Dear Di­ary: This is a year in the life of a book­seller

Waterloo Region Record - - Books - CHUCK ERION Chuck Erion is a for­mer co-owner of Words Worth Books in Water­loo.

With a ti­tle like that, how could I, a for­mer book­seller, re­sist? This is a year (2014) in the life of the owner of a used book­store in a re­mote town in Scot­land. The au­thor bought The Book Shop, a ram­bling build­ing with six miles of shelves and some­where near 100,000 books for sale. Their web­site says they buy 100 books a day on av­er­age. This di­ary records their daily sales, both on­line, in sin­gle dig­its, and through the till, rarely over $258. So, it’s not sur­pris­ing that an ex­act in­ven­tory num­ber is elu­sive.

Shaun Bythell bought the busi­ness and build­ing from its for­mer owner in 2001 when he was 31 and out of work. When he told the owner that he had no money, the re­sponse was ‘You don’t need money — what do you think banks are for?’

Seven­teen years later and The Book Shop is still open, de­spite com­pe­ti­tion from Ama­zon, ebooks and the usual slings and ar­rows of re­tail. This di­ary is an of­ten hi­lar­i­ous record of its dayto-day op­er­a­tion.

Each month of the di­ary is pref­aced by an ex­cerpt from Ge­orge Or­well’s 1936 Book­shop Mem­o­ries. Shaun points out what lit­tle has changed since Or­well’s day, and blames “the con­stant bar­rage of dull ques­tions, the par­lous fi­nance of the busi­ness, the in­ces­sant ar­gu­ments with staff and the un­end­ing, ex­haust­ing, hag­gling cus­tomers” for his grumpi­ness. But he wouldn’t trade it for any­thing.

Wigstown, like Hay-on Wye in Eng­land, has be­come Scot­land’s Na­tional Book Town, thanks to a book fes­ti­val that takes place each Septem­ber. There are now a dozen book deal­ers and re­lated busi­nesses, in­clud­ing The Open Book, which you can rent as an Airbnb and live in for two weeks (though it is fully booked through 2021). Shaun revels in the plan­ning, stag­ing and host­ing of au­thors. I found my­self look­ing up some of the ti­tles of one vis­it­ing writer, Sara Mait­land’s “Book of Si­lence.”

Shaun is in The Book Shop ev­ery day, ex­cept when he drives his van to buy books from peo­ple sell­ing their own or their rel­a­tives’ li­braries. Nicky is his part­time em­ployee, who marches to her own drum, and dump­s­ter­dives for ques­tion­able treats for Foody Fri­days. There are sev­eral stu­dents who work over the sum­mers. In the epi­logue Shaun re­ports on where they are now: a choco­latier, a doc­tor.

I iden­ti­fied most with his di­a­tribes against Ama­zon and its stran­gle­hold on the book busi­ness. With vir­tu­ally all used and an­ti­quar­ian books on its data­base, and with lit­tle re­gard for pric­ing to en­sure prof­itabil­ity, ev­ery book pur­chased by Shaun for re­sale has to be checked with

Ama­zon on­line. “Ama­zon seems to be fo­cused on match­ing if not un­der­selling com­peti­tors’ prices to the ex­tent that it seems im­pos­si­ble to see how it can make money on some sales. This puts the squeeze not only on pub­lish­ers, au­thors and, ul­ti­mately, cre­ativ­ity.”

And, like­wise, cus­tomers can check prices, too. Shaun tells of one cus­tomer who calls ask­ing about a book she saw in the shop but can’t re­call the ex­act ti­tle. He re­fuses to give it to her, know­ing that she will just or­der it on­line from Ama­zon.

He also takes de­light in the fact that the most pho­tographed item in the store is a Kin­dle (Ama­zon’s e-reader) that he shot with a ri­fle and mounted on a shield.

Book­selling, from long be­fore Or­well’s days, has been a per­ilous trade. What a bricks-and­mor­tar store can of­fer, that Ama­zon can­not, is the serendip­ity of find­ing a book you didn’t know ex­isted, and hope­fully be­ing able to dis­cuss it with a staffer who has read it. That ad­van­tage is why we need to sup­port real book­stores.

“The Di­ary of a Book­seller” is a charm­ing mix of wacky char­ac­ters and caus­tic di­a­tribe, an ode to that per­ilous trade.

“The Di­ary of a Book­seller” is a charm­ing mix of wacky char­ac­ters and caus­tic di­a­tribe, an ode to that per­ilous trade.

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