‘Black Books’ Revisited

d87a084d-e9b7-4741-b4a5-f0fe54185e48.jpgPaige Miles

The owners of second-hand bookshops are both central and marginal to the literary marketplace. In their liminal role, they fulfil the modern demand for cheap, accessible books whilst operating an economically precarious system of selling and buying. Bernard Black, as played by Dylan Moran in ‘Black Books’, is a figure who plays with the stereotype of English miserliness, with his ostensible hatred for customers, who he refers to as “like a nest of pigs”. With his cranky and drunkard ways, he fulfils our expectation that bookshop owners must have a certain degree of detachedness from the outside world. He lives in the bubble of the bookshop, quite literally, and seeks to further withdraw himself. His cutting of the phone lines and his closed sign (which has no ‘open’ label) demonstrate how he seems to belong to a role which is at odds with modern culture, particularly its adherence to strict customer service rules.

Instead of following rules set out by modern, capitalist society, Bernard creates his own rules for customers in a comic reversal of the normal roles of seller and buyer. These rules distinguish him for non-second-hand bookshops, who don’t have the luxury of his methods of selling. When he tells a customer “under my roof you’ll abide by my rules – this isn’t Waterstones” he calls attention to the important factor of his ownership of the bookstore. That he has no managers or board to answer to; this is an important part of the culture that surrounds these bookstores. He also owns to the fact that the bookshop is personalised for him in a way that it wouldn’t be for a Waterstones employee. When someone walks into the shop, they are walking into an extension of his house. The defensive, and sometimes offensive, behaviour of Bernard Black makes more sense under this rationale.

Rather than welcoming customers he seeks to restrict or eject them from his store, even telling a woman “Beat it flaps” for trying to buy a book. His aversion to the “whole hideous cycle” of “acquiring and displaying books” is both a line of comical exaggeration and an implicit critique of the capitalist forces which drive us into these cycles. Buying books is inherently tied into our culture which creates and denotes social status. When we acquire and display books we are upholding what it means to have “good taste and the ability to participate in polite society”. There is a scene which illustrates the contempt Bernard holds for this: when a customer asks Black if a set of books are bound in real leather, wanting them to match his sofas, Bernard retorts, “Sorry, I need leather bound pounds to go with my wallet”. His refusal to profit off superficial motive for buying books sets him apart as a figure not just of comedy but of critique.

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