15 May 2021

Shaun Bythell: Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops

From Saturday Morning, 8:40 am on 15 May 2021

Shaun Bythell has run Wigtown's The Bookshop since 2001. It's the largest second hand bookshop in Scotland with shelves spanning nearly two kilometres and containing more than 100,000 books.

His trademark sardonic humour has landed him the unofficial title of "Scotland's grumpiest bookseller". It has also produced two bestselling books; The Diary of a Bookseller and Confessions of a Bookseller both of which focus on his shop and its clientele.

His latest release Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops, introduces us to "the Person Who Doesn't Know What They Want (But Thinks It Might Have a Blue Cover)", "the harried Parents Secretly After Free Childcare" and over in the erotica section, "The Person Who Is Up to No Good".

The Bookshop

The Bookshop Photo: supplied

The store reopened about two weeks ago, and customers have begun trickling back, Bythell says.

"On the whole I try to think of myself more as an observer than a critic of people's behaviour. I'm rarely actually rude to people face to face, I try and just reflect people's behaviour back to them, so if they're rude to me I'll be rude to them. But most customers aren't rude, most of them are fine.

Shaun Bythell

Shaun Bythell Photo: supplied

"So, I think I actually quite like it when people are rude or say annoying things, because it gives me something to write about. And that's been one of the problems of lockdown, because no customers means no material.  

"The whole human interaction thing has ground to a halt more or less in the UK, for pretty much a year, and even if you think you don't like it, when it's taken away from you, you do miss it.  

"Even rude strangers, it's just something different and new. If all you have is the same few faces every day then it does get a bit boring."

Bythell says he's been the recipient of several acts of Covid-19 kindness that have been heartening.

"I've had a lady from Monaco, who'd read an article by Margaret Atwood saying the people who're going to suffer are small businesses, and if you feel you can do anything to support them, then I'm sure they'd appreciate it.

"And, this is a woman who I'd never met before, sent me a cheque for 300 pounds, and said that she'd read this article and thought that my business was worth supporting.  We've had a correspondence ever since then.

Bythell said he decided years ago not to sell through the online giants such as Amazon, which has further limited his business during the pandemic.

"I sent someone a book, and he sent me a cheque for twice as much as the book was worth, and said 'I know how much businesses are suffering at the moment, and I really want to make sure you're still there at the end of the pandemic'. So, people have been really thoughtful."  

From his appraisals of customers, the ones who perhaps come off the best in his new book are the sci-fi and graphic novel fans.

"They are so passionate about their subject, they're so enthusiastic, although ... sometimes they may lack social skills. If they find something that they want they get visibly excited about it and that enthusiasm is infectious. And they never complain about the price and haggle, it's a joy."

The lockdown has spurred him to put his stock online, though not through the giant multi-nationals he decries.

"I'm doing it myself, though even doing it yourself you still have to jump into bed with some kind of online giant.

"I think people are starting to be a bit more aware that Amazon is this massive hegemony that's just taking over everything.

"One of the things that being shut for 116 days showed me, is ... not having the opportunity to go to bookstores all that time, has made people realise how much they actually appreciate them.

"Certainly when we reopened for the first time after the first lockdown we were so busy, busier than we've ever been, and I think it was a case of people realising that buying books online is fine, but there is no substitute for going to a bookshop.

"[It] ... has made people appreciate the physical presence of the bookshop, and realise that okay, you might have to pay a little bit extra, but if you want the bookshop to still be there in however many years' time, then that's the price you have to pay.  

"Almost every bookseller I know has said more or less the same thing, which is that when they reopened there was a massive surge, and it hasn't really tailed off."  

The lockdown had a silver lining for Bythell - more time to spend with young daughter Freya.

"I'm open six days a week, and I'm in the shop six days a week. So, it's so rare to have more than two days in a row off, if I'm lucky, but to have 116 days off in a row... and we were lucky that the government stepped in quite early, and there were subsidies to support businesses. So, we didn't starve, and we  got to all spend time together, and it was a really good time."

Bythell runs a Random Selections book club, which has proved popular.

"I have quite a few in New Zealand. The biggest problem I have with that is supply, plenty of people want to join ... but I don't have a steady consistent source of supply.  And anybody who's in the second-hand book trade, will probably say the same, it's either feast or famine. Either your shop is full of boxes of books, or it's full of customers and no books."