The Diary of a Bookseller

The Diary of a Bookseller

by Shaun Bythell


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"Among the most irascible and amusing bookseller memoirs I've read." Dwight Garner, The New York Times
"Warm, witty and laugh-out-loud funny..." —The Daily Mail
The Diary of a Bookseller is Shaun Bythell's funny and fascinating memoir of a year in the life at the helm of The Bookshop, in the small village of Wigtown, Scotland—and of the delightfully odd locals, unusual staff, eccentric customers, and surreal buying trips that make up his life there as he struggles to build his business . . . and be polite . . .
In this wry and hilarious diary, he tells us the trials and tribulations of being a small businessman; of learning that customers can be, um, eccentric; and of wrangling with his own staff of oddballs. And perhaps none are quirkier than the charmingly cantankerous bookseller Bythell himself turns out to be.
Slowly, with a mordant wit and keen eye, Bythell is seduced by the growing charm of small-town life, despite—or maybe because of—all the peculiar characters there.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781612198163
Publisher: Melville House Publishing
Publication date: 07/16/2019
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 93,126
Product dimensions: 8.10(w) x 5.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Shaun Bythell is the owner of The Bookshop in Wigtown, Scotland. The Diary of a Bookseller is his first book.

Read an Excerpt

February, The Diary of a Bookseller

Would I like to be a bookseller de métier? On the whole – in spite of my employer’s kindness to me, and some happy days I spent in the shop – no.

George Orwell, ‘Bookshop Memories,’ London, November 1936

Orwell’s reluctance to commit to bookselling is understandable. There is a stereotype of the impatient, intolerant, antisocial proprietor – played so perfectly by Dylan Moran in Black Books – and it seems (on the whole) to be true. There are exceptions of course, and many booksellers do not conform to this type. Sadly, I do. It was not always thus, though, and before buying the shop I recall being quite amenable and friendly. The constant barrage of dull questions, the parlous finances of the business, the incessant arguments with staff and the unending, exhausting, haggling customers have reduced me to this. Would I change any of it? No.

When I first saw The Book Shop in Wigtown I was eighteen years old, back in my home town and about to leave for university. I clearly remember walking past it with a friend and commenting that I was quite certain that it would be closed within the year. Twelve years later, while visiting my parents at Christmas time, I called in to see if they had a copy of Three Fevers in stock, by Leo Walmsley, and while I was talking to the owner, admitted to him that I was struggling to find a job I enjoyed. He suggested that I buy his shop since he was keen to retire. When I told him that I didn’t have any money, he replied, ‘You don’t need money – what do you think banks are for?’ Less than a year later, on 1 November 2001, a month (to the day) after my thirty-first birthday, the place became mine. Before I took over, I ought perhaps to have read a piece of George Orwell’s writing published in 1936. ‘Bookshop Memories’ rings as true today as it did then, and sounds a salutary warning to anyone as naive as I was that the world of selling second-hand books is not quite an idyll of sitting in an armchair by a roaring fire with your slipper-clad feet up, smoking a pipe and reading Gibbon’s Decline and Fall while a stream of charming customers engages you in intelligent conversation, before parting with fistfuls of cash. In fact, the truth could scarcely be more different. Of all his observations in that essay, Orwell’s comment that ‘many of the people who came to us were of the kind who would be a nuisance anywhere but have special opportunities in a bookshop’ is perhaps the most apposite.

Orwell worked part-time in Booklover’s Corner in Hampstead while he was working on Keep the Aspidistra Flying, between 1934 and 1936. His friend Jon Kimche described him as appearing to resent selling anything to anyone – a sentiment with which many booksellers will doubtless be familiar. By way of illustration of the similarities – and often the differences – between bookshop life today and in Orwell’s time, each month here begins with an extract from ‘Bookshop Memories.’

The Wigtown of my childhood was a busy place. My two younger sisters and I grew up on a small farm about a mile from the town, and it seemed to us like a thriving metropolis when compared with the farm’s flat, sheep-spotted, salt-marsh fields. It is home to just under a thousand people and is in Galloway, the forgotten southwest corner of Scotland. Wigtown is set into a landscape of rolling drumlins on a peninsula known as the Machars (from the Gaelic word machair, meaning fertile, low-lying grassland) and is contained by forty miles of coastline which incorporates everything from sandy beaches to high cliffs and caves. To the north lie the Galloway Hills, a beautiful, near-empty wilderness through which winds the Southern Upland Way. The town is dominated by the County Buildings, an imposing hôtel-de-ville-style town hall which was once the municipal headquarters of what is known locally as ‘the Shire.’ The economy of Wigtown was for many years sustained by a Co-operative Society creamery and Scotland’s most southerly whisky distillery, Bladnoch, which between them accounted for a large number of the working population. Back then, agriculture provided far more opportunities for the farm worker than it does today, so there was employment in and about the town. The creamery closed in 1989 with the loss of 143 jobs; the distillery – founded in 1817 – closed in 1993. The impact on the town was transformative. Where there had been an ironmonger, a greengrocer, a gift shop, a shoe shop, a sweet shop and a hotel, instead there were now closed doors and boarded-up windows.

