In 2004 I wrote a business plan for a store I wanted to call Granola Books. It was to be a used bookstore and its tagline would be “Feed your mind.”
I think about that today, 15 years later, at 38, and wonder how my life might’ve been different if I’d taken the leap and started that bookstore. At that point, Amazon was just revving up. I was selling a lot of books online, dipping my toes in to bookselling, and side hustling before side hustles were cool. That was when you could make money on all but the cheap and plentiful New York Times bestsellers.
It was a big dream and I was a broke recent college graduate with a toddler and $50,000 of student loan debt, still living at home with my dad and siblings.
I wanted it so badly and none of it felt possible. So, instead, I became a secretary and a freelance writer, and worked my way to being the financially sound, debt-free content creator you know today. 😉
In between, I’ve been a magazine editor, worked in a library, and started my own now defunct subscription box This is the first time since I graduated college that I have not had a side hustle. I quit freelance writing for local magazines last fall. My kid is grown. I am learning to embrace a weird amount of free time.
All this is prelude to saying that when I finished The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell, it felt like a privileged glimpse into a life that could’ve been had I chosen that path…readers will impart their own meaning onto books, won’t they? Honestly, who the fark knows if Granola Books would’ve been successful or not. The trials of indie bookstores in a world ruled by Amazon cannot be underestimated.
But aaanyway, Bythell’s book is a peek into the daily activity of a used bookstore in rural Scotland. It’s a memoir written as a diary, as the title says, with an entry each day for the span of a year. Bythell owns The Book Shop in Wigtown, Scotland, “Scotland’s National Booktown,” where there are many other book shops and a large, popular annual festival, The Wigtown Book Festival.
As of the writing of the book, Bythell employs a handful of odd but wonderful helpers, including Nicky, a taciturn woman who routinely ignores the tasks Bythell assigns her, rearranges the books in the shop to her liking, and brings in dumpster finds for what she names “Foodie Friday.”
Meanwhile, Bythell’s shop is host to a cast of quirky customers worthy of a fake sitcom village. That’s the real treat in this book. In the vein of Jen Campbell’s Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops, but with more narrative context, Bythell offers up gem conversations like this one:
A Northern Irish customer (an old man in a blue tank top) came to the counter with two books and asked, “What can you do for me on those?” The total came to £4.50, so I told him there was no way I could possibly give him a discount on books that were already cheaper than the postage alone on Amazon. He reluctantly conceded, muttering, “Oh well, I hope you’re still here next time I visit.” From his tone it wasn’t entirely clear whether he was suggesting that my refusal to grant a discount on a £4.50 sale would mean that customers would leave in their droves, never to return and the shop would be forced to close, or whether he genuinely meant that he hoped the shop would survive through these difficult times.
Lots of moments like this to entertain the reader. We also learn about Bythell and his hobbies and friends, and the bookstore’s place in town life. And we begin to understand the daily ins and outs of running a bookshop, dealing with shipping issues, malfunctioning POS systems, and such minutiae as Bythell’s difficulty keeping the shop warm enough in the winter. Hilariously, Nicky wears a full-on ski suit from October to April.
It’s truly enjoyable. You should read it. Whenever I make it to Scotland, some day in the future, I’m totally going to The BookShop to buy books.
Special thanks to Sarah Cords of Citizen Reader for recommending it on her blog, which is how I found out about it.