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Lost and Found: ‘Black Books’

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In this Funkhouser installment, I rummage through a hodgepodge of television shows and films, some of which are so obscure, you might be discovering them for the first time, others, simply forgotten about, several possibly mothballed and finally a few that just vanished into the ether altogether.  This is Lost and Found: Episode 7.

Sadly, independently owned bookstores are becoming a rarity.  Every year it seems, a handful of antiquarians close the books on their businesses, leaving behind an orphaned hodgepodge of yellowed, mildewed, thrifty paperbacks, and dusty, but treasured leather-bound classics.  Over my life, I’ve spent a lot of time in such places–not so much reading or buying anything, but mainly piddling and poking around.  This practice is one of the many reasons to blame for their demise, I suppose.  However, it’s good to see that in the age of Amazon and Goliath-type businesses, a few booksellers remain defiant. Stores like these have certain unmistakable and common qualities about them.  Navigating their maze-like shelves can be treacherous: you have to be mindful not to bump into the assorted stacks of titles and periodicals, rising like stalagmites, from above the creaky, well-worn, wooden floors, that bend and yield under your weight with every step.  There’s more often than not, a bell tied to the front door to alert the proprietor of customers, typically a lethargic or deceased dog or cat laying around, withered plants, empty bottles, strategically placed cobwebs, and a handful of dead insects lining the hazy glass windows.  But it’s always their eccentric owners, who are the real gems and give the stores so much of their character.

Bernard Black is one such owner.

Black Books is an out-of-print, but classic nonetheless, British television sitcom, originally airing in the U.K. from 2000 to 2004.  Until now, I was unfamiliar with its existence, but forced indoors, away from the dreary and cold-weather this weekend, I found the series almost by accident–all eighteen episodes–streaming on Netflix, and I binge-watched it in its entirety.  Don’t judge a book, or show rather, by its cover–believe me, the show’s dark, pessimistic tone coupled with the mundane, sometimes outlandish storylines are deceptively funny.  Not surprising the show has everything you’d expect from a British comedy: loads of sarcasm, sardonic put-downs, subtle tongue-in-cheek humor, and enough double entendres, you’ll catch yourself laughing at the most inopportune times, long after it’s over.

Set in London, Black Books, centers around Irishman Bernard Black (Dylan Moran), an unkept, anti-social, chain-smoking, nihilistic, drunkard, and proprietor of said bookstore.  Like many of his real-life counterparts, he’s a likable louse, but quite vexing, most notably in his indifference on whether or not he sells anything at all.  Often hungover, he’s callous and rude towards customers and his help–you wonder how he stays in business at all.  His only on again/off again employee is Manny Bianco (played deftly by comedian, Bill Bailey) a genuinely talented, good-natured, but lovable dolt, who serves as shopkeeper, primary salesperson, and chief whipping boy for Black.  Rounding out the cast is Fran Katzenjammer (Tamsin Grieg) a neurotic, shrill, obsessive man-eater, former one-night-stand, and long time friend of Black’s, who runs a chotsky shop next to the bookstore.  Together, their adventures, akin to Seinfeld, border on a show about nothing, but that narrative works, because one can only imagine the bizarre turn of events and goings-on that happen within the walls of a bookstore, and between the ears of the uniquely peculiar proprietors.  Although the show features a laugh track, you’ll find yourself grinning and snickering at the dialogue, which is smart and bitingly clever, as well as each character’s uniquely habitual mannerisms, idiosyncrasies, quirks and tics.  I would recommend watching S1:E1 but after that, it’s up to you.  If binge-watching it from start to end (S3:E18) is your thing, have at it. But if that doesn’t suit you, then take your time, meander around–maybe viewing the series à la carte will hook you.  Whatever.

Black Books, much like the remarkable one-of-a-kind bookstores and the flaky owners that inspired it, is something you’ll have to experience for yourself.

“ALL RIGHT, THE SHOP IS CLOSED.  EVERYBODY GET OUT!!”

Black Books is rated TV-PG.

 

Article written by Matthew Mahone

Follow me on Twitter @M_E_Mahone