Today we’re meeting Shaun Bythell, owner of the largest second-hand bookshop in Scotland and author of the acclaimed Diary of a Bookseller. Published in 2017 the diary covers the period February 2014 to February 2015 and provides insights into the book selling industry and revelations regarding the shocking and puzzling behaviour of customers. Here we talk to Shaun about the process of keeping the diary, turning it into a book and what it’s been like to have it published.
You started the diary as an aide memoire to record customer interactions, what sort of diaries had you kept before?
I’d never really bothered keeping a diary, apart from a brief period in my teens which lasted about a year, and which – mercifully – I’ve lost. I’m pretty confident that it would be toe-curling reading now.
How difficult was it to write it every day?
Writing it daily was relatively easy, particularly when I was in the shop and close to the computer. It wasn’t anything like what finally went to press though, it was very skeletal in form, lacking sentence structure and very sparingly written. The first incarnation was almost unreadable. I still write it every day though, now that I’ve got into the habit.
At what point did you realise you were writing a book?
Probably near the end of the first year. I began to wonder what I was going to do with this year of anecdotes and while I didn’t set out to write a diary, it began to look increasingly as though it couldn’t be anything else. I think the diary format probably lends itself to writing about work – several of the less flattering reviews online have complained that it is boring, but work generally is – the quotidian repetition of patterns is what constitutes work for most people.
What approach did you take to sharing your diary and how did you get a publishing deal?
After a year I’d reached a point where I needed help, so I asked Jessica, my partner, what she thought I should do with it. She suggested sending it to an agent. I’m extremely fortunate – through Wigtown Book Festival – to know Jenny Brown, an extremely highly regarded literary agent, so I sent the first draft to her with a letter telling her that I wouldn’t be the least bit offended if she thought it was rubbish. I didn’t hear back from her for a few weeks, so I followed it up with an email asking if she’d received it. She replied that she had, and she loved it, but that it needed considerable work before it was ready to pitch to publishers. With her advice, and that of a publisher who was interested, I finally bashed it into the shape it is now, and Jenny found a publisher who liked it enough to take the plunge and publish it.
What sort of challenges have you faced along the way?
Rewrites. I hate having to read my own work, and sadly it is unavoidable when you have to rewrite something. And I did wonder for a while that we might not find a publisher, but Jenny is an excellent agent and knew exactly who to send it to.
What kind of reception have you had and how does that make you feel?
Initially (inevitably, I suppose) there was silence. No reviews, no emails, no letters. Of course, it’s obvious now that people were reading it, but at the time I was wondering if people were even buying it. Now, I receive emails and letters most days. It’s incredibly rewarding to know that people have enjoyed it enough to let me know, and I reply to everyone who writes to me. Obviously there are also people who didn’t enjoy it too, that’s inevitable, and it’s hard to ignore negative feedback, and whatever anyone says about letting it wash over you, it’s extremely hard to read critical reviews, particularly when they’re personal. On the whole, though, I’m delighted with the response the book has had.
What do you think your book means to those who’ve read it?
I think the most vocal of the people who have read the diary has been the bookselling community, who have (with one exception) been delighted that the trials and tribulations of working in a bookshop have been given a voice. I think it’s also – from the feedback I’ve received – given those outside the bookselling community an insight into how it works, and the immense pressure it is under from forces like Amazon and eBay.
What impact has the book had on business?
So far it has been great – apart from the extra income it has generated, it has also brought people to the town and the shop, which is crucial at this time of year when the tourist footfall is almost non-existent.
Anything you decided to take out or weren’t brave enough to share?
There were things I had to be sensitive about. One of the negative online reviews I’ve had was from a bookseller in Hay-on-Wye who concluded his rather embittered review with the sentence ‘In thirty years of second hand book dealing, the stories, customers and scandals are far far better than anything in this mildly disappointing work.’ Of course there are better scandals, but out of sensitivity to my customers (and friends) I wasn’t stupid enough to include them. Also, I occasionally changed a customer’s gender, or clothing, or the day on which they appeared if I thought they might be offended.
How did the people you wrote about feel about what you said about them?
Mostly, in the case of the customers, I don’t know them so I’ve had no feedback. My friends all seem quite happy with the way they have been portrayed. Mr Deacon, one of the regular characters, sadly died before the book came out, but I gave a copy to his daughter and she wrote to me to tell me that she was very happy with the way he was depicted. Having said that, I wait nervously every day for someone to come in and punch me.
Have any customers contacted you because they recognised themselves in the pages?
Not so far, but a few locals have recognised people I attempted to disguise.
Which favourite entries do you want to highlight?
That’s a difficult question when you’re talking about your own writing, but I suppose the two parts that I’m most happy with are in stark contrast to one another – the first is the entry about a house clearance on a farm where the people who owned the books were a childless couple, and the other is the reference for Sara Pearce, who used to work in the shop.
Some people are bound to judge you – how has that felt?
Not pleasant. I think that sometimes people forget that you’re a human being, not just a name on the cover of a book. Fair enough, not everyone’s going to like it, but you can find a way of articulating that without sounding spiteful.
Have you got a section for diaries in the shop and what’s in it?
I do have a section for letters and diaries. There are about 200 titles in it at the moment, ranging from political diaries to soldiers’ diaries with everything in between. I recently sold a set of The Diary of Virginia Woolf, I think in six volumes, which always sells quickly and for a reasonable price.
Which other diaries have you read and what have you liked about them?
Although not strictly a diary, Any Human Heart is loosely written in diary format. The Intimate Thoughts of John Baxter, Bookseller, is also fiction in diary format and a very, very entertaining book. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a diary that wasn’t a work of fiction. I suppose what I like about diaries is that they are about the most linear form of timeline that it’s possible to have in a book.
When you’ve bought collections of books, have you ever come across personal diaries and what have you done with them?
Sadly, I have never come across a personal diary. If I did, I would probably return it to the person who sold me the books, particularly if it was their own diary. I’m a great respecter of privacy, and I wouldn’t even look at it, except to ascertain whose it was, unless – of course – it turned out to belong to Shackleton, or Mallory or someone whose diaries would be of considerable historical interest.
What’s next for you? Any more diaries to come?
I’m currently working on what I hope will be the final rewrite of the second year of the diary. I have another two years in draft form after that, making a total of four years, but I’m not sure the format can sustain that long a run, so perhaps the third and fourth years really will end up being an aide memoire for something different.
You can follow The Bookshop on Facebook where Shaun posts snippets of his day, photos of the anonymous postcards he receives and some of the more unusual books he has in stock.