Do­ing It By The Book

Book­seller Shaun Bythell has stum­bled upon an up­lift­ing new ca­reer

The Scots Magazine - - Wild About Scotland - By DAWN GED­DES

RUN­NING Scot­land’s largest sec­ond-hand book shop, in Scot­land’s na­tional book town, sounds like a dream to me. I can imag­ine days spent pot­ter­ing among the shelves, hours filled with book chat over hot choco­late and quiet spells spent de­vour­ing vin­tage Agatha Christie nov­els with a packet of bis­cuits for com­pany.

Only it’s not all nov­els and Hob­nobs, ac­cord­ing to Shaun Bythell, pro­pri­etor of The Book­shop in Wig­town. Some of it – most of it, even – is ac­tu­ally quite hard work.

That was en­tirely ev­i­dent when I got the chance to in­ter­view Shaun about his witty mem­oir The Diary Of A Book­seller last month. Sum­mer is the shop’s busiest sea­son and he’s in­ter­rupted fre­quently dur­ing our chat by cus­tomers mak­ing in­quiries. Which sounds great for busi­ness in the­ory, if only all of the in­quiries were ac­tu­ally rel­e­vant…

“We get so many weird ques­tions. I think the most mem­o­rable one was the guy who asked us if we sold dog food. He’d clearly missed the point com­pletely. We also have so many cus­tomers who’ll start a sen­tence with the words, ‘This might sound like a strange re­quest’. When­ever any­one says that, you can guar­an­tee that their re­quest will in­vari­ably be some­thing spec­tac­u­larly bland!”

Al­though Shaun has al­ways been a keen reader, he had never ac­tu­ally con­sid­ered a ca­reer in book­selling un­til 18 years ago.

“I just kind of fell into it. I was vis­it­ing my par­ents one Christmas and I popped into The Book­shop to buy a few things from the pre­vi­ous owner. We were chat­ting and he told me that he was plan­ning to re­tire and sug­gested that I buy the shop.

“I’d reached the age of 30 and I wasn’t re­ally do­ing any­thing much with my life, so when this op­por­tu­nity came up, I just thought, ‘You know what? I’m go­ing to see what this is like’.”

As an out­sider look­ing in, Shaun’s ex­pe­ri­ences of be­ing a book­seller are ex­tremely amus­ing. From run-ins with rude cus­tomers in­tent on hag­gling to ob­ser­va­tions about weird and won­der­ful staff mem­bers and droll anec­dotes about bizarre con­ver­sa­tions he’s had with bonkers book buy­ers, his mem­oir is won­der­fully in­trigu­ing and laugh-out­loud funny.

“When I first bought The Book­shop the peo­ple who worked here all warned me that the things that cus­tomers say are so weird, you could write a book about them.

“Then Jen Camp­bell’s Weird Things Cus­tomers Say In Book­shops came out and ev­ery book­seller in the UK was say­ing, ‘Oh no! That’s the book I should have writ­ten!’”

Spurred on by this, Shaun de­cided to keep a log of his day-to-day life in the shop for a year. The Diary Of A Book­seller was pub­lished in Septem­ber last year by Pro­file Books and has now been trans­lated into a whop­ping 19 dif­fer­ent lan­guages. With a fol­low-up book al­ready in the works, it’s clear that putting up with strange cus­tomer re­quests and eter­nal book browsers has fi­nally paid off.

“I never planned to write a book, but I’ve ac­tu­ally found the whole thing in­cred­i­bly cathar­tic. Be­fore­hand if some­one said some­thing rude, I’d get re­ally an­noyed but now I’m like, ‘Go on… say some­thing so I can write it down!’”

As the book’s pop­u­lar­ity has con­tin­ued to grow, Shaun has seen an in­crease in cus­tomers com­ing through the door look­ing to see the now-fa­mous shop for them­selves. I ask the celebrity book­seller whether he

Drawn from real life – Shaun’s un­ex­pected hit mem­oir

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