Meet Shaun.

He loves books, discovering bookish treasures and the annual book festival in Wigtown. He does not love customers who openly browse Amazon whilst in his shop, (especially when they “whisper” to their companion that, yes, it is cheaper online,) or customers who complain about his prices, (amusingly, he raises the price of a couple of books after their self-avowed intended buyers have the temerity to complain,) or customers who collate large piles of stock then simply wander out of the shop, having had no intention of actually buying anything…

In short, Shaun would probably be a lot happier without most of his customers, but much sadder without his shop. As for me, I am delighted that Shaun has put pen to paper to create one of my favourite kinds of book: a book about books. Be still my beating heart.

What’s it about?

Curmudgeonly proprietor, Shaun Bythell, runs a second-hand bookshop called, simply, ‘The Bookshop’, in Scotland’s book-town, Wigtown. For a year, between February 2014 and February 2015, Shaun keeps a diary recording the details of his working life, including the buying and selling of books, organising his shop’s part in a book festival and customer footfall and expenditure.

This is NOT a guide to how to run your own bookshop; it is exactly what it says in the blurb: a view on bookselling which includes eccentric customers, challenging staff and a largely empty til which needs to be supplemented with additional schemes. If you’ve ever seen the TV series Black Books, starring Dylan Moran, Bill Bailey and Tamsin Grieg, then this is a bit like that, but with slightly less drinking and no discernible bees. (And if you haven’t seen Black Books I strongly recommend it. Best watched with wine.)

What’s it like?

Random. Charming. A real miscellany of bits and bobs relating to bookselling: how booksellers choose which books to buy; why book fairs are no longer viable; and the joy of seeing small children rapt in a book, to name a few.

Oh, and it’s funny. Mostly witty, raise half a smirk funny, but sometimes genuinely laugh-out loud funny. When Nicky or Shaun purchase an item you wouldn’t sell typically in a bookshop (a bicycle, a commode…) and the other chuckles that they will never sell it, I found it genuinely amusing to learn of its sale days later.

Bythell begins each month with a quotation from George Orwell’s ‘Bookshop Memories’, reflecting on how it relates to modern bookselling. The first one declares Orwell’s lack of interest in becoming a bookseller long-term and they all seem similarly downbeat. Bythell’s diary entries, in contrast, may highlight a rude customer or an odd encounter, but his love of books, enthusiasm for his shop and, frankly, the joy he takes in sparring with his highly individual main employee, Nicky, all conspire to create a generally positive feeling about working in a dying industry.

Bythell writes:

‘At 12.15 p.m. a customer telephoned to tell me that he’d bought a book from us which was the first in a ‘triology’. it had cost him £7.20, including postage, and he was very happy with it. He now wants to buy volume II, but our copy of volume II is the only copy available online and is £200, which he wasn’t prepared to pay. He wanted it for the same price as he had paid for volume I. I tried to explain that as ours was the only copy available online it was a much more scarce book, and the price remained at £200. He told me he was ‘disgusted’ and hung up.’

Did you know?

For a mere £59 a year you can sign up to Shaun’s ‘Random Book Club’ and receive carefully curated, thoroughly random second-hand books through the post.

Final thoughts

I enjoyed reading about Bythell’s life as a bookseller: the book-buying jaunts, impromptu fishing expeditions and mildly irksome customers sound like quite a pleasant way to while away one’s days.

As with any collection of diary entries, reading too many in a row could result in that feeling you get when you realise that you’ve eaten the last few chocolates / crisps / sweets from a packet without enjoying them and simply because they were in your hand. Throughout, the mundane (Nicky opened the shop today) is mixed with the genuinely interesting (why your first edition Harry Potter is not as valuable as you might think).

Shaun Bythell outside The Bookshop.

Shaun Bythell outside The Bookshop.

Reading this also reminded me of many of the problems Amazon has created for booksellers, which I find ironic as I’m certain this was purchased for me from Amazon…

An enjoyable insight into the life of a modern bookseller, it’ll make you want to shop in bookshops.

Sadly, my local bookshop has now closed. Judging from Bythell’s book, it’s a bit of a miracle there are any bookshops left anywhere, so my advice is this: go visit your local bookshop. Enjoy browsing. Buy something, if you can. And if you really must compare prices online whilst in a bookshop, be aware that you may end up the subject of a rant on Facebook!

‘The Diary of a Bookseller’,
Shaun Bythell,
2017, Profile Books, hardcover