‘The Diary of a Bookseller’ is Shaun Bythell’s account of running Scotland’s largest second-hand bookshop which he bought in 2001 in Wigtown, Scotland’s national book town. While many book lovers may dream about spending all day every day working in a rambling Georgian townhouse stuffed with over 100,000 books, Bythell’s diaries from 2014 to early 2015 dispel a lot of the romanticised myths about running a bookshop, particularly when it comes to the realities of competing against a certain online retailer.
In his daily diary entries, Bythell keeps tallies of the number of online orders he receives and money in the till at the end of each day. His descriptions of the ridiculous requests made by customers browsing the shop are very humorous and his disdain towards them – whether exaggerated or not – is often reminiscent of Dylan Moran’s character Bernard Black in the sitcom ‘Black Books’. Aside from a few regulars and the occasional serious book dealer, most of the footfall is from tourists and others who shamelessly attempt to haggle over prices. Some of the part-time staff he employs are as eccentric as the customers, if not more so. While Bythell has clearly spent a great deal of time tracking the behaviour of visitors to the shop, he observes that usually “It is hard to predict what customers will buy, although the number of men who head straight to the railway section is uncanny” (p. 87).
As well as anecdotes about the shop itself, the book offers a fascinating insight into the current climate of the business side of bookselling and how it has changed so rapidly in recent years. The dominance of Amazon is inevitably a large part of that, and much of the turnover of Bythell’s business now depends on selling rare books online through AbeBooks or eBay rather than from customers visiting or contacting the shop directly. Bythell also makes regular trips up and down the country to auctions and house clearances seeking out specialist collections – an aspect of the trade I knew very little about but found very interesting. Like many independent booksellers, Bythell has had to find ways to attract customers to the shop by other means such as selling antique furniture, hosting events throughout the year, helping organise the local book festival in September with other booksellers and setting up innovative schemes such as the Random Book Club in which subscribers receive one book a month through the post which could be about absolutely anything.
Bythell’s dry humour, extensive knowledge of the trade and passion for bookselling is a winning combination in his light and engaging memoir. ‘The Diary of a Bookseller’ is a must read for any bibliophile.