Bookselling highs and lows…

The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell

A couple of years ago, my fantasy of buying a bookshop could have come true – one of my local indie bookshops was up for sale. I just about had the money and the shop was ticking along nicely (thanks to the hard work put in by its owners).  My heart said, ‘Yes, go for it!’. My head said, ‘No – it’s not the best time to make such a big career change, my daughter was approaching GCSEs, and I’d have had to go from working 28 hrs a week to all hours. In the end I didn’t pursue it. Meanwhile a lovely lady called Sarah bought Mostly Books eventually, and she’s revamped the shop, making it her own, and I still love going in.

Which brings me to Shaun Bythell’s entertaining diaries which I read back in the early days of January. He took on The Bookshop in Wigtown, Scotland’s largest secondhand bookshop back in 2001 and these diaries essentially cover 2016. He’s a bit grumpy and doesn’t suffer fools, but he’s not outwardly as bad as Bernard in Black Books: the book’s flyleaf describes him as a ‘misanthrope extraordinaire’ which is pure hyperbole – he’s just grumpy with a chip on his shoulder about Amazon (he shot a Kindle and nailed it to the wall).  That said, he has a lot to put up with in his old building with leaks and temperamental heating, and his staff – a variety of temps who work or not, and Nicky. She is such a character – seemingly untameable, a skip-diver, and with her own creative shelving habit that means that a lot of books ordered by Amazon customers just can’t be found.

Bythell bookends each entry with the number of (Amazon) orders, the number fulfilled, and the days takings and customer numbers which can be minuscule – on Tuesday 11 Feb they took just £5. Once the weather improves, the takings are usually upwards of £150.  As someone who tries to recoup some pennies by selling books on Amazon and battling against the big players who appear to be able to afford to sell books for 1p (they get preferential fees and discounted postage unlike the private vendor), I was fascinated to hear how the price-matching software can work, to my dismay – good thing I never select the option to price-match…

All orders today were from Amazon, one of which was for a Patricia Wentworth first edition that should have been £50 but sold for £4. The discrepancy arose because of the price-matching software that comes with Monsoon, which is set to match the lowest price on Amazon. When we listed our copy it was the cheapest, but subsequently it had dropped to match another copy which had undercut outs. Occasionally, to try to steal a bargain, people put up fake listings of expensive books that they want, but with ridiculously cheap prices. They then wait for the price-matching software to kick in, and the copy of a genuine listing to drop to the price of the ghost listing that they have put up. They buy the book, then remove the ghost listing.

We hear a lot about Bythell’s travels buying collections of books and we find out what sells (railway books in particular). We hear about the Wigtown book festival which sounds fun. Sometimes, Bythell tells us what book he’s reading, but doesn’t gp any further, he’d rather tell us about cycling, friends coming to stay, and all his trips instead. Then there are the customers! Bythell’s humour is dry, and his grumpy act is a good shtick which makes these diaries a very entertaining and sometimes surprisingly informative read.

As for my fantasy of running a bookshop – books like this can only fan the flames!  (8.5/10)

Also – see what Victoria  and Simon thought of this book


Source: Own copy from the TBR

Shaun Bythell, The Diary of a Bookseller (Profile Books, 2017), hardback, 310 pages.

18 thoughts on “Bookselling highs and lows…

  1. Wow, I didn’t know just how close you came to being an independent bookshop owner! No doubt your life would have been much more stressful over the last couple of years. I think Bythell cured me of any bookselling lust. I very much enjoyed his book, and am now trying to get my husband to read it in advance of our mini-break to Wigtown in early April. I will of course go into The Book Shop, and hope I’ll find plenty to buy so Himself can’t moan about me on Facebook 😉 And if I feel courageous I’ll take in my proof for him to sign.

  2. It makes me laugh to see the Shiny editors are all over this book. When is Harriet’s review coming out?? I remember you considering the bookshop, Annabel, and whilst it would have been incredibly tempting, it would also have been immense amounts of hard, physical work. I have spent many a winter day freezing and many a long day carting great boxes of books about when working in bookshops. Better to enjoy the vicarious experience. I felt exactly the same as you about the way SB never said a word about what the books he’s flagged up as reading. Who even does that? It was quite frustrating. But I enjoyed it overall – it was very restful.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      It wasn’t until I read your review that I realised he didn’t talk about his own enjoyment (or not) of books – so I felt compelled to add it to mine too. But then – consider Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop – she doesn’t read – she just sells books (on a good day).

  3. A book shop I’d love to visit! oh boy – had no idea about the wickedness of Amazon re second hand books. Here in South Africa there’s a couple of Facebook pages where you can sell your SHBs at a semi-reasonable price but the sc hlep factor is quite big if yo9u go this route.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      The price-matching software has onward effects – because all S/H buyers will refer to these prices. It’s a shame. I end up giving away a lot more books that I could have recouped a few quid on because of all this – good for the charity shops, not good for my purse.

  4. I can imagine you as a great success with your own bookstore! Wouldn’t that be a dream job?! I bought this book, based on blogger raves, and am looking forward to it after the MBIP reading ahead of me.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      The new owner of the bookshop I could have bought has, however, done an amazing job in modernising it and making it her own. Long may it survive. As for me… I’ll still dream.

  5. I loved this book too! I stormed through it. Part of me wants to meet Shaun, but the other part knows Shaun won’t want to meet me.

    The struggle to keep things going and have to buy into the online world of Amazon made me sad, even more so when it breaks every other day. I wish we could put a cap on the online buying of books and keep these shops alive, or just teach people the value of things and the need to sustain a business.

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