Shaun Bythell, who has been running The Bookshop in Wigtown for over twenty years, dips back into his diaries for more hilarious day-to-day encounters with the dedicated antiquarians, casual visitors and frequent browsers who come by to interrupt the anticipated contemplative idyll of his working life with requests that range from the curious and insightful to the downright offensive.

 

Thursday, 1 September
Online orders: 0
Books found: 0

This morning I sold a book signed by William Dalrymple for £2.50. Whoever priced it up (not me – probably Meredith) clearly didn’t spot the signature. Not sure if it would have increased or decreased its value.

Putting books out after lunch and spotted two volumes of Campbell’s Tour (1810) in different parts of the Scottish room which had clearly been listed separately and put in different places, despite being from the same set, the same owner and with the same bookplate in each. I removed them from our online catalogue and re-listed them as a set. Now that she’s been gone for long enough not to come back and punch me, I blamed Meredith again.

A woman in a very badly home-knitted cardigan came to the counter with ten books on embroidery. The total cost was £36.50.

When I totalled them up and told her, she replied, ‘What? I’m not paying that. I’ll have to put one back.’ She returned a paperback priced at £2.50 and came back with a smug look of satisfaction.

While she was putting her book back, an old man in checked trousers put a book priced at £3.50 on the counter and asked, ‘Is there room for negotiation on this book?’

THREE POUNDS FIFTY.

Unloaded the eighteen boxes of books on mountaineering and polar exploration from the van. Straight away, a customer started rooting through them and complained that I don’t have a first edition of Shackleton’s South among them.

I asked if they were in leather bindings. She replied, ‘How do I know if they’re leather?’ I found it surprisingly difficult to explain.”

Girl in a school uniform came in and asked if we had a copy of Kidnapped. Showed her to the Stevenson collection but she couldn’t find one. Pretty unusual – we have a good Stevenson section, and Kidnapped is usually in there somewhere.

Ran down from an emergency break to the loo to answer the telephone. It was an old woman who was keen to sell a set of Waverley novels. I asked if they were in leather bindings. She replied, ‘How do I know if they’re leather?’ I found it surprisingly difficult to explain.

Granny cooked supper. It was pretty foul – under-boiled rice and some raw vegetables. She’s been very kind recently, so I pretended I’d enjoyed it.

Telephone call from my father to let me know that my mother is now back home, and doing well.

Till total £175.16
15 customers

 

First US edition of Kidnapped (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1886). Wikimedia Commons

Friday, 2 September
Online orders: 1
Books found: 1

Extremely large woman asked me to get two Khaled Hosseini books from a shelf because she didn’t ‘trust herself’ to use a ladder. She spent several minutes looking at them, then asked me what the price was despite it being clearly written on the first page of each book. They were both £2.50. On being informed of this she replied, ‘Oh, I won’t take them then, if they’re that expensive.’

Still sorting through the last of the books from the Beith collection. Pretty depressing to discover how much Scottish antiquarian material has dropped in value. I based my price on experience, having previously sold many of the titles in the collection for £50 and upwards. Checking them today, most of them have dropped to around £20, and so few of them have gone in the other direction that I’m quite astonished in the rare event that I discover one that exceeds my expectations. I paid about 30 per cent too much for that library. I did come across a fairly early copy of Kidnapped – perhaps that schoolgirl who was in yesterday will return.

In the afternoon – I forget when (I lose track of time when I’m on my own in the shop and don’t have to tut in a passive-aggressive way at staff coming in late) – a customer came to the counter with two books on aviation, total £11. He asked for a discount then complained that he is finding it increasingly difficult to find books on Spitfires because ‘bookshops seem to be closing down all over the country’. No discount. No slap is big enough for this particular flavour of fool.

Boy of about ten asked if I’d read all the books in the shop, then asked if I had ‘the first-born’. After much confusion it emerged that he was looking for the first book in Robert Ludlum’s Bourne series.

American group came in at 4.30. One of them, a man with a grey beard, came to the counter with two books about the clan Campbell. He didn’t reply when I asked him for £11.50, then removed a £20 note from his tartan wallet (Macdonald clan) and tossed it disdainfully onto the counter. He was equally uncommunicative when I gave him his change. By contrast, a young Irish woman came to the counter five minutes later with a biography of the Scottish artist S.J. Peploe and was utterly charming, telling me how delighted she was with the book, and how she thought it would have been far more expensive, and thanking me profusely.

Closed the shop a bit early and went to the pub with Granny, Tom and Willeke. They came back here for something to eat (I found a pizza in the freezer). We opened another bottle of wine, and they stayed for the night. Granny was less than complimentary about the authenticity of the Co-op’s ‘Authentic Italian Pizza’: ‘It taste like a fucking German pizza.’

Till total £309.49
18 customers

They’re both friendly, and they’re clearly passionate readers – they always buy books that I’m ashamed that I haven’t read. I sometimes wonder if they do it on purpose.”

Saturday, 3 September
Online orders: 1
Books found: 1

Regular customers – a woman with her teenage daughter (short pink hair and short blue skirt every time they visit) – came in and bought several books. They’re probably my favourite customers, now that Mr Deacon has died. They’re both friendly, and they’re clearly passionate readers – they always buy books that I’m ashamed that I haven’t read. I sometimes wonder if they do it on purpose. Today’s haul consisted of Ulysses, To the Lighthouse, Middlemarch (which I have read), Catch-22 and The Quiet American – all paperbacks.