Now, though, a degree of prosperity has returned, and with it a sense of optimism. The vacant buildings of the creamery have slowly been taken over by small businesses: a blacksmith, a recording studio and a stovemaker now occupy much of it. The distillery re-opened for production on a small scale in 2000 under the enthusiastic custody of Raymond Armstrong, a businessman from Northern Ireland. Wigtown too has seen a favourable change in its fortunes, and is now home to a community of bookshops and booksellers. The once boarded-up windows and doors are open again, and behind them small businesses thrive.

Everyone who has worked in the shop has commented that customer interactions throw up more than enough material to write a book – Jen Campbell’s Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops is evidence enough of this – so, afflicted with a dreadful memory, I began to write things down as they happened in the shop as an aide-mémoire to help me possibly write something in the future. If the start date seems arbitrary, that’s because it is. It just happened to occur to me to begin doing this on 5 February, and the aide-mémoire became a diary.


Online orders: 5

Books found: 5

Telephone call at 9.25 a.m. from a man in the south of England who is considering buying a bookshop in Scotland. He was curious to know how to value the stock of a bookshop with 20,000 books. Avoiding the obvious answer of ‘ARE YOU INSANE?,’ I asked him what the current owner had suggested. She had told him that the average price of a book in her shop was £6 and that she suggested dividing that total of £120,000 by three. I told him that he should divide it by ten at the very least, and probably by thirty. Shifting bulk quantities these days is near impossible as so few people are prepared to take on large numbers of books, and the few that do pay an absolute pittance. Bookshops are now scarce, and stock is plentiful. It is a buyer’s market. Even when things were good back in 2001 – the year I bought the shop – the previous owner valued the stock of 100,000 books at £30,000.

Perhaps I ought to have advised the man on the telephone to read (along with Orwell’s ‘Bookshop Memories’) William Y. Darling’s extraordinary The Bankrupt Bookseller Speaks Again before he committed to buying the shop. Both are works that aspirant booksellers would be well advised to read. Darling was not in fact The Bankrupt Bookseller but an Edinburgh draper who perpetrated the utterly convincing hoax that such a person did indeed exist. The detail is uncannily precise. Darling’s fictitious bookseller – ‘untidy, unhealthy, to the casual, an uninteresting human figure but still, when roused, one who can mouth things about books as eloquently as any’ – is as accurate a portrait of a second-hand bookseller as any.

Nicky was working in the shop today. The business can no longer afford to support any full-time staff, particularly in the long, cold winters, and I am reliant on Nicky – who is as capable as she is eccentric – to cover the shop two days a week so that I can go out buying or do other work. She is in her late forties, and has two grown-up sons. She lives in a croft overlooking Luce Bay, about fifteen miles from Wigtown, and is one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and that – along with her hobby of making strangely useless ‘craft’ objects – defines her. She makes many of her own clothes and is as frugal as a miser, although extremely generous with what little she has. Every Friday she brings me a treat that she has found in the skip behind Morrisons supermarket in Stranraer the previous night, after her meeting at Kingdom Hall. She calls this ‘Foodie Friday.’ Her sons describe her as a ‘slovenly gypsy,’ but she is as much part of the fabric of the shop as the books, and the place would lose a large part of its charm without her. Although it wasn’t a Friday today, she brought in some revolting food which she had pillaged from the Morrisons skip: a packet of samosas that had become so soggy that they were barely identifiable as such. Rushing in from the driving rain, she thrust it in my face and said ‘Eh, look at that – samosas. Lovely,’ then proceeded to eat one of them, dropping sludgy bits of it over the floor and the counter.

During the summers I take on students – one or two. It allows me the freedom to indulge in some of the activities that make living in Galloway so idyllic. The writer Ian Niall once wrote that as a child at Sunday school he was convinced that the ‘land of milk and honey’ to which the teacher referred was Galloway – in part because there was always an abundance of both in the pantry of the farmhouse in which he grew up, but also because, for him, it was a kind of paradise. I share his love of the place. These girls who work in the shop afford me the luxury of being able to pick my moment to go fishing or hill-walking or swimming. Nicky refers to them as my ‘wee pets.’

