Reality Versus Idyll of Owning A Bookshop

The Diary Of A Bookseller by Shaun Bythell

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.

Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell

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.

Diary of A Bookseller

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

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on December 3, 2019, in Non fiction and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 32 Comments.

  1. I enjoyed this book very much when I read it, despite the rather curmudgeonly tone, especially about some of the more challenging customers.
    Rather sobering to see the small footfall that supports his shop.

    • Some of those customers would be a severe test of anyone’s patience I think. But he clearly does have a soft side because towards the end he mentions giving a large discount to one child just because he was delighted to see his enthusiasm for reading

  2. I enjoyed both of these books although I’d never dare go in the shop! It seems it’s doing OK these days, which is lovely to see. I’d support an independent and/or dedicated second-hand bookshop in Birmingham – unfortunately there are none!

  3. Sheree @ Keeping Up With The Penguins

    Oooh, I heard about this one ages ago on a BBC podcast somewhere, and put it on my list straight away. It sounds like such a fascinating (if sobering) read! I know a book shop owner who once told me the most accurate description she’d heard of her job came from that Dylan Moran show Black Books: “Look, the pay is terrible, but the work is hard.”

  4. Our city of Hobart has a few indie bookshops, three in particular are always busy. My home away from home indie shop, Fullers is always very busy and in February celebrates their 100th anniversary. Cafe, stationery of the quirky kind, book groups (several) and a lot of author events. It’s probably the busiest shop in this city. I’m in there so much the owner has called out “See you tomorrow” as he waved good bye. We are so fortunate. I’ve read both of Blythell’s books and enjoyed them.

  5. This book sounds so good – really revealing, and I say that having worked in a bookstore for several years, but it seems so different from the perspective of owning a small one. Great review!

    • I’m sure the customers’ comments will bring back memories for you. Like the woman who said her book club choice was Dracula but she couldn’t remember what he’d written

  6. I believe your review highlights the issues that the bloggers at Pages Unbound highlight frequently: that Amazon has led book buyers to think $5 is reasonable for a paperback book and that $0.99 is reasonable for an ebook. They’ve also been discussing the McMillan ebook embargo on libraries. The problem is that keeping ebooks out of libraries for a period in order to push readers to buy the book themselves is that relatively unknown authors are hurt. No one wants to take a chance on an unknown name only to find they wasted $25 on a paperback book that sucked. On the other hand, readers will try a book at the library, love it, and then go buy it. It seems to me small bookstores can only survive if they offer activities, clubs, and coffee. If it’s a used bookstore, best put it on the bottom floor of your house and live upstairs, and only during retirement years.

    • Most bookshops – even the chains – have had to diversify by adding stationery, games and of course a cafe. I’m not sure about the effectiveness of the cafe – from what I see there are a lot of people spend hours there with just one coffee but may not even set foot in the book shop part. I’ll have to renew my acquaintance with Pages Unbound, it sounds like some interesting discussions going on

      • I think selling coffee can help keep the bookstore open, but one problem with the coffee shop is that people will read the books and magazines and then put them back. I mean, I have to wonder if people don’t know what a library is. Many allow drinks in them now anyway.

        • I saw that happening in a Chicago bookshop once. Books everywhere abandoned by people who had browsed them but not bought. Some were expensive art books which wouldn’t have been in pristine shape when they went back on sale. Every table was occupied by someone with a laptop – one woman had a whole stack of books in front of her that she was clearly using for research. So yes the cafe was busy but did the shop benefit. Not from what i could see.

        • There was a whole bookstore chain that closed ship in the U.S., called Borders, where I saw this happen all the time. Not sure if you remember Borders from your time in the States.

        • i only managed to find one branch of Borders in the USA. They made a brief appearance in Wales and I did enjoy their store. Sadly it is no more….

  7. I really do want to read this one, even if it does kill my idealistic dreams of working with books! Makes me wish I had a local indie bookshop I could support! 😀

    • Luckily I have 2 indie bookshops not too far away. The one runs a book group and gives discounts if you buy the chosen book there. It always feels a bit of a sad place whenever I go there. The other one is really vibrant with two book groups and a stack of reader events that manage to attract some good names. Its not easy getting authors to venture into wales but they do a fab job of that.

  8. I think that I would like this book a lot. I tend to like books about the book industry even when the depiction is reality based and not all that positive. I cannot imagine that there was a ton of more money in the used book industry even before the advent of the online retailers. Dealing with the public, even the bookish public, is always a challenge.

  9. I’m ordering this for Christmas and I can’t wait to delve into it. My mum owned a bookshop for nearly a decade and she had to close down because of minimal earnings – as opposed to the increasing expenses and the requests of customers for all the new releases.

  10. I used to dream of running a library after retirement. It might work better than the idea of a bookshop, but by then people might have stopped reading completely. I’ve seen so many friends just stop reading and instead listen to podcasts, audiobooks, or just get sucked into streaming video.

  11. My partner ran a branch of his father’s bookshop in our early years together which prepared me very well for being a bookseller myself. I had no illusions of a romantic idyll to shed. Tough physical work, too. I loved it.

  12. piningforthewest

    I’ve been in this shop a few times but have never seen Shaun as it has been ‘manned’ by a young woman each time. The shop has always been quite busy and people have been buying, including me. I would never consider asking for a discount, I blame Bargain Hunt and programmes like that, but I suspect that like many businesses the footfall is very sparse over winter. Wigtown is very remote even for me – and I live in Scotland already.

  13. I worked in an indie bookstore for a decade. It is all true!!

  14. I have it with me now as I am in Wigtown. I went into the bookshop and spent about an hour there, though I only saw a fraction. My post will be up later this week. The book is funny & I am enjoying it.

    • That’s an amazing coincidence. Just how big is this shop? The photo of the front window doesn’t give the impression it is that large yet the book suggests there are lots of rooms and obviously space for a bed and armchairs

  15. I was going to open a second hand bookshop as a retirement venture, not expecting it to support me, and in conjunction with a teashop to be run by my ex-wife. I bought lots of stock in expectation, which provides me with an endless TBR, but in the end our joint supers weren’t up to the task and we decided, sensibly but sadly, not to proceed.

  16. I have had this tbr for a long time. My sister borrowed it recently and loved it, we were away together and she was forever laughing at bits. So I shall be moving it up the tbr. I can imagine running a bookshop is a very frustrating and dispiriting business these days

    • I can’t imagine anything more dispiriting than opening up each day only to have a smattering of customers who actually buy anything.No matter how many ‘browsers’ you get, they don’t buy the power bills or the staffing costs

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