view.

This real-life story took a turn when the family later brought legal action against the author. A Norwegian court cleared Seierstad of any invasion of privacy in 2011 and concluded the facts of the book were accurate.

The cover of Shah Muhammad Rais's book.


Goodreads

But Rais is claiming asylum in the UK , with his family scattered across the globe. He has published his own version of his story: Once Upon a Time There Was a Bookseller in Kabul.

Books about bookselling in translation may be the ultimate escapism. They are not literary; they are about literature. (Though too over-the-top an affirmation of the value of books and reading risks the medium contradicting the message.) We read for insight into a world that is usually worlds away from “ours”.

However, there is a sparseness to the prose of these international titles that makes it hard to parse. Is the baldness of the language a stylistic or cultural characteristic of the original? Is it an aspect (intentional? accidental?) of the translation? Certainly, for me, it adds to their foreignness.

The cover of Carsten Henn's book.

In Carsten Henn’s The Door-to-Door Bookstore (2020), translated from German by Melody Shaw and published in English this year, Carl Kollhoff delivers book requests direct to his reclusive customers – whose reading styles are humorously described and readily recognisable. Hares race through pages while tortoises fall asleep while reading.

When a young girl tags along on Carl’s rounds, playing havoc with his system of choosing books for customers, the message is clear: what we want to read is not always what we need. The friendship that develops is charming and heartwarming, with the oddball pair and their worthy work pitted against big, bad business when the boss’s daughter takes over the family bookshop.

(His book also reminded me of a dear friend who used to say there are courtly readers – who, like chaste lovers, never abandoned a book face down, stained it with wine, scribbled in the margins or dog-eared pages. And then there are those like me. Let’s just say my books have lived a life.)

It may be no coincidence that these newer additions to the genre emerged during, or soon after, the world’s long lockdowns. Many of us experienced a desperate desire to find windows onto a world beyond our own backyards. Invalids are often avid readers (perhaps most famously, Robert Louis Stevenson) and COVID made patients, prisoners of us all. I would go as far as to say my pre-teen learnt to read, really lose himself in a book, during quarantine. Even when screen time was limited, his Kindle was always available – though the lack of access to physical libraries disadvantaged others.

What better place to escape to – through the pages of a book – than an overseas bookshop? A key feature of The Door-to-Door Bookstore and the titles that follow are their to-be-read lists – which are interspersed throughout, often discussed in conversations between characters. The books themselves might even be seen as portable libraries – or old-fashioned indexes, at least. Annotated bibliographies of what we should read; summaries of what we did, once, but may have forgotten.


Goodreads

Days at the Morisaki Bookshop, translated from Japanese by Eric Ozawa this year, was written by Satoshi Yagisawa in 2010. Twenty-year-old Takako quits her job and takes to her bed when her boyfriend announces, out of the blue, he is marrying someone else. Facing the prospect of moving home, she instead moves into the flat above her eccentric uncle’s bookshop.

A proud non-reader, Takako gradually returns to books as her heart heals.

This book rather heavy-handedly makes the case for great literature as a doorway not only into other worlds, but onto other selves. Or back to a true self for damaged salary-workers like Takako who have been swept off course. The shop is repeatedly described as a “safe harbour”. A place to shelter, regather and regroup – for bookseller and buyers alike.

Books about bookshops may be read as “heterotopias”, a concept Michel Foucault uses to describe cultural and discursive spaces that are contradictory or transformative. Worlds within worlds. Parallel spaces such as museums and botanic gardens that mirror the “real” world but are artfully, artificially created curations.




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Explainer: the ideas of Foucault


Bookshops are similarly contradictory: though they may be idealised as places of escape and reading may be romanticised as transformative, both are intrinsically bound up with capitalism. They offer solace, but ultimately exist to sell.

Still, the opposite is true too. Books are commercial products but their content escapes the covers. Like The Neverending Story, the “other” world we read about bleeds into our own. Even if a book is banned or burned, once read it is out in the world.

A love letter and pause for thought

Welcome to the Hyunam-Dong Bookshop is an even more explicit love letter to bookselling. Running a bookshop enables the novel’s main character to get out of the rat race and eventually even find her soulmate.

Cover of Welcome to the Hyunam-dong Bookshop.


Goodreads

“I must open a bookshop,” Yeongju says. Throwing herself headlong into this task as a way to change her life, she reinvents her relationship with work. Her story is a blow-by-blow account of her building the business, making conscious choices about employee relations, carving out personal reading time and nurturing a local community in an out-of-the-way neighbourhood.

Given my own early experience in the secondhand and antiquarian trade, along with a short stint at the BooksEtc chain in the UK, it’s hard to argue against the idea of bookselling as an alternate way of making a living.

But it’s not necessarily an alternative one. A bookshop is, after all, a business. One that is battling the behemoth Amazon, as well as an ever-increasing number of entertainment alternatives and ever-diminishing attention spans. Even reluctant booksellers embraced social media and e-commerce during COVID – as Yeongju learns to do.

If bookshops are to survive and thrive, perhaps they do well to “sell” the idea theirs is a different kind of career. A calling.

Robbie Egan, CEO of BookPeople (previously the Australian Booksellers Association), has described bookshops as “third-places”, engaging with their customers in meaningful ways that can’t be reduced to a commercial transaction. It’s about community, he tells me, pointing out how many Australian writers have been – or still are – booksellers, from Kris Kneen to Sean O’Beirne.




Read more:
Friday essay: the Melbourne bookshop that ignited Australian modernism


In a note to readers in Welcome to the Hyunam-Dong Bookshop, Bo-Reum reflects on writing her debut novel. She describes how she sat at her desk every day not knowing what to write, until the bookshop appeared. “Everything else fell in place.” This letter perpetuates ideas about writing (immersive, inspirational, enjoyable) that are every bit as romantic as the world of bookselling she describes.

Yet of all these recent books, The Bookseller of Kabul is the one I return to. I cannot forget Seierstad’s imagined account of Aimal, Sultan’s youngest son, in a chapter called The Dreary Room. He is 12 years old and works 12 hours a day, seven days a week “in a little booth in the dark lobby of one of Kabul’s hotels”.

Aimal longs to go to school. He wails that his father, a rich bookseller “passionate about words and history”, has him working in a sweet shop as the best way to learn the family business.



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