The Diary of A Bookseller is essential reading for anyone who indulges in the fantasy of one day owning a bookshop. Just a few entries from Shaun Bythell’s journal should be enough to convince them that bookselling is an enterprise suited only to people with skins thicker than a rhinoceros and pockets deeper than Loch Ness.
Shaun Bythell owns The Bookshop in Wigtown on the remote coast of Galloway, Scotland. He bought the shop when he was 31 years old and struggling to find a job he enjoyed. He was naive, imagining that the world of selling second-hand books was an idyllic existence.
… 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.
The reality is of course nothing like a bookish paradise.
The fistfuls of cash never seem to materialise for one thing. Each day’s entry in the Diary of a Bookseller ends with a total of the number of customers in the shop and the amount they spent. It’s sobering reading.
The entry for February 6, 2014 for example shows six customers and till takings of £95.50. That figure doesn’t take into account online sales but since those average only £45 a day you can see that this bookshop owner isn’t rolling in money.
Some days are better, but many are worse. On January 5 the following year Shaun Bythell unlocked the shop at 9am but by 2pm the door had been opened only three times : by the postwoman, his father and the howling wind.
By 3pm I was giving up hope of having even one sale..
Initiatives such as opening his doors to a ladies art class, welcoming eminent writers and renting out a bed in the shop during the Wigtown Book Festival, help. But even on days when the footfall is more healthy, there’s no certainty it will result in more cash in the bank. The bane of Shaun’s life is the customer who spends hours sitting near his fire, taking loads of books off the shelves, but leaving empty handed.
Shaun’s fond imaginings of a profitable prove equally as misplaced as his idea his customers will be charming people with whom he can enjoy robust discussions about literature. Actually, his customers are often boring, particularly when they insist on regaling him with their family history research or want to offload copies of their self-published novel.
Unflattering Picture of Bookshop Customers
Few customers are depicted in a flattering light. Some are stubborn, refusing to accept they got an author’s name wrong. Others are misguided, thinking all first editions are valuable. Some have questionable personal habits or tend to wear strange ensemble of clothes.
The Diary Of A Bookseller is a grumpily amusing account of one year in the shop. The titles of books ordered on line provided me with a constant source of amusement. I can just about understand why someone would want Cuckoo Problems but are there really people keen to own Collectible Spoons of the 3rd Reich or The Colliery Fireman’s Pocket Book (1935 edition)?.
Adding to the humour factor is Shaun Bythell’s assistant Nicky. Invariably late to report for work, she often arrives bearing the fruits of a rummage in the waste food skips outside supermarkets. One entry reads:
Nicky arrived in her black ski suit as usual, with a pasty from the Morrisons skip. It bore more resemblance to a giant scab than to an edible treat. ‘Eh, it’s delicious. Go on, have a bit.’ It was revolting.
This episode came only a few days after she’d offered him a reduced price (out of date) cinnamon roll minus its coating. “I licked the icing off it on my way into work this morning,'” she blithely explained.
Humour Masks Harsh Reality
But beneath the humour, frustrations abound. The chief of which is the near impossibility of a bricks and mortar second hand bookshop competing against the on-line behemoths. The latter’s vast warehouses and heavily discounted postal contract are only part of the problem .
The issue is that customers have become accustomed to discounts and they expect them from shop owners like Shaun Bythell. A refusal usually results in a comment along the lines of ‘DISGUSTING’ as they bustle out of the shop announcing they will buy the book on line. These ‘bargain hunters’ are the target of his most acerbic comments.
Strip away the quotidian dimension and the real heart of the book becomes clear. The Diary of a Bookseller is a heartfelt appeal to book buyers everywhere to wake up to the reality of the impact of the mega-size online providers. Bythell doesn’t set out to have a go at suppliers like Amazon, or to lay all the blame for the woes of the publishing industry, on that company, but does make it clear that the benefits enjoyed by consumers have been to the detriment of authors, publishers and businesses like his.
… authors have seen their incomes plummet over the past ten years, publishers too which means that they can no longer take risks with unknown authors and now there is no middleman. … The sad truth is that unless authors and publishers unite and stand firm against Amazon, the industry will face devastation.
This is a wonderfully entertaining book for anyone who takes an interest in how books are bought and sold. But it also provides food for thought. Shops like The Bookshop, Wigtown, can survive only if every one of us who buys books, support them with our feet and our wallets.
The Diary Of A Bookseller by Shaun Bythell: Fast Facts
The Diary of A Bookseller was published by Profile Books in 2018. It was so successful that Shaun Bythell published a follow up – Confessions Of A Bookseller – in August 2019.
You can support The Bookshop in Wigtown by becoming a customer. If you can’t visit in person, you can give them a helping hand by taking out a subscription to their Random Book Club or buying via their online store at Abebooks.
If you want to get to know Shaun Bythell, take a look at his You Tube channel