by Shaun Bythell (2017)

Let’s be honest: we bibliophiles can be a bit eccentric. We love to be surrounded by books, often to a point of excess that non-bibliophiles don’t understand. Many of us take a book with us wherever we go in case we have a short wait here and there to read a few more pages. It’s not surprising, then, that many of us harbor a fantasy of owning an entire bookstore with space for as many books as we want without anyone hounding us to curtail our supply. What is it REALLY like to OWN a book shop?

Shaun Bythell purchased The Bookshop, the largest second-hand book shop in Wigtown, Scotland, in November 2001. The package included 100,000 second-hand volumes, a spacious house for the books with plenty of living space above it, even a yard with garden space, all near the ocean in the small picturesque town. He was an avid reader who immerses himself in whatever he’s reading. It seemed like an ideal situation.

Bythell’s diary from 2014 reveals that dealing with books from the other (business) side of the counter is certainly not as romantic or fun as one might have dreamed. He’s also not the only person to have written about his experiences. In fact, he begins each month’s entries with a quote from George Orwell’s essay “Bookshop Memories.” Bythell found that his own experiences ring as true today as Orwell’s did in 1936.

The truth is that a second-hand bookseller has a lot less time to ENJOY his stock than he imagined. In fact, it requires many long NON-READING hours just to keep the business solvent.

The most important task is acquiring and pricing books before they can even go on the shelf for sale. Bythell accepts some books that people bring in to the store. He also drives to homes if people have entire libraries of which they need to dispose, usually accumulated by a dead relative. He might have thousands of books to sort through (often covered in dust and cat hair), then will make an offer for the books that are appropriate for his shop. He boxes the selections, transports them in his van to his shop, sorts, unpacks, prices, and shelves them in the correct section. Imagine doing that with thousands of boxes of books year after year. The physical labor takes a toll on one’s body.

Another source of his stock is estate auctions. Knowledge of publishers, authors, various editions of rare books, and other pertinent information is necessary to determine whether a certain book is rare or just a later edition worth very little. Truly rare books do appear, but not often.

The bookseller must know his clientele and what they want and will buy. That takes time to learn, as well as contact with people. One example that baffled me about Bythell’s shop is that books about the railway are popular and sell readily. The railway? I guess you’d have to live in the U.K. to understand that one.

The bookseller also must have a wide enough knowledge of genres and authors to be able to answer clients’ questions about similar books. He must know their preferences during the acquisition process, too. Although Bythell personally prefers fiction over non-fiction, he has found in his shop that “…the majority of fiction is still bought by women, while men rarely buy anything other than non-fiction….” [p. 89] Good to know when buying books for the shop!

One major change in the book industry since Bythell bought the shop in 2001 is the growth of online book purchasing. He wasn’t keen on dealing with eBay and Amazon, but knew it was inevitable if he intended to remain solvent. Online orders are now a significant part of his business, but they require still more work hours on the business end.

Of course, there are also the chores that go along with any business: accounting, taxes, general bureaucratic paperwork, hiring assistants, etc. The bottom line is that it takes a serious amount of non-reading time to keep a bookshop afloat (barely at times), keep one’s sanity, and still carve out a little time to READ, which was what this was all about in the first place!

Bythell’s diary is a wonderful read for book lovers. I like his entries about people, especially his employee Nicky, which are often hilarious. He likes to observe people who come to the shop bringing their quirks with them. They run the gamut from being real jerks to those who are happy to find their choice available. Sometimes he finds a new friend.

One “type” that surprised him and me is people who come to the shop declaring they are real “book people” and like to show off their literary knowledge, then leave without buying anything! Those same people usually leave behind a scattered mass of books requiring re-shelving.

Wigtown has experienced a resurgence of businesses (including more book shops) and an influx of people since Bythell opened his shop. Those people are also interesting and varied. Many have good ideas about ways to promote the town and create events that will bring in visitors. There has been some recent publicity, such as this article about another shop near The Bookshop that has a unique idea:

Bythell’s diary has been followed by the August 2019 release of Confessions of a Bookseller. Amazon says:

The Diary of a Bookseller (soon to be a major TV series) introduced us to the joys and frustrations of life lived in books. Sardonic and sympathetic in equal measure, Confessions of a Bookseller will reunite readers with the characters they’ve come to know and love.”

Here’s The Bookshop’s website:

Bythell created another revenue stream by starting an unusual book club:

As they say, you never know what you’ll get.

What do you think? If you’re one of the people who thought owning a book shop could be your dream job and have no wish to become wealthy, do you still think so? Or do you prefer to let people like Bythell do the actual work and stick to reading about their adventures?

–Donna Rueff–