You might remember that I wrote a post a couple of months back about The Bookshop at Wigtown. You can read it by clicking here. The Bookshop is the biggest second hand bookshop in Scotland and is owned and run by Shaun Bythell. He has written a book about his experiences so, of course, I bought myself a copy while I was there. The book takes the form of a diary chronicling a year in the life of bookshop and introducing us to the owner, the staff and the customers.
An extract from George Orwell’s essay from 1936, Bookshop Memories, begins each month with Bythell comparing their experiences. Each daily entry then begins with a note of online orders received and books found. They don’t always match. If you have visited the shop you might think you understand why as with books everywhere, you would think it might be difficult to find individual ones. But no, each book is catalogued and usually carefully placed but sometimes – often down to customers not putting books back in the right place – books are not where they should be. The daily entries all end with the number of customers that day and the amount in the till. This is often quite worryingly small.
The diary entries themselves are made up of what has been happening in the bookshop or the town with many anecdotes about some of the dafter or ruder things the bookshop customers say. I was amazed to hear about one customer wondering if they could pay with their Tesco Clubcard points and being quite put out that they couldn’t. Or other customers expecting to pay a reduced price for a book based on a clearly much older price ticket. I mean, even in a second hand bookshop you can’t seriously expect to buy a book for 12p!
A big part of the author’s time is taken by sourcing more books. I have to say I was quite surprised at this having thought, like many of his customers, that the books would have been donated. But no, book collections are often bought when people are downsizing their houses or following a bereavement. Around 100 books are also brought into the shop each day by people wanting to sell them. I have to say I am amazed there is room for anything else on those shelves.
It was quite eye-opening to read about the unrealistic prices sellers hope to get for not very special books and also the grumbles about the cost of books from potential buyers in the shop. So many people seem to ask for a deal. I’d never dream of doing that! The author’s enthusiasm when there is an unexpected ‘find’ was clear. For instance, realising there was a signed numbered limited edition poetry book by WB Yeats in a recently acquired box and his mother’s delight that she was now holding a book once held by one of the most respected poets of his generation Maybe my signed copy of this book will one day generate the same excitement? 😊
The book is full of dry humour and I often found myself chuckling out loud. Near the start of the book, the author says that people think that bookshop owners are all like the impatient and anti-social Bernard from the tv series Black Books and that in his case it is true! It really is quite a fascinating book, an eye-opener into the life of a bookshop owner and the challenges they face particularly in these days of Amazon and online retailers. And don’t even get Mr Bythell started on the subject of e-readers…
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and am pleased to hear there will be a second book, Confessions of a Bookseller, published in August this year. The author will also be appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival alongside Tim Waterstone so that should be be an interesting session which I’ll definitely be heading along to.
If you have ever dreamed of running your own bookshop, get yourself a copy of this. It’s an honest account of the challenges, the joys and rewards of running and owning a second hand bookshop. But please buy it from an independent bookshop. If you don’t have one nearby, many will take orders online or by phone, including of course, The Bookshop. And as I said in my original post about the shop, it’s well worth a visit if you are ever in the area.
The Diary of a Bookseller is published by Profile Books and is available in all formats. If you would like to order a copy, you can do this directly from The Bookshop’s website here: The Diary of a Bookseller
From the back of the book
Shaun Bythell owns The Bookshop, Wigtown – Scotland’s largest second-hand bookshop. It contains 100,000 books, spread over a mile of shelving, with twisting corridors and roaring fires, and all set in a beautiful, rural town by the edge of the sea. A book-lover’s paradise? Well, almost …
In these wry and hilarious diaries, Shaun provides an inside look at the trials and tribulations of life in the book trade, from struggles with eccentric customers to wrangles with his own staff, who include the ski-suit-wearing, bin-foraging Nicky. He takes us with him on buying trips to old estates and auction houses, recommends books (both lost classics and new discoveries), introduces us to the thrill of the unexpected find, and evokes the rhythms and charms of small-town life, always with a sharp and sympathetic eye.
About the author
Shaun Bythell runs The Bookshop in Wigtown, Scotland’s National Book Town. The Diary of a Bookseller is his first book. His second, Confessions of a Bookseller, will be available from 26th August 2019.