7 March 2019

The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell

One of the best things about working in public service is the interaction with people from differing backgrounds, ages, and numerous interests.  It's rewarding, fascinating, character-building and at times even a bit nerve-wracking.  You never know what each shift will bring and I admit to slightly  dreading the Full Moon.  Working in a library blends two of my favourite things: people and books.  So I can relate to some of Bythell's encounters and experiences at his bookshop in Wigtown, Scotland.  A small divide would be his customer service skills and mine....he owns the shop and therefore gets away with saying things I would be in a lot of hot water for.

Shaun Bythell took ownership of The Bookshop just as he had turned thirty-one.  Growing up on his family's small farm just outside town, he was familiar with the bookshop but didn't rate its chances of success very highly.  A serendipitous visit to the shop for a specific book, Shaun started talking with the owner about his struggle to find a job he would really enjoy.  His university days were behind him and it was time to firmly establish himself somewhere.  The owner mentioned he was ready to retire and with a few encouraging words about financing, Bythell was on the path to being his own boss.

Bythell noted Jen Campbell's success with her book Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops (it's very entertaining, by the way).  He started a diary of noteworthy incidents, odd requests, acquisitions arising from people downsizing or estate sales due to death, and the frequently humourous antics of Nicky, a member of staff.  The topics that interest people are vast, and sometimes oddly unique, such as when a customer asked for a book on the history of level crossings.

At the end of each entry, Bythell noted the total in the till and number of customers that day.  There were times when a customer would buy an antiquarian item for £100 or a whole family would take home an armful of books, but there were also very lean days.  Or constant haggling from customers looking for a deeper discount.  Fulfilling orders for AbeBooks or Amazon helps to increase the shop's income but also cuts into any profit Bythell would have made from an in-store sale.

I can empathize with Bythell's interactions with people of differing personality types, standing his ground when someone is being rude or unreasonable or being supportive when it's necessary, but I had my eyes opened to the pressure that comes from being in bed with Amazon.  Thankfully the humour that comes from Bythell's witty writing and slant on life in general far outbalanced any negativity. 

My husband and I were at a library book sale last weekend, the day before I read.....

'To realise a good price for a book, it has to be in decent condition, and there is nothing librarians like more than taking a perfectly good book and covering it with stamps and stickers before - and with no sense of irony - putting a plastic sleeve over the dust jacket to protect it from the public.  The final ignominy for a book that has been in the dubious care of a public library is for the front free endpaper to be ripped out and a 'DISCARD' stamp whacked firmly onto the title page, before it is finally made available for member of the public to buy in a sale.'

Not only did one of my books have the obligatory WITHDRAWN stamp, but it had been stamped upside down.  Ugh.

I wasn't in more than thirty pages when I began to dread the end of this book.  From the regulars who always bought something, the cranky who usually do not, the one man living in hope of a date with Nicky, the festivals, the road trips, and nights crashing on the Festival Bed...it's pages full of bookish voyeurism.  This book especially highlights the courage it takes to run such a business.  A couple of years ago I ever so casually looked into the cost of a rental unit at our local plaza; the foot traffic would be excellent for a second-hand bookshop.  The rent was $3,000 per month and that's just the start.

For anyone who looks forward to spending their spare time luxuriating in the aroma of ink and browsing row upon row of book titles, The Diary of a Bookseller is a must read.  I only wish it were twice as long.

Captain (The Shop Cat) at The Bookshop, Wigtown


  1. Hi there, this looks like a good one. I hope you'll have time to bring this over to Books You Loved: March so everyone can see it. Cheers from Carole's Chatter

  2. I have still not made it there, even though we usually go past Gretna Green and Dumfries...

    1. You're making me very envious, Toffeeapple!

  3. I read this a few weeks ago and made a point of going to a secondhand bookshop the same weekend -- I bought five books and felt justified in supporting a small business. From now I'll try to buy used books directly from bookshops instead of from Amazon, I never realized how much of a difference it made.

    1. The last time I shopped in a local independent shop (new books), the owner thanked me as I approached the till with a book. That broke my heart. Glad you're doing your best to help, Karen....and really, spending some time and money in a bookshop is hardly an arm-twisting chore!