Blog 163: Non-Fiction Books about Bookshops & Books

June 24, 2023

1] Guarded By Dragons by Rick Gekoski

In Guarded by Dragons, Gekoski invites readers into this enchanted world as he reflects on the gems he has unearthed throughout his career. He takes us back to where his love of collecting began – perusing D.H. Lawrence first editions in a slightly suspect Birmingham carpark. What follows are dizzying encounters with literary giants as Gekoski publishes William Golding, plays ping-pong with Salman Rushdie and lunches with Graham Greene. A brilliant stroke of luck sees Sylvia Plath’s personal copy of The Great Gatsby fall into Gekoski’s lap, only for him to discover the perils of upsetting a Poet Laureate when Ted Hughes demands its return.

Hunting for literary treasure is not without its battles and Gekoski boldly breaks the cardinal rule never to engage in a lawsuit with someone much richer than yourself, while also guarding his bookshop from the most unlikely of thieves. The result is an unparalleled insight into an almost mythical world where priceless first editions of Ulysses can vanish, and billionaires will spend as much gold as it takes to own the manuscript of J.K. Rowling’s Tales of Beedle the Bard.

With over fifty years experience of buying and selling books, Rick Gekoski shares his stories from the world of the rare book trade. Gekoski explains the complexities of the book trade and the red flags to look out for. Witty and charming, he recalls memorable moments of dealing with books and his encounters with people from all walks of life. Gekoski offers his insight into the publishing industry and his advice for collecting books.

2] Once Upon A Tome: The Misadventures Of A Rare Bookseller by Oliver Darkshire

Some years ago, Oliver Darkshire stepped into the hushed interior of Henry Sotheran Ltd on Sackville Street (est. 1761) to interview for their bookselling apprenticeship, a decision which has bedevilled him ever since.

He’d intended to stay for a year before launching into some less dusty, better remunerated career. Unfortunately for him, the alluring smell of old books and the temptation of a management-approved afternoon nap proved irresistible. Soon he was balancing teetering stacks of first editions, fending off nonagenarian widows with a ten-foot pole and trying not to upset the store’s resident ghost (the late Mr Sotheran had unfinished business when he was hit by that tram).

For while Sotheran’s might be a treasure trove of literary delights, it sings a siren song to eccentrics. There are not only colleagues whose tastes in rare items range from the inspired to the mildly dangerous, but also zealous collectors seeking knowledge, curios, or simply someone with whom to hold a four hour conversation about books bound in human skin.

Interesting and full of book-related facts, Once Upon A Tome describes the life of a bookshop, the work, and the knowledge you have to learn along the way. Darkshire shows all the pros and cons working in the rare book trade.

3] The Diary Of A Bookseller by Shaun Bythell

Shaun Bythell owns The Bookshop, Wigtown – Scotland’s largest second-hand bookshop. It contains 100,000 books, spread over a mile of shelving, with twisting corridors and roaring fires, and all set in a beautiful, rural town by the edge of the sea. A book-lover’s paradise? Well, almost …

In these wry and hilarious diaries, Shaun provides an inside look at the trials and tribulations of life in the book trade, from struggles with eccentric customers to wrangles with his own staff, who include the ski-suit-wearing, bin-foraging Nicky. He takes us with him on buying trips to old estates and auction houses, recommends books (both lost classics and new discoveries), introduces us to the thrill of the unexpected find, and evokes the rhythms and charms of small-town life, always with a sharp and sympathetic eye.

A more fact than fiction account (with some embellishment) of what it’s like to work in a second hand bookshop. Shaun’s account of the daily running of the shop, his ventures, his customers and his cat are immensely entertaining.



4] Drif’s Guide To All The Second-hand & Antiquarian Bookshops In Britain

‘This book is neither fict nor faction, it is both friction and fraction, it is shorter because I had longer, it is worse because I am better.’ 

First published in 1984, this guide is out of date and sadly many of the bookshops mentioned are now closed.

Drif comments on the definition of a second hand bookshop, the decline of bookshops, pricing, and opening hours. Drif says ‘The most important part of a bookshop, is that it should be open. I do not accept that places that open less than three days a week are bookshops.’ 

Drif describes in his own way the various different bookshops up and down Britain, though you will need to read his list of abbreviations to understand what he is talking about.


5] Bookshop Tours Of Britain by Louise Boland

Based on her touring of bookshops, which she did over the three years since starting Fairlight, Louise Boland’s Bookshop Tours of Britain is a slow-travel guide to Britain, navigating bookshop to bookshop.

Across 18 bookshop tours, the reader journeys from the Jurassic Coast of southwest England, over the mountains of Wales, through England’s industrial heartland, up to the Scottish Highlands and back via Whitby, the Norfolk Broads, central London, the South Downs and Hardy’s Wessex. On their way, the tours visit beaches, castles, head down coal mines, go to whiskey distilleries, bird watching, hiking, canoeing, to stately homes and the houses of some of Britain’s best-loved historic writers – and last but not least, a host of fantastic bookshops.

A great reference book to introduce you to bookshops you might not know about from all over Britain.