The first customer (at 10.30 a.m.) was one of our few regulars: Mr Deacon. He is a well-spoken man in his mid-fifties with the customary waistline that accompanies inactive middle-aged men; his dark, thinning hair is combed over his pate in the unconvincing way that some balding men try to persuade others that they still retain a luxuriant mane. He is smartly enough dressed inasmuch as his clothes are clearly well cut, but he does not wear them well: there is little attention to detail such as shirt tails, buttons or flies. It appears as though someone has loaded his clothes into a cannon and fired them at him, and however they have landed upon him they have stuck. In many ways he is the ideal customer; he never browses and only ever comes in when he knows exactly what he wants. His request is usually accompanied by a cut-out review of the book from The Times, which he presents to whichever of us happens to be at the counter. His language is curt and precise, and he never engages in small talk but is never rude and always pays for his books on collection. Beyond this, I know nothing about him, not even his first name. In fact, I often wonder why he orders books through me when he could so easily do so on Amazon. Perhaps he does not own a computer. Perhaps he does not want one. Or perhaps he is one of the dying breed who understand that, if they want bookshops to survive, they have to support them.

At noon a woman in combat trousers and a beret came to the counter with six books, including two nearly new, expensive art books in pristine condition. The total for the books came to £38; she asked for a discount, and when I told her that she could have them for £35, she replied, ‘Can’t you do them for £30?’ It weighs heavily upon my faith in human decency when customers – offered a discount on products that are already a fraction of their original cover price – feel entitled to demand almost 30 per cent further off, so I refused to discount them any further. She paid the £35. Janet Street-Porter’s suggestion that anyone wearing combat trousers should be forcibly parachuted into a demilitarised zone now has my full support.

Till total £274.09*

27 customers


Online orders: 6

Books found: 5

Our online stock consists of 10,000 books from our total stock of 100,000. We list it on a database called Monsoon, which uploads to Amazon and ABEBooks. Today an Amazon customer emailed about a book called Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing? His complaint: ‘I have not received my book yet. Please resolve this matter. So far I did not write any review about your service.’ This thinly veiled threat is increasingly common, thanks to Amazon feedback, and unscrupulous customers have been known to use it to negotiate partial and even full refunds when they have received the book they ordered. This book was posted out last Tuesday and should have arrived by now, so either this customer is fishing for a refund or there has been a problem with Royal Mail, which happens extremely rarely. I replied, asking them to wait until Monday, after which, if it still has not arrived, we will refund them.

After lunch I sorted through some boxes of theological books that a retired Church of Scotland minister had brought in last week. Collections that focus on a single subject are usually desirable, as buried among them will almost certainly be a few scarce items of interest to collectors, and usually valuable. Theology is probably the only exception to this rule, and this proved to be the case today: there was nothing of any consequence.

After the shop closed at 5 p.m. I went to the co-op to buy food for supper. A hole has recently worn through the left pocket of my trousers, and I keep putting my change there, forgetting about it. At bedtime, when I undressed, I found £1.22 in my left boot.

Till total £95.50

6 customers


Online orders: 2

Books found: 2

Today was a beautiful sunny day. Nicky arrived at 9.13 a.m., wearing the black Canadian ski suit that she bought in the charity shop in Port William for £5. This is her standard uniform between the months of November and April. It is a padded onesie, designed for skiing, and it makes her look like the lost Teletubby. During this period she emits a constant whine about the temperature of the shop, which is, admittedly, on the chilly side. She drives a blue minibus, which suits her hoarder lifestyle ideally. All the seats have been removed, and in their place can be found anything from sacks of manure to broken office chairs. She calls the van Bluebell but I have taken to calling it Bluebottle, as that is largely what it contains.

Norrie (former employee, now working as a self-employed joiner) came in at 9 a.m. to repair a leak on the roof of the Fox’s Den, the summerhouse in the garden.

Over these past fifteen years members of staff have come and they have gone, but – until recently – there has always been at least one full-time employee. Some have been splendid, some diabolical; nearly all remain friends. In the early years I took on students to help in the shop on Saturdays, which the full-time staff did not like to work, and between 2001 and 2008 turnover increased steadily and strongly, despite the obvious trend towards buying online. Then – after Lehman Brothers went to the wall in September of that year – things nose-dived and turnover was back where we started in 2001, but with overheads that had risen considerably during the good times.

Norrie and I built the Fox’s Den a few years ago, and during Wigtown’s annual book festival we use it as a venue for very small and unusual events. Last year the most tattooed man in Scotland gave a twenty-minute talk about the history of tattooing, and stripped down to his underpants to illustrate various elements of it as the talk progressed. An elderly woman, mistaking the building for a toilet, inadvertently wandered in towards the end of the talk to find him standing there, almost naked. I’m not sure that she has recovered.

As he was leaving, Norrie and Nicky had a heated discussion about something that I caught the tail end of. It appeared to be about evolution. This is a favourite topic of Nicky’s, and it’s not uncommon to find copies of On the Origin of Species in the fiction section, put there by her. I retaliate by putting copies of the Bible (which she considers history) in among the novels.

