Blog 61: Dreaming About Owning a Bookshop? Read This Book…

February 15, 2018

Although I’ve been busy writing away in a vampire-style, hermit fashion, I have read one book recently that made me chuckle and say ‘this sounds familiar’. Why familiar? Well it’s because this book gives an honest insider’s view of my part-time job, and that book is Shaun Bythell’s ‘Diary Of A Bookseller’.

       If you haven’t guessed by now or read my other blogs, I’m currently working part-time in a large second hand bookshop. It’s got two floors and over seventy thousand books, with genres ranging from fiction, sci-fi, classic fiction and children’s to history, science and art. Seventy thousand is a big number, and as John Green mentioned in his vlog on Tuesday, humans tend to be pretty bad when it comes to visualising big numbers. So think of it this way, imagine your average small retail shop and then times it by six or eight, that’s about the size of the bookshop I work in. You may be wondering why I’m trying to get you to visualise the scale here, but scale is important. Shaun Bythell, the author of the ‘Diary Of A Bookseller’, runs The Bookshop in Wigtown in the Dumfries and Galloway region in Scotland, which has one hundred thousand books.

       There has been a decline in second hand bookshops in the UK over the past ten years. Many have closed due to retirement or simply because they cannot afford to stay open and no one has been willing, or can afford to take them on. Questionable charity shops now line the high streets, and people in general have turned to online shopping – where the wider effects on social and physical health will probably come to light in the years ahead. The rapid rise of Amazon and the Kindle has been largely to blame, but there’s a growing trend of people returning to reading physical books. This has been for a number of reasons but one of them is that people are finding that staring at their Kindle or other such devices is making their eyes sore. I am one of them, I now switch between Kindle and paperbacks for the very same reason.

       However, the dream of owning a bookshop is still a popular, albeit not-too-serious aspiration shared by many people. The idea of choosing your hours and opening times, reading a book and waiting for a steady, but not too overwhelming stream of friendly customers is a vision that appeals to many, but I’m afraid to say that that vision will always be just a dream.

       The reality is much different.

       Instead you can expect long hours, seven days a week with little or no holiday time. Customers, who are on the whole friendly, but not afraid to ask for discounts – because second hand books in their eyes are like antiques on bargain hunt. Not to mention the difficult customers who will be difficult for no apparent reason, because… people. Driving miles to pick up collections of books where sixty percent are useless to you and therefore facing the arduous choice of taking all the books or sorting through them to find the good forty percent. Hauling boxes of books to and from a customer’s home to your car and then from your car to your shop, you need to be fit as it’s no easy task ferrying dozens of boxes. Cleaning your shop, taking sales, restocking, ordering any extra stock online, cashing up at the end of the day, getting rid of unsellable books and, because you are a business, when you get home for the evening, you will most likely be going through your accounts and checking online sales. All of this, takes time and energy, much more time and energy than if you were doing a regular nine to five job.

       It’s not all doom and gloom, just realistic. Despite the hard work, there are many pros too from owning a second hand bookshop as long as it’s in the right location. Though like I mentioned before, scale is important, big bookshops have the advantage of being able to stock more books and therefore attract a wider range of customers than smaller bookshops. Of course this will cost more to run and set up, but it’s something to keep in mind when you’re looking for the perfect premises.

       In the ‘Diary Of A Bookseller’ Shaun gives a day by day account in a diary format of what occurred in his shop and his life from February 2014 to January 2015. He gives the reader helpful advice, his thoughts on the book trade, honest conversations between himself and customers, bizarre things that people do and say in bookshops, witty remarks made by himself and employee’s, the till total at the end of the day, the disagreements which can occur between employee’s, and the majority of the hard work involved in running a bookshop. He also shows the genuine love and community spirit behind Wigtown, and the sometimes love-hate relationship between bookshop owners and their book-loving customers.

       Shaun Bythell’s account is authentic and realistic, there will be days when your internet provider, pricing software or online listings fail you. There will be days when most people walk into your shop and buy absolutely nothing. There will also be times when you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere in the rain trying to get boxes of books into your car. If you’re thinking about owning and a running a bookshop to make lots of money then give up and look elsewhere. Bookshop owners do not own bookshops because they are trying to make lots of money, they do it because they love books. There will be days when you find a real gem hidden amongst the boxes of books you’ve bought, there will also be days when you can barely sit down because so many people are coming through your doors. There will be times when you can find that one book a customer has been desperately searching for and it will make their (and your) day. If you’re lucky enough to have a great rural location and people to help cover your shop for you then there will be days when you can go for a bike ride, a hike or even fishing as Shaun Bythell does occasionally. But if you’re thinking that running a bookshop sounds easy, then think again… and again and again.

       Would I recommend Shaun Bythell’s book? If I were a philosopher I would say ‘Is that a question?’ I would definitely recommend this book. It’s as much hilarious as it is honest (brutally so sometimes). It will have you chuckling at every page, especially with Nicky’s anecdotes. Seriously, it is a must-read if you are thinking about setting up a second-hand bookshop or any small retail business. And how could I not mention Captain? The Bookshop’s lovable and semi-famous cat. Also, Shaun if you ever happen to read this, as I put in my review of your book on Amazon (those evil tax evaders), Nicky is by far my favourite person in the world right now. Though I don’t think I would ever be brave enough to tell someone on their birthday that they are “one year closer to death” – though, Darwin might just end up in the fiction section, just for a laugh.