THE INDEPENDENT SHOP OWNER TURNING HIS BACK ON THE GOLIATH OF BOOKSELLING
Wednesday February 5 “There is a stereotype of the impatient, intolerant book shop owner – played so perfectly by Dylan Moran in Black Books – and it seems (on the whole) to be true.”
THOSE are the words of Shaun Bythell, who, on first impressions at least, seems to be far from impatient or intolerant – in fact, he seems pretty charming. On the day I sit down to talk to him, in the flat above the second-hand book shop he owns and runs in Wigtown in Galloway, a customer, a perfect stranger, ignores the “private” signs and wanders into Bythell’s house and starts looking around, like it’s normal. This happens all the time apparently but Bythell just rolls his eyes and sighs. In this job – this tiring, frustrating, exhausting and wonderful job of book shop owner – there’s a lot of eye rolling and a lot of sighing. But despite everything – and we will talk about everything – you keep going.
When we sit down at the kitchen table, I ask him about that Black Books stereotype and whether it’s really true. It is, he says. Bythell has written a book about his life, The Diary of a Bookseller, and in it he relates various frustrating, depressing encounters with some of the people who come into his shop: haggling, boastful, boring, argumentative people, many of whom don’t even seem to like books. It can drive him mad, but the obvious question is the one you might put to Basil Fawlty about hotel management: if it’s so annoying, why do it? Bythell’s answer? Because he loves it.
Up to a point. Here we are in the biggest second-hand book shop in Scotland; a wonderful, eccentric place, full of millions of words organised into hundreds of thousands of books, and yet, after 16 years of running the place, 46-year-old Bythell pretty much doesn’t read any more. As for the books themselves, they’re just things that make money.
“You start looking at books as commercial objects,” he says. “The guy I bought the shop from, John Carter, said something like: ‘Beware of people who describe themselves as booksellers or dealers.’ You’ve got to think: ‘I’m a businessman, I just happen to sell books,’ and I try to keep that in mind. People try to mystify it and make it into a dark art and it’s not.” But it’s one of those jobs you dream about, isn’t it? He nods his head in a resigned way. “But the reality is brutally different from the fantasy.” Tuesday April 8 “In November 2001, the month I bought the shop, an old man was browsing in the maritime history section. He came to the counter and asked: ‘When are you having the bonfire?’ Puzzled, I asked him what he meant. He replied: ‘For your books, I’ve never seen such rubbish.’”
TODAY, Bythell is going to tell me about
the brutal reality. He looks and sounds like a nice man – slightly worried eyes behind little saucer glasses perched under tea-cosy hair, with the polite manner they teach you at good private schools – but his story is one about constant anxiety over money, and the future. Then there are the arguments with staff and the argument he can never win,
with Amazon. If you want a baddie in this story, then Amazon is it, but Bythell says there is nothing he would rather do than own this shop, although he would prefer it was all a bit easier.
The fact is Bythell didn’t intend to buy a book shop. He remembers the shop opening in his hometown when he was a teenager, but he was convinced it would be shut within a year. He then went off to university and thought no more about it until, many years later, aged 31, he went into the shop and the owner told him it was for sale. Would he like to buy it? Well, would he?
I ask Bythell if buying a book shop had ever seemed like a likely prospect for him. What had he been doing before he became a book shop owner? “Oh, all manner of s****,” he says. Quick summary: childhood in Wigtown (his father was a farmer). Local primary, then Glenalmond, in Perthshire. Law at Trinity College, Dublin, but in third year he thinks: mmm, don’t really want to be a lawyer. Comes back to Scotland. Bums about for a bit. Parents say: get a job or get out. Starts working as a labourer on a gas pipeline. Ends up in Bristol working as a researcher on TV documentaries. Gets to the age of 30 and thinks: don’t really want to be doing this for the rest of my life. Visits parents. Goes into book shop. Ends up buying book shop. Asking price: £150,000. He is still paying back the bank loan.
