AMA­ZON DIS­GRACE

THE IN­DE­PEN­DENT SHOP OWNER TURN­ING HIS BACK ON THE GO­LIATH OF BOOKSELLING

The Herald Magazine - - FRONT PAGE - WORDS MARK SMITH PHOTOGRAPHS JAMIE SIMP­SON

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

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