Confessions of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell – a humourous and honest account of life in a remarkable bookshop – and the people who frequent it.

Confessions of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell

A second hand bookshop in the Scottish Book town of Wigtown almost sounds like the setting of a romantic novel, but long term fans of Shaun Bythell will know that his books are not big on romance, but unlikely happenings are everyday occurrences. The fascinating thing for me, and I suspect many others, is that this diary like presentation reflects the daily reality of selling books to a public who are often clueless about the value of his stock, either in money terms as they haggle about prices, or in the contents of books that are not available in every bookshop in the country. This is not the place for celebrity books or the latest best sellers, but books which have stood the test of time, even if they are a little obscure. Bythell is honest about the fact that he also sells online via a worldwide site, and indeed carefully notes the number of books that are ordered and the number of volumes that he can actually find and sends out. He captures the sense of a bookshop that is supposed to be organised, but life gets in the way. He writes about the amount of money that actually goes into his till every day, and although this book is set in 2015 it gives a sense of how difficult it is to run a shop. There are so many elements of a bookseller’s life in this book, often with a dark humour and honesty, that I was sorely tempted to plan a revisit to this biggest second-hand bookshop in Scotland.

For anyone who may have the idea that a bookseller in the twenty first century has a life of leisure, thumbing through desirable volumes in a paradise of reading matter, this book will soon convince them otherwise. While hopeful sellers of books bring offerings in the fond belief that they will bring a small fortune, a good proportion of the stock must be brought in from homes that are far flung and frequently involve a lot of driving in rural areas. So Bythell has to plunge out in a trusty van, unsure of what he will discover, dealing with people keen to clear out books, but at the right price. When combined with any sort of social life, friends and family, Bythell has to entrust his shop and stock to the excitable Nicky, eccentric and bin diving, with unpredictable skills of organisation. An Italian helper contributes her own idiosyncratic style of bookselling and life, and others come and go as Bythell forms plans to alter and improve the premises. It is the dry wit with which each person is captured that makes this book so enjoyable, the silent roll of the eyes as the latest event surprises and entertains. As the year rolls around he reflects on the joys of the changing seasons in the area, and the challenges each can bring. The customers are a varied lot as always, sometimes loyal, sometimes awkward, always unique.

This book carried me through a stressful time, providing a welcome distraction concerning my favourite topic of books. I love Bythell’s gentle humour, often unintentional, always resigned and understated. The subject matter, of books, the selling thereof, and the essential observations of the people involved may be undemanding on one level, but I find it endlessly entertaining. This is a fascinating book, a valuable addition to any list of books about books, if only because they reveal so much about people.

The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell

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This is not a novel, not terribly exciting, but nevertheless an endearing read for anyone who is obsessed with books. It is indeed a diary, which reveals the mundane and the deeply interesting progress, or lack of, experienced by Shaun Bythell who invested in a second hand bookshop. The Bookshop is in Wigtown, Scotland’s book town on the west coast, not on the main tourist routes, and so trying to run a successful business is challenging, to say the least. When added to the problems of online book selling, including competition from the major business and postal delays, it is not always a cheerful read, but it is always a fascinating one.

Bythell is forced to restrict the number of staff he employs, and so the infamous Nicky is only part time and an eccentric character, who takes delight in finding “food” items from skips and changing the arrangement of books. Her contribution to the running of the shop is not always in harmony with Bythell’s, and her characteristic behaviour lifts this book from being another “silly things said in bookshops” chronicle. The regular customers are few and some of the tourists not really looking to actually buy the books. I think that Bythell has been criticised for his negative views on customers, but the continual avoidance of paying a fair price for the books would try the patience of a saint. I realise that some of the comments may be exaggerated for effect, but we all know how often bookshops are used as browsing spaces by people who later buy the books elsewhere. I was interested in how far Bythell is asked to travel to value book collections, and how little treasured books can be worth. Highlights of the year, as the book is strictly chronological, include the annual Wigtown Book Festival which attracts well known writers and people from the book trade. This book is full of bookish gossip and there are some recommendations and information which make this a fascinating read for book lovers.

The style of this book is a little restricted by the format of a diary, which can get a little wearing, but generally there is enough interest in the buying and selling of books to keep the reader’s interest. Each entry records the number of customers that day as well as money taken, online orders and books actually found. The book also contains Bythell’s own reflections on his out of shop pursuits such as salmon fishing, and his relationships with Anna and his parents. Thus other characters wander in and out of the shop, warehouses and book storage places are explored, and altogether this is a picture of a bookshop seemingly operating on tiny margins. Nothing is clearly stated, nothing argued fiercely, but this is a strong defence of the small, very individual bookshop and a way of life on the edge of Scotland.

So another book about books, which is probably one of my favourite type of reading. Speaking of which, after our recent trip to London and several book buys, I must get around to sorting them out. Remember that extra hour we got a few weeks ago? I could do with a few more of those…