Monday, 11 February 2019


How many books - and how many bookshelves do you need? Or do you fit into your rooms? Or would, if you were a bookseller?

Marie Kondo, the tidiness lifestyle guru, said - or so I first heard – that she only keeps thirty books on her bookshelf. 

Across the media, people responded angrily to this meagre allowance until other people, not quite as aghast, explained that thirty was merely the number that Marie Kondo had said sparked joy for her in her own surroundings. It seemed you could keep as many books as you liked, really, as long the books looked orderly and your didn’t forget that there are storage facilities available for hiding ugly, faded or visually disreputable titles. In the land of the decluttered, nostalgia is not queen.

However, that cruel total of thirty wasn’t a shock to me. In my experience whenever I’ve peered into interior design magazines, I rarely see shelves bearing a satisfying quantity of books. 

The magazines might show a few, new, evenly-sized books balanced on a tiny, amusingly-designed wall-shelf: a circle perhaps, or an S or Z-shape or rope in a lifebelt: certainly never shelving that’s any way substantial or roomy.

Alternatively – especially around late autumn when there is a need to feel cosier– a fully-lined library will appear as one of the magazine settings. The photographs will show a grand interior, where an impressive quantity of volumes rises from floor to ceiling and runs across the tops of doorways and windows. So many books, ah yes!

A polished wooden ladder will be at hand to reach those high, dust-free shelves and, come October, a fashionable dog will be lolling by a flickering hearth. Unfortunately, if the "big bookshelf" issue is planned for November, a Christmas tree with all its decorations will block the way to any of the reading material. 

I know these glossy bookshelf pages are merely created as backdrops and sets for designer fantasies and probably don’t exist within any real rooms either, but they are so little use if one has a reasonable number of books.

I look around me: the books home here are so real and so many that most shelves are double-stacked and are often disorderly. 

All of these facts made reading Shawn Bythell’s memoir, THE DIARY OF A BOOKSELLER, a very suitable and cheering New Year experience. 

The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell 
The diary is a half-despairing glimpse into the running the largest second-hand bookshop in Scotland, which was what had occupied Bythell since 2001.

In 2004, he became involved in establishing Wigtown, Galloway, as a “Book Town”, complete with its own annual Book Festival and then, recently, took a long break.  

THE DIARY OF A BOOKSELLER is one result of his sabbatical.


Bythell's account of his trade is never idyllic and the characters are rarely literary celebrities. He is offering the reader his diary: each daily entry starts with online orders and books found, and ends with the number of customers and amount of the cash taken at the till. Some days are definitely unprofitable. 

For example, one early February Friday lists 2 online orders and 2 books found, while – by evening – only 4 customers have come in and there is just £67.00 in the till. Not a life of glamour and riches at all.

However, in between the worrying totals, Bythell describes constant battles with the crumbling Georgian shop walls, heating failures, eccentric assistants with fould eating habits, ungrateful customers and the problems of book-shelf label management , all recounted with a charming grumpiness and even a dour, stubborn kind of hope.

There are, for those that know the tv series, faint echoes of Black Books, but THE DIARY OF A BOOKSELLER offers a lot more sociability as well as glimpses of the local Galloway landscape and community and the odd contents of personal libraries up for sale.

He also mentions forgotten planning permission for the doorway, and demands from customers eager to sleep in THE BOOKSHOP’s festival bed. In fact, one Wigtown bookseller was – at the time of his writing - letting out her premises, week by week, to people eager to fulfil their dream of running a bookshop - DIY B&B&B anyone? - adding that there were bookings for years ahead.

Despite publicity snippets, I didn’t find THE DIARY OF A BOOKSELLER a “hilarious” laugh-a-line kind of book but very few are, are they? Sometime the mood was the very opposite, when Bythell mutters about Amazon and Abebooks predatory practices and their dire effect on the bookshops and second-hand booksellers. 

So, not a hilarious read, then - but as someone interested in all aspects of the books world, I certainly found Bythell’s memoir (pbk 2018 ) worth my time. THE DIARY OF A BOOKSELLER was a pleasure and a suitably wintry amusement: it is very unlikely to encourage new members to the trade but highly likely to increase the number of wistful, bookish visitors in Galloway.

I must, considering my earlier rant, mention that the copy contains b&w photographs of the shop, and its books, and its shelves- and I am very sure they are all satisfyingly real. There's also an audiobook, which would surely make a wonderful bedtime story!

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