Found a book called Gay Agony, by the unlikely sounding author H. A. Manhood, as I was going through the theology books brought in by the retired minister. Apparently Manhood lived in a converted railway carriage in Sussex.

Till total £67

4 customers


Online orders: 4

Books found: 4

Today Nicky covered the shop so that I could travel to Leeds to look at a private library of 600 books on aviation. Anna and I left the shop at 10 a.m., and as we were leaving, Nicky advised, ‘Look at the books, think of a figure, then halve it.’ She also told me that when the apocalypse comes and only the Jehovah’s Witnesses are left on earth (or whatever her version of the apocalypse is – I do not pay much attention when she starts on religion), she intends to come round to my house and take my stuff. She keeps eyeing up various pieces of my furniture with this clearly in mind.

Anna is my partner, and is an American writer twelve years my junior. We share the four-bedroom flat above the shop with a black cat called Captain, named after the blind sea captain in Under Milk Wood. Anna worked for NASA in Los Angeles and came to Wigtown for a working holiday in 2008 to fulfil an ambition to work in a bookshop in Scotland, near the sea. There was an immediate attraction between us, and following a brief return to California, she decided to come back. In 2012 her story piqued the interest of Anna Pasternak, a journalist who was visiting Wigtown during the book festival that year, and she wrote a piece for the Daily Mail about it. Soon afterwards Anna was approached by a publisher who wanted her to write a memoir, and in 2013 her first book, Three Things You Need to Know About Rockets, was duly published by Short Books. Despite her literary success, she is a self-confessed ‘linguistic impressionist,’ with a tendency to re-invent language when she speaks that is both endearing and frustrating. Her method of interpreting the words she hears through half-closed ears and repeating them in a version that bears some proximity to the original, but with blurred lines, results in an occasionally incomprehensible stew of words, seasoned with a handful of Yiddish words that she picked up from her grandmother.

The woman selling the aviation books had telephoned last week with a degree of urgency. They had belonged to her late husband, who died a year ago. She has sold the house and is moving out in March. We arrived at her house at 3 p.m. I was instantly distracted by her obvious wig, not to mention horse chestnuts scattered on the floor near the doors and windows. She explained that her husband had died from cancer and that she was now undergoing treatment for the same thing. The books were in a converted loft at the top of a narrow staircase. It took some time to negotiate a price, but we finally agreed on £750 for about 300 books. She was quite happy for me to leave the remainder behind. If only this was always the case. More often than not people want to dispose of the entire collection, particularly when it is a deceased estate. Anna and I loaded fourteen boxes into the van and left for home. The woman seemed relieved to have managed to say goodbye to what was clearly her husband’s passion, which she obviously knew she was going to find difficult to part with, despite having no interest in the subject herself. As we were leaving, Anna asked the woman about all the chestnuts around the doors and windows. It transpired that she and Anna both have a fear of spiders, and apparently horse chestnuts release a chemical that repels them.

I bought the van (a red Renault Trafic) two years ago and have almost run it into the ground. Even on the shortest of journeys I am met with enthusiastic waves from people in the oncoming traffic who have clearly mistaken me for their postman.

This aviation collection contained twenty-two Putnam Aeronautical Histories. This is a series about aircraft manufacturers, or even types of aircraft – Fokker, Hawker, Supermarine, Rocket Aircraft, and in the past they have consistently sold well both online and in the shop for between £20 and £40 per volume. So I based my price on the assumption that I could sell the Putnams fairly quickly and recover my costs.

Many book deals begin with a complete stranger calling and explaining that someone close to them has recently died, and that they have been charged with the job of disposing of their books. Understandably, they are often still grieving, and it is almost impossible not to be sucked into their grief, even in the smallest of ways. Going through the books of the person who has died affords an insight into who that person was, their interests and, to a degree, their personality. Now, even when I visit friends, I am drawn to bookcases wherever I see them, and particularly to any incongruity on the shelves which might reveal something I didn’t know about them. My own bookcase is as guilty of this as any – among the modern fiction and books about Scottish art and history that populate the shelves can be found a copy of Talk Dirty Yiddish, and Collectable Spoons of the Third Reich – the former a gift from Anna, and the latter from my friend Mike.

Anna and I drove back from Leeds over Ilkley Moor through the driving winter rain, and returned home at about 7 p.m. I unlocked the door to find piles of books on the floor, boxes everywhere and dozens of emails awaiting me. Nicky appears to gain some sort of sadistic gratification from leaving mountains of books and boxes all over the shop, probably because she knows how fastidious I am about keeping surfaces clear, particularly the floor. Perhaps because she is by nature an untidy person, she is convinced that my desire for order and organisation is highly unusual and entertaining, so she deliberately creates chaos in the shop then accuses me of having OCD when I berate her for it.

Till total £77.50

7 customers

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