Shaun Bythell – The Diary of a Bookseller: WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

CoverToday at Christchurch’s The Piano, a packed out audience was treated to a hilarious hour with Shaun Bythell. His beloved Diary of a Bookseller charts a year in the life of the largest second hand bookshop in Scotland. It is one of the ultimate books about books, packed with stories of eccentric book buyers, sound book recommendations, and accounts of stock purchase trips to auction houses and estates. It also perfectly evokes life in a small rural town, namely Wigtown, a picturesque sounding location by the sea.

The session opened with a music video – not just any music video but one set in Bythell’s gorgeous shop, complete with staff vocals.

Brian Phillips was the perfect host, launching straight into the interview by simply allowing Shaun Bythell to be Shaun Bythell, letting the session flow along beautifully and naturally. Bythell read a passage from Orwell’s ‘Bookshop Memories’ in which he described bookshops as seemingly beacons for ‘certifiable lunatics’. Bythell assured the audience that things have ‘changed a little’ since Orwell’s time.

Lovers of ‘Diary of a Book Seller’ will already be aware that there is more than an edge of misanthropy to be detected in Bythell’s narrative – with barbed (though most probably very lifelike) observations of his customers, and reflections on the hardships that often come with owning a bookstore in the age of Amazon. This response will therefore have come as no surprise. Despite this though, there is an odd sensitivity about Bythell. There is a touching moment in his diaries when he describes the books he purchases from deceased estates

Going through the books of the person who has died affords an insight into who that person was, their interests and, to a degree, their personality’

Then conversely (or perhaps reassuringly depending on your viewpoint), five minutes after this we are back to comments such as
‘a whistling customer with a ponytail and what I can only assume was a hat he’d borrowed from a clown bought a copy of Paolo Coelho’s The Alchemist, I suspect deliberately to undermine my faith in humanity and dampen my spirits further’.

How many customers have been offended by Bythell’s book? ‘Not enough’ Shaun replied, then more specifically – none so far as he knows, with the exception of ‘bum-bag Davies’. But really, says Bythell, all he has done is describe people’s behaviour – “if you’re rude – tough, don’t be rude and you won’t get into the book”. Shaun confessed that when he started writing the book, he was disappointed when his customers were not rude, “I needed material”.

Shaun Bythell: Diary of a bookseller
Shaun Bythell. WORD Christchurch Festival 2018. Saturday 1 September 2018. File reference: 2018-09-01-IMG_0230

Phillips then asked how his staff felt about his depictions of them, more specifically, Nicky – his proud bin foraging employee. Nicky, happily was fine with the book, even the narrative of the ‘bible battle’ (Nicky, a firm Jehovah’s witness would take great pleasure in putting Darwin’s ‘Origin of the Species’ in the fiction section, while Shaun would repay this gesture by putting the bible in fiction as well). Bythell shared that Nicky now has her dream job chopping down trees – she did not however ask for a reference. To be fair, said Bythell, I would have given her a glowing one.

This inevitably raised the subject of Bythell’s infamous reference for Sarah, an ex teenage employee, in which amongst other things, he observed that ‘she never, in the entire three years of her time here, did anything constructive… and was offensive and frequently violent to me” and in conclusion ‘was a valued member of staff and I have no hesitation in recommending her’. Bythell confirmed that he and Sarah are still good friends.

Phillips asked how Bythell’s leap into the book selling world came about. Shaun explained that in his twenties, he made a conscious decision not to pursue a career, which ‘became a career decision of its own’. He popped into the bookshop which was at that time owned by John, a man he had known for many years. “We were having a natter” said Shaun, “I was talking about how I was at a loose end and John said he wanted to retire… why didn’t I buy the bookshop off him?”. In response to Shaun’s observation that he had no money, John simply replied ‘That’s what banks are for’. And so Shaun bought the business knowing nothing about bookselling or running a business. Seventeen years later, added Shaun “I still don’t”.

