Doing It By The Book
Bookseller Shaun Bythell has stumbled upon an uplifting new career
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
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