The diary of the owner of Scotland’s biggest second-hand bookshop appeared on multiple Best of 2017 lists. And I can confirm that all those promises are fulfilled as it is a tremendously pleasurable read, full of the “strangest things and the oddest people” according to the author. Actually I don’t think they’re that odd, they just reflect the wide variations in human behaviour!
Yesterday I had the great pleasure of hearing Shaun Bythell chat (and it was more of a chat than an interview) with his long-time friend, Stuart Kelly (stalwart chairman of the Scottish literary festival circuit) at Ayewrite! 2018. The book had been Bythell’s brainchild since purchasing The Bookshop in 2001 but he just never got round to writing it. Then Jen Campbell published Weird Things People Say in Bookshops and he was galvanised into action.
“It’s only defamatory, if it’s true”, he responded when asked if there had been any backlash from his customers. The customers in his book are real, though names and genders may not be.
“Who was your worst customer?”, asked Kelly. “Oh, there’s such a huge amount of competition.”, replied Bythell. “But just after purchasing the shop, one customer, who was browsing the maritime history section (of which I was particularly proud), asked me when I was having a bonfire. Bemused, I asked why. So that you can rid of all this rubbish came the response!”
It’s not all bad though. Negativity bias just ensures that if 9 good things happen and 1 bad, it’s the bad experence we will remember.
The Diary of A Bookseller covers twelve months in the life of the bookshop, from February 2013 to 2014. Yesterday’s event provided an update on how business has moved on since then:
a) If you’ve read the book, one of Bythell’s ongoing woes was the daily battle with Monsoon, Amazon’s online bookselling programme. Bythell’s account was constantly being suspended for one reason or another. The account has now been suspended for 12 months, due to the despatched button on multiple orders not being pressed. (I didn’t train a new member of staff properly, admitted Bythell.) The suspension was automatic, despite there being positively feedback for the orders. and because there is no human to talk to at the Amazon end, I can’t sort it out. He’s now given up trying, despite the loss of revenue. “It’s been a luxury, not having the hassle of dealing with them”, said Bythell.
b) The other big name receiving stick yesterday was Oxfam and the damage their book shops are doing to the second-hand book trade. I’d never thought about this but Bythell named them as the biggest threat to his trade. A second-hand book trader pays for his stock, employs and pays his staff and taxes and contributes to the local economy. Oxfam book shops trade using free stocks, pay no wages. It is unfair competition. (And still their prices are too high, Editor)
c) On the effect of the credit crunch. From 2001 through 2008 turnover increased by 15% each year before dropping back to 2001 levels. Things have now improved – “You can tell,” said Bythell, “people are once again paying with £20 notes.” – and the situation in Wigtown is currently stable. (This is good to know and long may it continue, things were looking a bit dodgy with a number of bookshops closing down when I last visited in 2011.)
d) The Random Book Club now has almost 600 subscribers, and finding the books each month is becoming a challenge. Bythell is thinking of capping numbers, so get in quick if you want to join.
e) Of his staff … I’m not going to divulge these secrets. The quirks of his staff are a complete joy and I’m not going to spoil the pleasure of discovery for you. I will say that the staff in the book have now moved on. I am gutted, as I was particularly looking forward to making Nicky’s acquaintance next time I’m in Wigtown. I love her!
Bythell has another four years of diary, which he hopes will become a second book. And he’s thinking about selling film rights ….
In the meantime I urge those, who haven’t, to read Bythell’s book, described by Stuart Kelly as funny, kindly and elegiac. And for those who need a regular fix of humour in the face of bleak times to check out The Bookshop’s You Tube channel. I’ll leave you with a classic starring Nicky in her black Canadian ski-suit.