The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell

So you think you’d like to run a bookshop? Here’s a book to tempt and deter you in equal measure. In 2001 Shaun Bythell acquired The Book Shop, the flagship bookstore in Wigtown, the Book Town in Galloway in the southwest of Scotland. Here he gives a one-year snapshot of life at the shop, from February 2014 to February 2015. At the start you can feel the winter chill in the old granite building, and as months pass you sense mounting excitement at preparations for the annual Book Festival (going on now) and the Scottish referendum. It’s a pleasure to spend a vicarious year at the shop. This would make a great bedside book for a bookish type to parcel out 5–10 pages at a time (another Christmas gift idea?).

Bythell frequently ventures out to buy book collections in auctions and from estates, and occasionally goes fishing with his father or friends. But mostly we see what daily life is like for a bookshop owner. He can’t afford full-time staff, so gets sporadic help from university-age gals; his most “reliable” part-timer is Nicky, a ski suit-wearing, Dumpster-diving Jehovah’s Witness who blithely ignores much of what he asks her to do.

Every entry opens and closes with statistics on the day’s takings and online orders. Profits range from £5 to £500 a day, rising in the summer and peaking around £1200 during the festival. Also listed is the number of customers who make purchases, which represents only one-fifth of daily footfall. Nowadays most bookstores sell online too, and The Book Shop reluctantly partners with Amazon as a marketplace seller. There’s also ABE and eBay; as a last-ditch option, some outfits take books in bulk, even if just to recycle them. Alongside online sales, it’s essential for bookstores to have sidelines. Bythell does video production and sells furniture, antiques and walking sticks carved by “Sandy, the tattooed pagan.”

As with Wendy Welch’s The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, I enjoyed the nitty-gritty details about acquiring and pricing books, especially the serendipitous moments of coming across real treasures, like a book signed by Sir Walter Scott and a 1679 edition of the Decameron with an interesting provenance. The book is also full of quirky customer behavior, the kind of stuff that fills The Book Shop’s Facebook feed. Bythell cultivates a curmudgeonly persona – he once shot a broken Kindle and mounted it on the bookshop wall – and maintains a tone that’s somewhere between George Orwell (excerpts from whose “Bookshop Memories” serve as monthly epigraphs) and Jen Campbell (Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops et al.). Here’s a few of the best encounters:

a whistling customer with a ponytail and what I can only assume was a hat he’d borrowed from a clown bought a copy of Paolo Coelho’s The Alchemist, I suspect deliberately to undermine my faith in humanity and dampen my spirits further.

A man smelling of TCP [antiseptic] was the only customer in the shop for the first hour of opening, during which time I attempted to put out fresh stock. He had an uncanny ability to be standing in front of every shelf to which I needed access, regardless of the subject or where in the shop the relevant shelves were.

While I was repairing a broken shelf in the crime section, I overheard an elderly customer confusing E. L. James and M. R. James while discussing horror fiction with her friend. She is either going to be pleasantly surprised or deeply shocked when she gets home with the copy of Fifty Shades of Grey she bought.

I’ve been to Hay-on-Wye six times now but haven’t made it to Wigtown yet. It’s high on my bookish wish list. I had two additional reasons for wanting to read this particular book: I’d read Three Things You Need to Know about Rockets, a memoir by Bythell’s former partner, the American Jessica Fox (here known as “Anna”; in her book he’s “Ewan”), about coming to Scotland on a whim and falling in love with a bookshop owner; and I’m awfully fond of The Bookshop Band, a folky husband–wife musical duo who this year relocated from Bath to Wigtown. It was such fun to read about their first time playing in Wigtown and their stay as the inaugural guests/temporary store managers via The Open Book Airbnb project.

Colin Kinnear [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve written that the bookseller’s life is both appealing and daunting. When Bythell is lugging heavy boxes from a house clearance into his van and sorting through them only to find he’s acquired mostly rubbish, or when he comes across a browser who’s brazenly looking up books on Amazon on her laptop to see if she can get them cheaper, you wonder who’d do this for a living. But then there are times when he’s sitting by the fire with an excellent book recommended by a customer, or the town is bustling with festival events, or he’s watching spring come to rural Scotland, and you think: what could be better? In one of his last entries Bythell writes, “whatever is required to keep the ship afloat will be done. This life is infinitely preferable to working for someone else.” I wish him well, and hope to visit soon.

 

The Book Shop trivia:

  • December is by far the quietest month. (“The few people who give second-hand books as gifts for Christmas are usually eccentric” – count me as one of them!)
  • Railway books sell best.
  • Terry Pratchett, John Buchan, P.G. Wodehouse and E.F. Benson books are also perennial best sellers.
  • You’ll be amazed at how many customers try to haggle over prices. It’s a shop, not a rummage sale, for goodness’ sake! I can’t imagine ever having the cheek to offer less than the advertised price.

