|‘I spend a lot of time driving to the houses of the retired or recently bereaved and buying their books.’ |
Illustration: Alan Vest
MY WRITING DAY
Shaun Bythell: the bestselling subject in my shop? Railway booksOn Bookshop Day, the owner of Scotland’s largest secondhand bookshop on dealing with tricky customers and how deaths are his biggest source of stock
Saturdady 7 October 2017
p at 8am. Breakfast and two cups of tea later, I opened the shop, [in Wigtown, Dumfries and Galloway] at 9 am, brought the bins in from the street, then spent five minutes looking for the book orders, both of which were about trains. Before I bought the shop, I had no idea what the bestselling subject would be. I certainly would not have put my money on railways, yet the reality is that this is my bestseller.
I packed the online orders and began pricing up fresh stock from the piles of boxes around the shop. Online sales used to account for about 20% of the shop’s turnover, but since an Amazon algorithm suspended my seller account in February 2016, this figure has dropped to about 5%.
The telephone rang at 9.30am. It was a woman in Milngavie (north of Glasgow, about three hours drive away) who is retiring into a smaller house and has 800 books to sell. This is predominantly how we acquire our stock.
If I was to point out one inaccuracy in the wonderful TV comedy Black Booksit would be that when he runs out of stock, Manny calls a central warehouse and orders more. There isn’t one. Or at least, if there is, no second-hand bookseller that I know is aware of it. The normal way books find their way here is downsizing or death, and consequently I spend a lot of time driving to the houses of the retired or recently bereaved and buying their books. I arranged to visit the woman at her house in Milngavie in three weeks’ time.
At 10.30 am Desmond, a Northern Irish man who has retired to Galloway with his wife, Anne, called in. We chatted about the second edition of his book, which is about the history of wildfowling in the area.
This year’s Wigtown book festival ended on Sunday, which means two things: the number of customers through the door of the shop each day falls from about 600 to about 30, and of those, probably fewer than one in three will buy something. It also means that the shop and the house have to be put back in order following an invasion of authors; my drawing room is taken over as the writers’ retreat, where visiting writers are fed and watered every day for almost two weeks. The caterer takes over the kitchen, and the spare bedrooms are stuffed full of authors. It’s a fortnight without privacy.
At 11.45am a tall American man with a grey, meticulously trimmed beard and dark glasses came to the counter and said good evening before asking me if I bought books. I told him that I did, but it depended on what they were, at which point he stared silently at me for several seconds before explaining that he’d inherited them from a “preacher”. When I told him that we were not buying theology at the moment, he added that there were several by James Stewart, in what was clearly an attempt to sway me. I told him that I’d never heard of him. He replied: “What? You’ve never heard of James Alexander Stewart? He was a preacher in the 1950s.”
This sort of person annoys me. He lives in his little evangelical bubble and expects everyone to know as much as he does about some obscure Glaswegian prelate, and scoffs with disapproval when someone hasn’t heard of his religious cult hero.
At 1pm a woman brought in two boxes of modern Agatha Christie reprints, and two boxes of horse racing books. Horse racing books are difficult to sell, so I rejected them but gave her £50 for the Agatha Christies.
Two booksellers from the Peak District who until today I have only known on Twitter turned up just after 3pm. They’re on their way to Fife, and asked if they could stay for a night en route, which inevitably means tonight will be an evening of sharing stories of dreadful customers and trying to survive in a business which has been brought to its knees by Amazon. I’ll go to the Co-op and buy more wine.
At 4.50pm, a woman came into the shop, marched up to the counter and said “On the Road”, so I asked her if she was looking for a copy of Kerouac’s book of the same title, or just making a comment on her life. When I told her that we’d sold our only copy of it last week during the book festival, she marched straight for the door and barked “Disgraceful. I’m going to buy it on Amazon” and left.
Hours worked: nine
Till total: £153.50
Online orders: 2
Books found: 2
• The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell is published by Profile.