Charlie Campbell

Shelf Life

The Diary of a Bookseller


Profile Books 310pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

In the Astérix books, by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo, one small village in a corner of Gaul holds out against the conquering Romans. Behind the palisade, life goes on much as it had before the arrival of the legions. Shaun Bythell is a bookseller in Wigtown in much the same position. The owner of Scotland’s largest second-hand bookshop, he is besieged on all sides. There is the Welsh customer who rings up looking for works of 18th-century theology and ends every call with, ‘Oh, that’s very, very disappointing.’ At other times bookshops contact Bythell wanting to off-load their stock because they are closing down. Would he like to buy all twelve thousand volumes? He knows that the best books have all gone and the rest will be hard to shift. He spends much of his time rummaging through attics and estimates that he lifts fifteen tons of books a year. Then there is Amazon, the bane of all other booksellers. Bythell once blasted a Kindle with his shotgun and mounted and hung the remains in his shop. Yet, like everyone, he is obliged to use them to sell his stock online, particularly since they took over AbeBooks.

In The Diary of a Bookseller, Bythell chronicles his existence with a resigned wit. Entries begin with the number of books sold online and end with the till total. These figures are not high and the reason for that is apparent – the customers. People drift in and out, usually looking for the toilet. Those who do buy books try to haggle down the price. Self-published authors bustle in to suggest readings and signings of their work. Bythell remembers being warm and friendly once, but the stresses of the job turned him into the Black Books archetype – though he suggests that he reflects rudeness rather than generates it. The shop no longer has any full-time staff, but Nicky, a Jehovah’s Witness, helps him two days a week, allowing him to scour the country for more stock and occasionally to go fishing. 

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter

  • Last Tweets

    • From the Archive: Martyn Bedford on Ian McEwan's 'Atonement' ,
    • In 'Silenced Voices' reports the ongoing story of the human rights lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh, who has been… ,
    • The mystery of Jack the Ripper's identity has long been agonised over. But what do we know about his victims?… ,
    • A piece of Literary Review history from way back in 1983: John Haffenden talks to the great Iris Murdoch. ,
    • Britain’s only travelling lit fest, the Garden Museum Literary Festival is heading to Houghton Hall, Norfolk, for a… ,
    • 'The 19th-century German sage is not my idea of a pleasant travel companion' goes hiking with Friedr… ,
    • If you want ideas about what to read next, sign up to our free email newsletter, and get book reviews, archive mate… ,