Today 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”.
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.