Diary of a Wigtown Bookseller by Shaun Bythell

Shaun Bythell

Diary of a Wigtown Bookseller


Friday 20 March 2020: Opened the shop shortly after 9am. Norrie decided to go to the Co-op to buy a few essentials but found it closed. Apparently the shelves had been stripped so bare that the manager had decided to pull the shutter down for an hour after this morning’s delivery so that they could restock. The bookshop normally begins to get busy at this time of year, but footfall today was pitiful. My customers, most of whom are retired, are clearly retreating into their homes, fearful of the virus. Four customers – till takings £58.98

Saturday 21 March 2020: Opened at 9am to a cold day. The news last night was that all pubs, restaurants, gyms, cafes and other ‘social hubs’ must close for the foreseeable future. Not sure whether I should have opened or not, but by noon there had been ten customers through the door. There’s a sense of impending doom. Eleven customers – till takings £133.98

Monday 23 March 2020: Decided last night that it is probably irresponsible to open the shop, so reluctantly didn’t open this morning. The takings have plummeted in the last few days anyway, so there doesn’t seem much point. Other than Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, today is the first Monday in nearly forty years that the shop hasn’t been open. No customers – till takings £0

* * *

From this point on, there’s very little I can say about what lockdown was like in the bookshop: it was closed. Perhaps the one thing that will stick in my mind is the number of people – largely in the queue for the Co-op – who told me that I must be enormously grateful for online sales. Unfortunately, early in 2019 I took the decision to close my seller accounts with Amazon and its slightly less toxic bookselling sibling, AbeBooks. Amazon’s fees were creeping up steadily, to the point at which they were pocketing around 30 per cent of my online turnover. That, together with their approach to taxation and the revelation of the Dickensian working conditions in their ‘fulfilment centres’, left me feeling I had little choice but to close my account. With the benefit of hindsight, it may not have been the wisest of choices, but I felt at the time that it was hypocritical to rail against them and at the same time carry on collecting income from them. As a result, my online sales during lockdown were zero.

Within a few days of being told that the shop had to close, it was announced that all rate-paying businesses were eligible to receive a grant in compensation. In my case, it amounted to considerably more than the profit I could reasonably have expected to make over the period we were shut. While we wouldn’t have starved without it, it has meant that my savings are safe, paltry though they are. What troubles my conscience, though, is that I feel I had a paid three-month holiday. The first ten weeks of lockdown were possibly the most glorious that I can remember: sunshine and blue skies, unscarred by the vapour trails of aircraft, in one of the most beautiful corners of Scotland. We swam in the sea on an empty beach at lunchtime on our daughter’s first birthday. We picked wild garlic from Galloway House gardens and turned it into pesto. We spent long evenings in the garden watching the bats swooping between the trees as the light thickened, without even thinking about having to open the shop in the morning.

Like almost everyone, I had fully intended to make a significant dent in my to-be-read pile during lockdown, but have failed miserably. In March I had eighty pages of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch left to read. I now have fifty-eight. A friend recently emailed me and asked me what I was reading. I told her I was struggling to finish The Chaffinch.

I began keeping my diary again when we reopened in July.

* * *

Wednesday 15 July 2020: Opened the shop for the first day in 116 days. Hand sanitiser on a table outside, screen on the counter and a big sign telling people that masks are mandatory.

St Swithin’s Day. Folklore has it that if it rains today, then we’re in for forty days of rain. It rained.

The first customer appeared at 10.54am. He was an elderly man. He spent just under an hour browsing, and £85. He’d driven down from Ayr. I thought that it would be a quiet day, but customers kept pouring in, including Sandy the Tattooed Pagan, who arrived at around 1pm. He is one of my few remaining regular customers. He claims to be the most tattooed man in Scotland.Twenty customers – till takings £388.48

Friday 17 July 2020: Considered limiting the number of people in the shop, but it’s almost impossible to know how many there are and who is coming in as a family group, so decided to trust people to do the right thing. To my astonishment, everyone has behaved according to the Scottish government’s guidelines, and without having to be told to. Twenty-eight customers – till takings £349.89

Wednesday 5 August 2020: Yet another foul day, with wind and torrential rain. The shop was heaving again, but, as with almost every day since we reopened, customers have been remarkably responsible in keeping to the guidelines, despite the physical constraints of the building. Books of all kinds were flying off the shelves, and in significant numbers. It seemed that, starved of the opportunity to buy books in shops for three months, customers were gorging, buying what they might have bought during that period in one excited frenzy.

Today would have been Wigtown Show, the highlight of the year here, where farmers drag their favourite livestock to a field outside the town and teenagers get drunk and throw up on fairground attractions. I remember those years with considerable fondness. Forty-six customers – till takings £777.40

* * *

Most second-hand bookshops are owner-run, so the government grant of £10,000 for small businesses may be disproportionately high in relation to some other businesses. But it really has provided the safety net we needed during lockdown. The boom since we reopened may simply be a consequence of the fact that people aren’t travelling overseas and are flocking instead to places like Galloway, but I hope that being deprived of the opportunity to visit bookshops for those 116 days has made people appreciate what they have lacked. You don’t miss the water until the well runs dry.

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