Thursday May 1 “On the whole (in my shop at least) the majority of fiction is still bought by women, while men rarely buy anything other than non-fiction.”
A QUICK recap. Shaun Bythell never
thought of buying a book shop but suddenly he did and there he was, trying to make it work. And it would work – if it weren’t for the customers.
“I do get grumpy with customers,” he says. “It does grind you down. There is an element of posturing with some people, especially if they ask you a question. They’ll have some really esoteric thing they know a lot about and I know nothing about and they’ll say: ‘Call yourself a bookseller?’”
And one thing Bythell hates more than most is haggling. “I price my books to sell, not to be knocked down on.”
But don’t get the wrong impression. Yes, he gets grumpy, but he loves what he does, and he’s aware of its deeper levels. On the surface, it’s all about making money from books, but Bythell buys as well as sells and that means going into the homes of people who have died or are selling to raise money – it can be a melancholic experience. You become desensitised over time, he says, but dismantling book collections can feel an act of vandalism – you are responsible for erasing the last piece of evidence of who they were.
Bythell explains all of this sensitively, but it’s obvious that his default setting is Have a Laugh. He tells me one thing he has noticed about customers is that they generally fit into types and he can spot which type you are when you walk into the shop. Do men come in and buy books about cricket and railways and women come in and buy romantic novels? “I’m afraid so,” he says. “I hate gender stereotypes, but on the whole
Some people will have a really esoteric thing they know a lot about and I know nothing about and they’ll say: ‘Call yourself a bookseller?’
female customers buy books about crafts and arts and fiction and men on the whole it’s history, engineering.”
Thursday May 27 “As a customer was looking at Whisky Distilleries of the UK in our new books section I happened to be passing to put new stock out and I heard the words ‘cheaper on Amazon’ whispered to his companion. He didn’t even have the courtesy to wait until I was out of earshot.”
THE subject of Amazon comes up,
naturally. Bythell bought The Book Shop in 2001 when online shopping was not as prevalent as it is now. Sixteen years later, Amazon has changed the book market utterly. Some would say nearly destroyed it. I ask Bythell what he thinks of Amazon. One word: “Bastards.”
The problem for him, and every other bookseller, is this: Amazon has made every book available pretty much instantly with sellers across the UK competing with each other. That has driven down prices and made it increasingly hard for shops such as Bythell’s to compete. But equally, shops like his rely on Amazon for some of their income. To make matters worse, Bythell and his shop have been suspended by Amazon for the last 18 months, which means they are losing thousands of pounds a year. The crime? To forget to tick the “book despatched” box when sending books out. He admits it was his mistake, but he has tried in vain to sort it out. There is no number he can phone and when he emails, all he gets now is an automated response.
For Bythell, it’s pretty disastrous. “It’s a loss of turnover of about £16,000 a year, but it’s impenetrable – you cannot get through to them. Of that £16,000 Amazon took about £4500 without even touching the books – they are just the portal so essentially I’ve lost about £12,000, which equated to somebody on minimum wage so I had to let someone go. I’ve given up.”
He hopes a fightback might be possible, but on the whole is pessimistic. “I can’t see it changing,” he says. “I think Amazon has such a stranglehold on everything now and the chief executive Jeff Bezos is not going to let go. It would require government intervention to stop the snowball from getting any bigger and most governments are too s***-scared to do anything.”
Tuesday July 8 “The first order for a book today was about the history of level crossings.”
ONE weird fact about Shaun Bythell and
The Book Shop is the type of book that sells the best. It’s railways, by a mile. And they are all bought by men, apart from the odd woman (who is invariably buying the book as a present for a man). “They are the friendliest guys,” says Bythell. “And they are usually so delighted that they’ve found what they’re looking for. They never haggle or ask for discounts.”