Has he always been a keen reader? Shaun’s response was that yes, he was, then he added the universal truth that “as soon as you become a bookseller you stop reading”.

Shaun shared that his favourite part of being a bookseller is the buying, rather than the selling – nice as getting the money is. You soon learn to let go of your misconceptions, he says, as sometimes the most stately castle can offer nothing, while a small bungalow can hold some gems. ‘You never know what you are going to find’.

Shaun also shared some quirks about his shop which were missing from the video – including a miniature railway and broken kindle. The kindle has a plaque which reads ‘Shaun Bythell shot this’, the result of a tutorial on how to fix your kindle. Shaun described this as one of the most satisfying things he has ever done, and the most photographed thing in the shop.

There was a surprise revelation that Shaun has actually written another book ‘Tripe Advisor’ complete with Trip Advisor logo on its cover. This was in response to Shaun’s own trip advisor comment being taken down from the website, in which he described the  shopowner as being “wonderfully fragrant”, amongst other generous claims. The book has had some fantastic contributions from Shaun’s Facebook followers too amongst them a review from ‘book hater’ bemoaning the fact that they hate books, and only came to the shop because they were advised there was a hunky Scottish bookseller there. They looked everywhere but only found ‘a curly headed ginger lady’. Actually, as Shaun will have no doubt heard many times, it is hard not to spot a similarity between Bythell and Bernard from Black Books – just replace the red curly hair with black, and just tone Bernard’s manner down a bit and you’re there.

How did Diary of a Book Seller come about? It was an idea that Shaun had had for a while but almost given up on when Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops came out in 2012. Happily for us, Shaun pursued his idea, deciding on a diary form instead. Shaun described the original diary as being along the lines of ‘today customer dropped book – farted’ and upon sending it to a literary agent was told  that it needed more – well – writing.

Shaun also shared the exciting news that there is a sequel to Diary of a Bookseller on its way. It is written, he confirmed, and will probably be out next year. “To be honest though its just the same as the first one”‘ he added encouragingly. After such an entertaining hour with Shaun Bythell, I am only feeling all the more excited for Diary of a Bookseller 2 in spite of the hilarious deprecation of its talented writer.

For Book Collectors Old and New: WORD Christchurch 2018

Held in The Piano this was a small select audience of self-confessed book lovers, book accumulators and book collectors. The speakers were Shaun Bythell owner of The Bookshop in Wigtown, Scotland (and author of novel The diary of a bookseller)and Brian Phillips who has after a long career in publishing in New Zealand now sells collectable New Zealand books.

Shaun, I’m pleased to say, was rocking a “Black Books” Dylan Moran look with a delightfully frayed sports jacket and generally casually disheveled vibe. Excellent. He modestly introduced himself as a general bookseller and someone “generally knowing not very much about everything”.

The Smallest Scottish Bookshop in the World at The Piano

To warm us up we played a guess the value of some dusty old books game. With seven second hand titles from Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations to James Clavell’s Shogun, and with a little Harry Potter and Hone Tuwhare thrown in, the books ranged in value from $10 to $500. I can report that everyone including Shaun Bythell got the valuations wrong showing the vagaries and conundrum of book selling and collecting. The book with the highest value turned out to be Shogun.

The conversation meandered somewhat but generally covered: how to sell your own book collections, what to keep and what to collect.

  • Brian’s advice for would-be sellers was to consider selling books with a value over $500 at auction, and lower valued stock yourselves online using Trade Me.
  • What to keep was easily answered by what you love, book collecting is about passion.
  • Finally, what to collect? Shaun praised Folio Society books for their high production standards, beautifully decorated covers and great illustrations. They are relatively inexpensive to buy but exquisite and would hold their value.
  • Brian recommended several New Zealand titles to keep an eye out for including Wash day at the Pa originally published by the Department of Education as a bulletin for schools and later withdrawn because of its unflattering picture of Maori rural life, Man Alone by John Mulgan (the 1939 English edition) and South Island of New Zealand from the Road by Robin Morrison, preferably with dust jacket intact.