6] Bibliomaniac by Robin Ince

Why play to 12,000 people when you can play to 12? In Autumn 2021, Robin Ince’s stadium tour with Professor Brian Cox was postponed due to the pandemic. Rather than do nothing, he decided he would instead go on a tour of over a hundred bookshops, from Wigtown to Penzance; from Swansea to Margate.

Packed with anecdotes and tall tales, Bibliomaniac follows Robin up and down the country in his quest to discover just why he can never have enough books. It is the story of an addiction and a romance, and also of an occasional points failure just outside Oxenholme.

This book is an enjoyable journey with Robin Ince around the towns, cities, and independent bookshops of Britain. Robin Ince describes his love of books and collecting books, sharing his mind-boggling knowledge on just about every topic under the sun. On pages 235-237 he talks about his visit to Westwood Books in Sedbergh, where he arrives on a dark and stormy night to a patiently seated audience, and finding himself next to the craft section, immediately launches into a talk on Thesiger’s efforts to give wounded soldiers purpose and employment through embroidery.


7] The Bookseller’s Tale by Martin Latham

This is the story of our love affair with books, whether we arrange them on our shelves, inhale their smell, scrawl in their margins or just curl up with them in bed. Taking us on a journey through comfort reads, street book stalls, mythical libraries, itinerant pedlars, radical pamphleteers, extraordinary bookshop customers and fanatical collectors, Canterbury bookseller Martin Latham uncovers the curious history of our book obsession – and his own.

Part cultural history, part literary love letter and part reluctant memoir, this is the tale of one bookseller and many, many books.

Martin Latham is a well-known figure in the book trade; manager of the Canterbury branch of Waterstones for over thirty years. The Bookseller’s Tale is a collection of stories and thoughts about everything book-related.



8] Reading Allowed By Chris Paling

Chris works as a librarian in a small-town library in the south of England. This is the story of the library, its staff, and the fascinating group of people who use the library on a regular basis.

Some of the characters’ stories are tragic, some are amusing, some are genuinely surreal, but together they will paint a bigger picture of the world we live in today, and of a library’s hugely important place within it. Yes, of course, people come in to borrow books, but the library is also the equivalent of the village pump. It’s one of the few places left where anyone, regardless of age or income or background, can wander in and find somebody to listen to their concerns, to share the time of day.

Reading Allowed will provide us with a fascinating portrait of a place that we all value and cherish, but which few of us truly know very much about.

Paling works in a city library somewhere in the south of England. Here he recounts a range of stories about the curious goings-on and the variety of people he meets on a day-to-day basis. A great book for anyone thinking about going to work in a library or already works in a library.

9] Weird Things Customers Say In Bookshops by Jen Campbell

A John Cleese Twitter question (“What is your pet peeve?”), first sparked the “Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops” blog, which grew over three years into one bookseller’s collection of ridiculous conversations on the shop floor.

From “Did Beatrix Potter ever write a book about dinosaurs?” to the hunt for a paperback which could forecast the next year’s weather; and from “I’ve forgotten my glasses, please read me the first chapter” to “Excuse me… is this book edible?”, here is a book for heroic booksellers and booklovers everywhere.

This full-length collection illustrated by the Brothers McLeod also includes top “Weird Things” from bookshops around the world.

A humorous book about the miscommunications between customers and booksellers.


10] Diary Of a Tuscan Bookshop by Alba Donati

Alba used to live a hectic life, working as a book publicist in Florence – a life that made her happy and led her to meet prominent international authors. And yet, she always felt like she was a woman on the run.

And so one day she decides to stop running and go back to Lucignana, the small village on the Tuscan hills where she was born, to open a tiny bookshop.

With a total of only 180 residents, Alba’s enterprise in Lucignana seems doomed from day one but it surprisingly sparks the enthusiasm of many across Tuscany – and beyond.

Although ‘Diary of a Tuscan Bookshop’ is written in the form of diary entries, it feels more like a memoir. Donati writes often about events in the past, her friends and her family. She writes about her experiences and thoughts from childhood and growing up. Donati is not a sarcastic, grumpy bookseller, she is a positive and charming soul with her own brand of humour, and an undeniable passion for books.


11] On Reading by George Orwell

George Orwell set out ‘to make political writing into an art’, and to a wide extent this aim shaped the future of English literature – his descriptions of authoritarian regimes helped to form a new vocabulary that is fundamental to understanding totalitarianism. While 1984 and Animal Farm are amongst the most popular classic novels in the English language, this new series of Orwell’s essays seeks to bring a wider selection of his writing on politics and literature to a new readership.

On Reading, the seventh in the Orwell’s Essays series, collects together Orwell’s short essays on books – ‘Bookshop Memories’, ‘Good Bad Books’, ‘Nonsense Poetry’, ‘Books vs. Cigarettes’ and ‘Confessions of a Book Reviewer’ – giving a rounded view of the great writer’s opinions on the literature of his day, and the vessels in which it was sold.

I put this one in this list mainly because of George Orwell’s essay ‘Bookshop Memories’, which describes Orwell’s time working in a London bookshop called Booklover’s Corner.