 

My rating:


The Diary of a Bookseller was released in the UK on September 28th. My thanks to Profile Books for the free review copy.

28 responses

  1. I bloody loved this, both on a professional and a personal level, and am delighted you liked it too. We’re putting it on our Autumn/Winter recommended reading list, and I’ll be hand-flogging it a lot too, pre-Christmas!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have my eye on this one. It looks like an anorak’s delight!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can’t see why any bookish type *wouldn’t* like it, whether you’ve worked in a bookshop or not.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. My ex-inlaws opened a second hand bookshop on retirement. It didn’t make them rich, but it made for an interesting life.

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    1. It sounds like an awfully hard way to make a living. And a lot more physically labour-intensive than you might think. If it was just a way for them to make their retirement a bit more comfortable, though, that sounds doable.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I like your early phrase, “to tempt or deter you in equal measure .”

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I learned from working at Wonder Book that it’s far better to be a customer than an employee! Before/since then I’ve volunteered in four more bookshops in total, which is a bit nicer because it’s all for charity and the customers are generally very nice. Co-workers are the bigger challenge.

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  5. I once worked for a chain that sold books – not their only line – where what I could stock was dictated by head office. A shop our size was allowed two copies of each Shakespeare play. I was in Stratford, Hamlet was on in the main house, everybody and his dog wanted a copy of the play and I could stock just two with a two week wait for further deliveries! Definitely have your own shop.

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    1. Working for anyone else can be rough. (Being my own boss as a freelancer certainly has its advantages!) Here Bythell gets to be the ruler of his own little kingdom, which probably suits him perfectly.

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  6. Popped over to read your review – I loved those quotes too, though I felt sad for some of the customers. I have been to Hay three times and need to go to Wigtown, also to Barter Books in Alnick which a friend who runs the Great North Run every year goes to every year!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I believe I have heard tell of the wonders of that Northumberland shop as well!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Everything about this sounds wonderful! I’d even be happy to go through those rubbish boxes with him. Scotland has long been one of the places I most want to go (for various reasons), and now I can pinpoint exactly where in Scotland I most want to go. 🙂
    I am also one of those people who give second hand books as gifts. Why not?!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I look through people’s Amazon wish lists, buy the books in charity shops, then mark them as purchased on the list. I can’t see why anyone would be fussy about getting a used copy in very good condition versus a new one!

      If you ever make it to Scotland, let me know and we’ll meet up in Wigtown. It looks like a very nice and less touristy part of the country anyway. There’s a bird reserve nearby that has had ospreys nesting in the past.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That would be fun! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  8. This should be required reading for anyone who has the romantic idea that it would be wonderful to run their own bookshop, if only to deter them from thinking that they would have so much time just to read. Ha.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, you’re quite right. Bythell only mentions about 4-5 books he picks up over the course of the whole year. It’s a more than full-time job.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. This sounds very good, the second review of it I have read today. I might have to buy it.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Glad Liz and I could persuade you! It’s a must for book lovers.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. This sounds excellent – it’s promising that Bythell doesn’t romanticise the idea of running a bookshop. I have never been to Wigtown but would love to visit one day.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Edinburgh’s book festival this year; Wigtown’s next? 🙂 I think Galloway looks like a nice place to visit anyway.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. […] It’s a pleasure to spend a vicarious year running The Book Shop in Wigtown, Scotland with the curmudgeonly Bythell. I enjoyed the nitty-gritty details about acquiring and pricing books, and the unfailingly quirky customer encounters. This would make a great one-year bedside book. (See my full review.) […]

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  12. […] Wigtown bookselling memoir last autumn, it felt like a sign that it was time. Did you see his The Diary of a Bookseller has been described in French as le quotidien d’un libraire misanthrope écossais (literally, […]

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  13. […] Festival bed, the stuffed badger, a scroll of bookseller’s rules, and a display of Bythell’s The Diary of a Bookseller. Together we found £35 worth of books we wanted to buy – whew! – thanks to my husband’s […]

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  14. […] The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell […]

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  15. […] of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell [August 29, Profile Books] The Diary of a Bookseller was a treat in 2017. I’ve read the first two-thirds of this already while in Milan, and I wish I […]

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  16. […] have a soft spot for literature’s curmudgeons – the real-life ones like J. R. Ackerley, Shaun Bythell and Geoff Dyer as well as the fictional protagonists like Dr. James Darke in Rick Gekoski’s debut […]

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  17. […] The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell (1,683 views) […]

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  18. […] of my viewing. Bythell, owner of The Book Shop, has become Wigtown’s literary celebrity through The Diary of a Bookseller and its sequel. In early November he has a new book coming out, Seven Kinds of People You Find in […]

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