A Real-Life Bookseller Weighs In on 7 Fictional Ones

Shaun Bythell examines the stereotypes of booksellers in pop culture

With almost 20 years of bookselling experience behind me and (hopefully) a good many more to come, compiling a list of fictional booksellers appeared at first to be an effortless task, but after a little research I was astonished to find out quite how many books have been set in bookshops.

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I suppose there’s a kind of romance associated with the place where old books await a new life in fresh hands, and a sense that a place that contains thousands of stories bound within the books on its shelves should be a natural home to the setting of a story.

My book, The Diary of a Bookseller, recounts a year of buying and selling books in my shop in rural Scotland, but there is a world of other tales set in and around bookshops. Below are some of my favorites booksellers in fiction:

Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons

Stereotype one— the ‘know-it-all’ sneering bookseller who appears to care less about making sales than he does about making his customers feel stupid. The creators of The Simpsons creators have distilled the most obvious characteristics of the obsessive into a character who is both odious and pitiable in equal measure. Comic Book Guy’s passion for his subject it matched only by his contempt for his customers, and in many respects this reflects the reason why people who are passionate about their subject find it frustrating dealing with others who are less well informed than they are.

John Baxter from The Intimate Thoughts of John Baxter, Bookseller by Augustus Muir

Although Muir attempted to pass this off as a genuine diary, it quickly becomes obvious from reading it that this is a work of fiction, and Baxter — charming, knowledgeable, frustrated, and vaguely incompetent — is Muir’s parody of the booksellers he encountered in Edinburgh at the time in which he wrote it. Booksellers in fiction appear to conform to one of several stereotypes, and Muir’s protagonist certainly conforms to the most obvious; the autodidact who believes that his hard-learned knowledge entitles him to a better life than the lot he has been cast. Despite the inevitable bitterness that accompanies such a character, Baxter is someone to whom it is impossible not to warm as the book unfolds, and his final realization that he is content with his quiet life in a small Scottish bookshop comes as no surprise at the conclusion of the book.

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Dean Corso from The Ninth Gate based on The Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte, translated by Sonia Soto

Another stereotype manifests itself — this time it is of the unscrupulous book dealer Dean Corso (played by Johnny Depp). No depths of dishonesty and manipulation are too low for Corso to sink in his avarice, and the premise of the story is that Depp’s bookseller is charged with acquiring the three remaining copies of a 17th century book which — when put together — contain the requisite information to summon the devil. Corso’s character in the film throws into relief the moral dilemma faced by booksellers on a daily basis; what are you prepared to sell in order to make a living, even if it conflicts with your own beliefs. Corso, though, appears to be so devoid of a magnetic field in his moral compass that this doesn’t seem to cause him any problems.

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruis Zafón, translated by Lucia Graves

This is less about a fictional bookseller, and more about a fictional book. And another one about the devil, but this time the protagonist is a young boy whose father (an antiquarian bookseller) takes him to a secret library in post-Civil War Barcelona to pick a book which he has to protect for the rest of his life. The story is utterly spellbinding, and the message about the power of books — although far from subtle — is something which both booksellers and readers have found hard to resist.

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Florence from The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

This is a book which — I have to confess — I haven’t read. The film, though, I have watched, and as a bookseller found a little two-dimensional. Florence (the widow around whom the story is based) moves to rural Suffolk to open a bookshop in a building which the upstanding elders of the town have earmarked for use as a centre for the arts. She finds herself embroiled in a conflict with them, employing the daughter of a poor family (who she turns into a bibliophile) and being almost rescued from financial ruin by a reclusive aristocrat but ultimately losing her fight to keep her shop open.

The Private Papers of a Bankrupt Bookseller by Will Y Darling

Darling’s bookseller is — like John Baxter — a fictional creation. The melancholy essays which make up the book were purportedly written by a man who — after suffering the trauma of the First World War — decided to open a bookshop. In the foreword, the author (under the guise of a character known only as X. Z. E) describes the bookseller as having been ‘hit on the head in the War’ as a possible explanation for why he decided to become a bookseller. The essays are at times poignant, at others unspeakably funny. Even Darling’s foreword (to the foreword — there are two) is brilliantly understated. In describing how the bankrupt bookseller committed suicide, Darling explains how, on being notified of his impending financial catastrophe, he ended his life by putting his head in a gas stove; ‘The gas was full on and not lighted. The stove was one of the new kind — more like an ordinary grate than the upright sort’, paying more attention to the detail of the stove than the tragedy with which it was associated.

Bernard Black from Black Books

No list of fictional booksellers would be complete without the inclusion of Bernard Black, Dylan Moran’s superbly drawn character from the 18 episodes of this fine comedy series. Cranky, irascible, frequently drunk and with little or no patience for his customers, Bernard is the fictional bookseller with whom I most readily identify. The observations and detail made by the writers (Moran and Graham Lenahan) are precise and accurate, and the other members of the cast — Manny and Fran provide the eccentric characters who are the perfect foil to Bernard’s incessant fury at the world and his customers in particular.

About the Author

Shaun Bythell is the owner of The Bookshop in Wigtown, Scotland — Scotland’s largest second-hand bookshop — and is the author of The Diary of a Bookseller.

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