There was some discussion on the added value of author signatures on books. Here Shaun took the view that an author signature only added 10% to the value of the book unless the author was very famous or very reclusive. Janet Frame was considered a good example of an author who signed relatively few books and was very collectable. Establishing the provenance of the book, and the authenticity of the signature was also something to consider, and several online sites hosting authenticated author signatures were mentioned.

Featherston got, for me, an unexpected shout-out as New Zealand’s first booktown. With an increasing number of second hand bookshops Featherston is positioning itself to join the likes of Wigtown in Scotland and Hay-on-Wye in Wales as a book buying and book event destination. Shaun visited Featherston this week and described it as “rough and ready, not too polished but worth a visit”. He hopes the book trade will help reverse the area’s economic decline.

On a less positive note Shaun described the activities of megalisters, online sellers of second hand books with more than 100,000 listings. In the UK second hand books can be bought from institutions for as little as 10 pence per kilo. These pallets of books are then processed at huge warehouses with little or no attention paid to the individual titles. Re-sold on Amazon and Abe Books these books often make more money for the supplier from the hiked up postage charges than from the value of the book itself but through economy of scale profits are made, and the sustainability of the independent secondhand bookseller made more tenuous.

A slightly blurry Shaun Bythell about to meet a firing squad of librarians

Shaun also saved some scorn for librarians, and our irritating habit of covering library books with plastic covers that leak glue, tape and labels that yellow and cancellation stamps that blot endpapers, not to mention RFID tags, barcodes and all the other staff and customer created mayhem that a poor public library book endures over its short, brutal life. When challenged he did mutter something about libraries as cornerstones of democracy and bastions of learning but I might have imagined that.

A bit more Shaun and a little less Brian, affable and knowledgeable though he is, would have created a better balanced and less parochial workshop but overall this was a super interesting insight into the joys and perils of book collecting and book selling.

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WORD Christchurch Festival 2018: Joyce’s picks

It has taken me a full seven days to sufficiently cogitate and ponder the wonders of this year’s WORD Christchurch Festival and come up with some definitive highlights. This glacially slow digestion is both testament to the breadth, depth and range of the festival content and the sluggishness of my overwhelmed brain. But isn’t it nice to be spoiled by literary choice? Explore the full programme and spin out!

The overarching awesomeness of this year’s festival is the tartan tint to everything. Programme Director Rachael King is bringing a wee slice of literary Scotland to our far flung shores (gallus move lassie!) with the likes of:

Crime writer extraordinaire Denise Mina

CoverWith several gritty but character-rich mystery series under her belt Denise Mina‘s latest novel draws on a real-life crime from 1950s Glasgow. She is, I have it on good authority, a witty and engaging speaker and will appear at The Great WORD Debate, Whisky Galore! and at her own Masterclass event. She also brings a very impressive hairdo.

Bookseller Shaun Bythell

CoverHis Diary of a Bookseller has been, for me, a slightly surprising hit here at Christchurch City Libraries. Who knew there was so much interest in flogging dusty tomes? I’ve just started reading it and I’m already seeing library parallels, lots of eccentric people buy and borrow books. Hurrah. Shaun is also appearing at Whisky Galore! At a session called For Book Collectors Old and New, and in conversation with Brian Phillips at The Diary of a Bookseller. Shaun is from Wigtown and also has epic hair.


Poet Robin Robertson

I don’t normally have much truck with poetry (yes, I am a philistine) but Robin Robertson’s session Mortification sounds like my bag. Here a mixed cast of Kiwi and Scots authors will share their true tales of hideous embarrassment. It promises strong language and requires a stiff drink. He’ll also appear at Starry, Starry Night, Whisky Galore! and The Long Take. His hair game is average but as he just got longlisted for The Man Booker Prize I’m sure he has bigger aspirations and he still has more wig than Irvine Welsh!

Apart from all the Scottish loveliness, I’m also looking forward to:

See you there!