Return to Wigtown

Confessions of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell

Bythell owns Scotland’s largest secondhand bookshop in the self-proclaimed Book Town of Wigtown in Galloway, south-west Scotland. His book Diary of a Bookseller (reviewed here) was a big hit in 2017, and for anyone returning for this second volume, it is comfortingly more of the same. The first volume covered 2014, and Confessions… it’s sequel takes up where it left off starting on New Year’s Day 2015.

Once again, Bythell prefaces each month with a quotation – this time, they all come from a spoof diary of a bookseller published in 1942 by one Augustus Muir. These and Bythell’s subsequent comments make great introductions to the month’s diary entries. Once again, each day is bookended by stats: beginning with the number of online orders for the day and the number of books located, ending with the till total £ taken and the number of customers. I must say that these figures are endlessly fascinating, some days the customers can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and may spend less than a tenner each, on other days there could be 17 spending over £25 a head, and many more customers during the Wigtown Book Festival in September – but typically spending £10-£15 each. There are the days of zero online orders, often indicating that online systems are playing up – how frustrating is that.

Interesting as the figures are, it’s the characters that Bythell describes that really get us going. There are the customers of course, from the enigmatic regular known as ‘Mole Man’ who never says a word, to all the silly requests and haggling. Of them all though, it was supermarket skip-scavenging Jehovah’s Witness Nicky whom I was most looking forward to meeting again. She didn’t disappoint as the most unique of shop assistants – that is until Emanuela comes on the scene. When Bythell is contacted by an Italian woman looking for work experience, he says yes – but for board and lodgings only. Emanuela duly arrives and proceeds to eat him out of house and home, but is determined to learn some English, she has very little at the start which is a problem for everyone. I forget how she earns her nickname of Granny, but she was as endearing to this volume as Nicky was to the former, and she fell in love with the place too, ironically fitting right in.

Sadly, this year he split with his American partner Anna; he says they remain friends, but although he loves the idea of a relationship and a family, he is a commitment-phobe. Luckily, he obviously has a great group of friends to take his mind off this missed chance, and he’s endlessly hospitable to them – not quite the curmudgeon he’d have us all believe he is. Although this second volume of diaries is based upon events that occurred before the first volume was published, and it is hard to tell how much rewriting went on in the editing process, he has definitely become willing to share more about himself with us, which ultimately made Confessions of a Bookseller a better book than the first, and I loved the first. If Bythell and his publisher continue to produce further volumes, it’ll be interesting to catch up with the books’ genesis and how they have improved his fortunes, if indeed they have. (9.5/10)


Source: Review copy – thank you!

Shaun Bythell, Confessions of a Bookseller (Profile, 2019), hardback, 336 pages.

BUY at Amazon UK, or Blackwell’s via my affiliate links.

22 thoughts on “Return to Wigtown

  1. Col says:

    I’ve got Wigtown on my bucket list as got it penned in as the first stop on a dreamed driving holiday around Scotland ( I tell my wife it’s to see the beauty of my home country but in all honesty there are a lot of independent bookshops on the itinerary – coincidence of course!)

  2. Liz Dexter says:

    I have recently enjoyed this one – reviewed here https://librofulltime.wordpress.com/2019/08/18/book-review-shaun-bythell-confessions-of-a-bookseller-serpentstail-netgalley/ of course you might be like me and had saved that to read till you’d read the book (I have so many reviews saved, always seem to be behind the times!). I liked the fact he was a bit more open about himself, too. I wonder if there will be more books, as he includes the epilogue here, but to be honest, I would read them!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      He included a similar epilogue at the end of the first book too. I went back and checked! This was a super read, wasn’t it.If there’s enough material for another volume – I’d read it too.

  3. Rebecca Foster says:

    I didn’t think this was as strong as the first book, and the emotion re: “Anna” felt a little shoehorned in to me, like his editor forced him to get more personal than he wanted to be. But I also loved Emanuela (nicknamed Granny for her poor eyesight and aches and pains). She made me laugh, especially because I was traveling in Italy at the time and I could just imagine her accent. I kind of hope he doesn’t have diaries at the ready for 2016-19 … it would all be a bit too much of the same.

    • Rebecca Foster says:

      I went to Wigtown last April and had a great time. Bythell is so nice in person that I had to wonder how much of the curmudgeonly persona was an act 🙂 Then again, my husband and I are pleasant customers, spent £30+, and I brought my proof of the first book for him to sign.

    • Dark Puss says:

      I don’t. I loved the first book and I am sure I will love this one but I doubt very much whether this can continue in the same vein without declining; this isn’t something that can really stretch to many further volumes surely? Quit while ahead.

      • AnnaBookBel says:

        His circumstances had changed, as Rebecca reports below, so I can see one more volume bringing us up to date would work, but more would probably be too repetitive, I agree.

  4. Rebecca Foster says:

    Not sure how I missed this, but as of earlier this year Bythell is married with a baby! (His wife is on Twitter and Instagram at @dreamslikefilms and just posted a picture of the baby with this book yesterday.) It really surprised me to see that given how much of a commitment-phobe he says he is. It didn’t make it into the epilogue…

  5. JacquiWine says:

    I love the sound of this; but as I haven’t read the first one, I may need to go back and start with that. Could this be read as a standalone or does it rely on some prior knowledge of the earlier book to be at its best?

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I think you’d get his ‘grumpy schtick’ better if you read the first one first, but it’s not necessary, just fun!

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