Used to be, every urban core had—along with its roughneck bars and irreplaceable thrift stores—a kind of used bookstore that needed the motto, “Nothing In this Shop Is Actually for Sale.” In this age of Alibris and Amazon, I would have thought they were all extinct, but there’s at least one left in Berkeley, as I found out the other day: the leaky roof, the aisles blocked by paper bags full of unwanted tomes; the prices ranging from monumental to astronomical ($40 for a “collectible” Hungarian edition of Jan Kerouac’s Baby Driver), and an owner who suffered from delusions of grandeur. Not only did he refuse to acknowledge the customers when they arrived at his dank and crowded shop, but he also took time to bawl out two separate visitors for reasons too banal to repeat here. While my visit there was a total waste of time, I was still glad to see there’s still that kind of talent in the used book biz.
Now, the Channel 4 series Black Books is about just such a shop, in a marginal, crime-prone neighborhood on the way into gentrification. The no-visible-means-of-support protagonist is to the book trade what Basil Fawlty was to the world of hotels. The surly Bernard Black (played by the show’s co-writer Dylan Moran) has the kind of Irish accent that’s so full of bark it seems a step away from Nazi commandant. He does not draw a sober breath, and he lays down the ever-changing and never quite coherant law on the few customers who wander in. (His ban on cell-phones—enforced with a ball-peen hammer—will cheer quite a few of us who never got used to imbeciles shouting in public places.)Bernard’s assistant is Manny, a dazed hippie—”a beard with an idiot attached”—played by Bill Bailey. He’s as much of a brake on Bernard’s ego as there could possibly be; he takes care of the bookkeeping and tries futile improvements on the shop. One time he buys a security system (from a lisping oaf, played by Nick Frost of Hot Fuzz and etc.) or else he hires a clean-up crew to take care of the septic conditions on the place.
From next door is the naieve and strange Fran Katzenjammer (played by the Jewish/Scottish comedienne Tamsin Grieg), who involves herself in Bernard’s ever-warped affairs. The Seinfeld/Elaine relationship seems to be some kind of touchstone for this comedy, but Fran is a lot less successful than Elaine is with the men, and more prone to slapstick injuries. The first season’s episode “The Blackout” leaves her in a whiplash collar, for example. She has a job of sorts at “Nifty Gifty,” a useless boutique.As is the case in British sitcoms, there’s a sense of the story building in every new installment; rather than reiterating the character flaws, each episode reveals new ones. “The Blackout” not only shows Bernard’s epic drunkenness, but his tender feelings for the Auld Country: “Oh, the songs, the songs,” he croaks to a frightened 6-year-old, “they’d blister the face off of you for pity.” Something of his off-camera lovelife can be guessed when he explains to Manny where the money has gone. He quips, in a merry, faux debonair mutter: “Whores will have their trinkets!” The first disk on BBC video reveals six episodes of the chaos of the worst bookstore in London, and I’m happy to have just found out there are two other seasons of this show around.
I’m a little late on this one, so stop me if you’ve seen it already. I doubt if KQED would pick it up, seeing as how it’s not a flatulent documentary on the Rat Pack, or a sleep-inducing nature documentary. Black Books is far too vicious for them, or too funny.