Shaun Bythell’s “The Diary of a Bookseller”

This week my guilty pleasure has been reading Shaun Bythell’s The Diary of a Bookseller.  I am so engrossed in Bythell’s diary that I have put off finishing a work project.  Bythell owns Scotland’s largest second-hand bookstore, The Bookshop, in Wigtown, which is designated a National Book Town and the home of the Wigtown Book Festival.  His diary entries are short, curmudgeonly, and witty, and I am absorbed by this insider’s view of  bookselling.

We’d all love to own a bookstore, or so we think, but the business isn’t always easy. Bythell identifies with George Orwell, who wrote in his essay, “Bookshop Memories,” about the difficulties of working in a bookstore.  Indeed, Orwell may be the inspiration for much of this book.  Orwell enjoyed some parts of the job, but was glad on the whole to have left.  Bythell stays, but understands Orwell.

Bythell begins the book with an epigraph from Orwell.  Then he writes,

Orwell’s reluctance to commit to bookselling is understandable. There is a stereotype of the impatient, intolerant, antisocial proprietor –played so perfectly by Dylan Moran in Black Books –and it seems (on the whole) to be true.There are exceptions of course, and many booksellers do not conform to this type. Sadly, I do. It was not always thus, though, and before buying the shop I recall being quite amenable and friendly. The constant barrage of dull questions, the parlous finances of the business, the incessant arguments with staff and the unending, exhausting, haggling customers have reduced me to this. Would I change any of it? No.

Bythell makes a bare living, mostly from the store rather than online sales, which I find encouraging, but he lives above his shop, as  so many  used bookstore owners do.  The difference between Bythell and the (obviously) older semi-Luddite booksellers of my acquaintance?  Bythell has Facebook, where he writes about customer behavior.   One day, he hears a woman whisper to her friend to shut up or they’d get written up. His amusing descriptions of eccentric customers are riveting:  the chatty customers, the smelly (some of whom have great taste in books), the hagglers, and, finally, the happy bibliophiles who spend money.

I enjoy reading about his eccentric part-time employee, Nicky, a Jehovah’s witness who seldom follows his instructions and sometimes shelves Charles Darwin in the fiction section.  Driving to estates to  assess the worth of a personal library sounded fun, until I learned it often means buying not just the books you can sell but the whole lot.

But perhaps he is most interesting about the changes in bookselling in the 21st century. In the UK Amazon is always the enemy–perhaps we have a bigger variety of  online sellers here– and online bookselling has changed the business.  The huge used booksellers with no overhead can sell in bulk very cheaply, so the prices have come down for everyone.  And the ratings can be erratic.  We’ve heard about writers’ frustrations with online ratings, but I never thought much about booksellers (because I never rate them).

Bythell writes,

Today an Amazon customer emailed about a book called Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing? His complaint: ‘I have not received my book yet. Please resolve this matter. So far I did not write any review about your service.’ This thinly veiled threat is increasingly common, thanks to Amazon feedback, and unscrupulous customers have been known to use it to negotiate partial and even full refunds when they have received the book they ordered.

I feel a bit like Janus:  I see both sides of the online selling problem. As a non-driver in the Midwest, online shopping has been a blessing for me, because it saves me hours of bicycling or changing buses to go to malls that don’t have what I want.  Like most of us, I’ve flirted with eBay and have  sold a few books online. Usually it’s fine, but  we sold a brand-new pristine Penguin hardcover edition of Middlemarch, which I couldn’t read because the print was too small for me!  It was never read, in perfect shape. The buyer wrote angrily that the book was beaten-up and scribbled in.  Really?  By whom?  we wondered. We gave him a refund, and we did ask him to return it, but clearly that isn’t going to happen. So he got a free book.  Was it worth it?

And is that why I’m not a bookseller?

I’m a happy reader and book buyer, though, and that’s what matters.

14 thoughts on “Shaun Bythell’s “The Diary of a Bookseller”

  1. I read this a little while ago and really enjoyed it, but found it quite sad, rather than the riot of funny that some reviewers had read. And I know what you mean about the two sides – we don’t have an independent bookshop in our city so it’s chain book stores with a trip into the city on the bus or click click. We do have the alternative Hive but I don’t use that much, I’m ashamed to admit.

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    • I find much of it comical, but know what you mean about the sadness. He loves this way of life, but It IS sad to read about the way the prices have come down, because it must make it even harder to make a living.

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        • I’m still not quite done with it, but the further I read the more I see what you mean about the sadness. It is comical–it’s something about his style–but the work is so constant he barely has time to read!

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  2. This does sound like fun. I’ve wondered, occasionally, about selling a few books online, when I don’t feel I can find a match with a reader locally, but then I think about all those years spent in retail in my younger years and I think, “not”. The customer is human and, so, not always right. But reading about bookselling remains delightful indeed!

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  3. I keep hearing good things about this so I may have to track it down… And yes, I’m with you about the Janus thing – I have been able to access so many books I never could in the past thanks to online shopping, but I still love nothing more than stumbling across something wonderful in a secondhand or charity book shop!

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    • I wish we had good second-hand shops here, but they’re all gone! And Amazon and the other online bookselelrs are good at providing those rare titles (reading copies!) which I’ve never been able to find.

      On Wed, Nov 1, 2017 at 11:01 AM, mirabile dictu wrote:

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  4. Another book I would like to read! Your Middlemarch experience is very disturbing. It seems you are at the mercy of the unscrupulous customer. It would make me feel very vulnerable as a seller.

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    • Yes, I’m sure you take it in your stride if you’re a regular bookseller, though it couldn’t be pleasant, but it is startling if you know nothing about online sales!

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