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 2014. 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)
Source: Own copy from the TBR
Shaun Bythell, The Diary of a Bookseller (Profile Books, 2017), hardback, 310 pages.