Other customers are not so nice, which can create a bit of a moral dilemma for Bythell. He tells me about one instance when he got a call about a book collection in Rothesay so he took the ferry over and was met by a woman who was selling her
brother’s collection. What had happened to him? Was he dead? Was he in prison? Who knows. Bythell was shown to the bookshelves and there they were: books on Hitler and Holocaust denial, books on JFK conspiracies and books on Jack the Ripper.
“Usually, those three go together,” he says. “It was creepy. I don’t want to give this guy my money but he might be dead and his sister might be OK, and you’re always thinking who is going to end up buying these books. I justify it by saying it’s going to be people who are debunking all this s***.” So you will find Mein Kampf in The Book Shop from time to time (it sells for around £60) but there are books that Bythell hates more than Hitler, which is anything by Dan Brown and Tom Clancy. They’re worthless. So don’t even bother to bring them into the shop if you know what’s good for you.
Tuesday February 11 “I try to budget on about £7000 a year for keeping the roof over my head and the walls standing.”
BYTHELL doesn’t do too badly out of The
Book Shop but really, some days, you think: how does he manage? In his diary, he notes how many customers he’s had and how much he’s taken at the till and in one entry, it’s stark: “One customer. Till total: £5.”
“Some days it’s pitiful. Normally I’m worrying about money day to day. The shop turns over about £100,000 a year but you’ve got a lot of overheads like stock and I usually have someone working for me in the summer. And I still owe the bank about £30,000 on the building.”
The good news is that Bythell has noticed something of a recovery more recently. “We had a real problem in 2009 after the credit crunch because the business had grown about 10 to 15 per cent every year since I bought it and then in 2009 it dropped back to where I was in 2001.
“There are interesting things that you notice. It used to be that I would get a lot of people paying with £20 notes so I was always running out of fivers and then for about four years the till was just stuffed with fivers and no £20 notes – people were on tighter budgets and more conscious of what they had in their wallets. In the last two or three years I’ve seen about five £50 notes – it’s all creeping back in again.”
Monday 31 March “Following Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type, Vespasiano da Bisticci, a bookseller in Florence, was so outraged that books would no longer be written out by hand that he closed his shop in a fit of rage and became the first person in history to prophesy the death of the book industry.”
HANGING on the wall in Bythell’s shop is a
Kindle, or what’s left of it. He is not a fan of the e-readers and took his shotgun to one to demonstrate his views and hung it on the wall as a trophy. He does, though, detect the beginnings of a more positive change. “Kindle sales have plateaued or even started going down, but there will always be a market for e-readers – I think you’d be a fool to think they’re going away. You have to accept that you have to cohabit with them.”
Bythell also thinks the idea that bookshops might disappear is an exaggeration. Waterstone’s and Amazon, he says, have done a lot of damage to independent shops selling new books, with about a third disappearing in the last five years. But second-hand book shops are more resilient, he says. They are still closing down, just not at the same rate.
And, sitting here in his kitchen above the books, Bythell is optimistic on the whole. Will he be here in 10 years? He hopes so. “There is a resurgence and people have started to appreciate that they don’t want an empty high street – boarded-up windows, charity shops and cafes.” There are people who will come into the shop, look at a book then download it or buy it from Amazon, but there are also people – lots of them – who realise that if you want book shops to survive, you have to go to them and perhaps pay more. That’s the logic Shaun Bythell makes a living from, and it’s still working.
I used to get a lot of people paying with £20 notes and then for about four years the till was just stuffed with fivers and no £20 notes – people were on tighter budgets
Railway books are the bestsellers in Shaun Bythell’s Wigtown shop
From top: Bythell grew up in Wigtown but didn’t settle for any length of time until he bought The Book Shop in 2001; Tamsin Greig, Dylkan Moran and Bill Bailey starred in Black Books, a TV comedy about an antisocial bookseller; although the shop turns over £100,000 a year, Bythell admits that ‘some days [the takings are] pitiful’
The Book Shop is the biggest of its kind in Scotland, having been less vulnerable to the rise of Amazon than its counterparts selling new books