During the coronavirus pandemic, we have had to take small pleasures where we can. One of the highlights of lockdown for me has been the chance to participate in literary events like book-themed concerts, prize shortlist announcements, book club discussions, live literary award ceremonies and book festivals that time, distance and cost might otherwise have precluded.
In May I attended several digital Hay Festival events, and this September to early October I’ve been delighted to journey back to Wigtown, Scotland – even if only virtually.
The Bookshop Band
The Bookshop Band have been a constant for me this year. After watching their 21 Friday evening lockdown shows on Facebook, as well as a couple of one-off performances for other festivals, I have spent so much time with them in their living room that they feel more like family than a favorite band. Add to that four of the daily breakfast chat shows from the Wigtown Book Festival and I’ve seen them play over 25 times this year already!
(The still below shows them with, clockwise from bottom left, guests Emma Hooper, Stephen Rutt and Jason Webster.)
Ben and Beth’s conversations with featured authors and local movers and shakers, punctuated by one song per guest, were pleasant to have on in the background while working. The songs they performed were, ideally, written for those authors’ books, but other times just what seemed most relevant; at times this was a stretch! I especially liked seeing Donal Ryan, about whose The Spinning Heart they’ve recently written a terrific song; Kate Mosse, who has been unable to write during lockdown so (re)read 200 books instead, including all of Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh et al.; and Ned Beauman, who is nearing the deadline for his next novel, a near-future story of two scientists looking for traces of the venomous lumpsucker (a made-up fish) in the Baltic Sea. Closer to science fiction than his previous work, it’s a funny take on extinctions, he said. I’ve read all of his published work, so I’m looking forward to this one.
The opening event of the Festival was an in-person chat between Lee Randall and Shaun Bythell in Wigtown, rather than the split-screen virtual meet-ups that made up the rest 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 Bookshops. I’m halfway through it and it has more substance than its stocking-stuffer dimensions would imply. Within his seven categories are multiple subcategories, all given tongue-in-cheek Latin names, as if he’s naming species.
The Book Shop closed for 116 days during COVID-19: the only time in more than 40 years that it has been closed for longer than just over the Christmas holidays. He said that it has been so nice to see customers again; they’ve been a ray of sunshine for him, something the curmudgeon would never usually say! Business has been booming since his reopening, with Agatha Christie his best seller – it’s not just Mosse who’s turning to cozy mysteries. He’s also been touched by the kindness of strangers, such as one from Monaco who sent him £300, having read an article by Margaret Atwood about how hard it is for small businesses just now and hoping it would help the shop survive until they could get there in person.
(Below: Bythell on his 50th birthday, with Captain the cat.)
Randall and Bythell discussed a few of the types of customers he regularly encounters. One is the autodidact, who knows more than you and intends for you to know it. This is not the same, though, as the expert who actually helps you by sharing their knowledge (of a rare cover version on an ordinary-looking crime paperback, for instance). There’s also the occultists, the erotica browsers, the local historians and the young families – now that he has one of his own, he’s become a bit more tolerant.
Appearing from Dublin, Mark O’Connell was interviewed by Scottish writer and critic Stuart Kelly about his latest book, Notes from an Apocalypse (my review). He noted that, while all authors hope their books are timely, perhaps he overshot with this one! The book opens with climate change as the most immediate threat, yet now he feels that “has receded as the locus of anxiety.” O’Connell described the “flattened” experience of being alive at the moment and contrasted it with the existential awfulness of his research travels. For instance, he read a passage from the book about being at an airport Yo Sushi! chain and having a vision of horror at the rampant consumerism its conveyor belt seemed to represent.
Kelly characterized O’Connell’s personal, self-conscious approach to the end of the world as “brave,” while O’Connell said, “in terms of mental health, I should have chosen any other topic!” Having children creates both vulnerability and possibility, he contended, and “it doesn’t do you any good as a parent to indulge in those predilections [towards extreme pessimism].” They discussed preppers’ white male privilege, New Zealand and Mars as havens, and Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough as saints of the climate crisis.
O’Connell pinpointed Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax as the work he spends more time on in his book than any other; none of your classic nihilist literature here, and he deliberately avoided bringing up biblical references in his secular approach. In terms of the author he’s reached for most over the last few years, and especially during lockdown, it’s got to be Annie Dillard. Speaking of the human species, he opined, “it should not be unimaginable that we should cease to exist at some point.”
This talk didn’t add much to my experience of reading the book (vice versa would probably be true, too – I got the gist of Roman Krznaric’s recent thinking from his Hay Festival talk and so haven’t been engaging with his book as much as I’d like), but it was nice to see O’Connell ‘in person’ since he couldn’t make it to the 2018 Wellcome Book Prize ceremony.
Glasgow-born Douglas Stuart is a fashion designer in New York City. Again the interviewer was Lee Randall, an American journalist based in Edinburgh – she joked that she and Stuart have swapped places. Stuart said he started writing his Booker-shortlisted novel, Shuggie Bain, 12 years ago, and kept it private for much of that time. Although he and Randall seemed keen to downplay how autobiographical the work is, like his title character, Stuart grew up in 1980s Glasgow with an alcoholic single mother. As a gay boy, he felt he didn’t have a voice in Thatcher’s Britain. He knew many strong women who were looked down on for being poor.
It’s impossible to write an apolitical book about poverty (or a Glasgow book without dialect), Stuart acknowledged, yet he insisted that the novel is primarily “a portrait of two souls moving through the world,” a love story about Shuggie and his mother, Agnes. The author read a passage from the start of Chapter 2, when readers first meet Agnes, the heart of the book. Randall asked about sex as currency and postulated that all Agnes – or any of these characters; or any of us, really – wants is someone whose face lights up when they see you.
The name “Shuggie” was borrowed from a small-town criminal in his housing scheme; it struck him as ironic that a thug had such a sweet nickname. Stuart said that writing the book was healing for him. He thinks that men who drink and can’t escape poverty are often seen as loveable rogues, while women are condemned for how they fail their children. Through Agnes, he wanted to add some nuance to that double standard.
The draft of Shuggie Bain was 900 pages, single-spaced, but his editor helped him cut it while simultaneously drawing out the important backstories of Agnes and some other characters. He had almost finished his second novel by the time Shuggie was published, so he hopes it will be with readers soon.
[I have reluctantly DNFed Shuggie Bain at p. 100, but I’ll keep my proof copy on the shelf in case one day I feel like trying it again – especially if, as seems likely, it wins the Booker Prize.]
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.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.
The Diary of a Bookseller was released in the UK on September 28th. My thanks to Profile Books for the free review copy.