Putting out books from the collection of the woman whose father had suffered from dementia in Glasgow, I came across a biography of John Paul Jones, who is credited in the USA as having founded their navy and is discredited in the UK as a pirate. He was born near Kirkcudbright (30 miles from Wigtown) and set fire to and destroyed the Cumbrian town of Whitehaven. Priced it at £18 and put it on a shelf in the local section. Ten minutes later a man came to the counter and asked if we had anything about John Paul Jones, so I pointed him to the book and he bought it. He’d never heard of him until last night when, taking a break in the area for the weekend, he’d unwittingly booked into JPJ’s old home and the owner had told him his story. There is a sort of strange serendipity with second-hand bookshops. This sort of coincidence is far from unusual.

After I shut the shop, I sanded and varnished the kitchen work surface, which had developed a black mould near the sink, just in case the woman from the environmental health department of the council decides to carry out a spot check before the festival. The kitchen needs to pass their standards for the catering during the book festival. Which reminds me, I’ve run out of programmes. Must go to the office and get some more.

Till total £361.47
27 customers

 

Sunday, 4 September

Spent the day in the garden, cutting things back and trimming the hedge so that there’s clear access between the shop and Amy’s Wine Bar, which is in a building behind the shop during the festival.

 

Monday, 5 September
Online orders: 2
Books found: 2

Granny opened the shop, so I had a lie-in. My back is in agony after spending yesterday in the garden.

Email from my friend Ian, a book dealer from Grimsby, asking if I wanted a pallet of books. With the festival coming up, it might be useful to fill any gaps on the shelves, so I said yes. He’s promised to deliver them before the festival begins.

A couple who had recently moved here and were divesting themselves of books brought in a box of books at lunchtime. Nothing of interest – three copies of Tennyson’s works, all missing spines, Everyman sets in poor condition. Even with gaps on the shelves, they weren’t suitable for shop stock.

Left Granny in charge and headed off to a book deal in Crossmichael, about 35 miles away. Nothing much of interest, although there was a fairly decent leather-bound set of Smollett’s History of England – only valuable for the binding – and a few local history books. Nice little four-volume set in a slip case dated 1877, with frequent references to the ‘Grand Master’. Not about chess. Or hip-hop. Freemasonry books do sell quite well, though.

Home in time to go for a pint with Callum and Granny at 7.30.

Till total £357.08
32 customers

 

Tuesday, 6 September
Online orders: 2
Books found: 1

At eleven o’clock I called the insurance company to put Norrie and Christian on the van’s insurance policy. They both use it to ferry things around during the festival, rather than hire one. Discovered that I hadn’t bothered to remove them after last year’s festival, and they’re still covered.

Someone parked a car full of yapping dogs right outside the front door of the shop. Captain spent an hour taunting them by sitting smugly on the doorway. The noise was appalling, but not quite as bad as the monstrous regiment of screeching children in the shop who poured out of the same vehicle.

Four packages arrive for Granny: clothes and shoes. She tried them all on and asked me what I thought. In an attempt to return her generosity when my mother was ill, I told her that they were lovely, but when she was trying them on, she looked down at her feet and said, ‘No, I look like a pig with shoes on.’

Detail from cover of the first edition of De Profundis (Methuen, 1905)

Till total £224
21 customers

 

Wednesday, 7 September
Online orders: 0
Books found: 0

First sale of the day was a book on Scottish place-names from the Beith collection, sold to a Canadian customer who told me that his family used to own Glasgow. I don’t imagine for a second that this could possibly be true, but I suspect that émigrés often tell their children embellished stories about the land they left which, over time, become exaggerated to the point of being ridiculous.

I telephoned Majestic Wine and ordered thirty-six bottles of wine. I always have a full house during the ten days of the event, and feel guilty about drinking the wine that the Festival Company provides for use in the Writers’ Retreat. Besides which, after one mouthful of the stuff, your taste buds are deactivated for at least a week.

Online inquiry about a first edition of The Third Policeman. While I was looking for it in the Irish section, I stumbled across a first edition of Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis, priced (not by me) at £6 and published in blue buckram by Methuen in 1905, thanks to the efforts of his friend the journalist Robert Ross. It’s a book that has featured in the culture pages of most newspapers recently as Reading Gaol, where Wilde was incarcerated, has recently been opened to the public. During his time there, Wilde was treated appallingly until a sympathetic governor – Major Nelson – took charge of the prison and circumvented the rules about prisoners being forbidden to write during their detention by permitting him the luxury of a pen, some ink and a sheet of paper every day on the ‘understanding’ that he was writing a letter. The result is an extraordinarily beautiful study of betrayal, loss and grief. Wilde (Prisoner C33) – broken by his time in prison, and largely abandoned by the hypocritical echelons of a society that once feted him – left England for France, where he died in November 1900, damned by the words of John Sholto Douglas, the ninth marquess of Queensberry – a man who couldn’t even spell the word ‘sodomite’, with which he condemned the greatest wit of his age to a cruel and unjust end. I took our copy off the shelf and began to read it after the shop closed.

A woman with long, sandy hair bought three books on folklore and told me that I have the best job in the world.

Granny has managed to change the keyboard settings to Arabic. I can’t work out how to change them back.

Till total £156.50
19 customers

from Remainders of the Day (Profile Books, £16.99)

 

Shaun Bythell is the owner of The Bookshop in Wigtown, and one of the organisers of the Wigtown Festival. His books about life running Scotland’s largest second-hand bookshop have been international bestsellers and translated into more than thirty languages. Remainders of the Day is published by Profile Books in hardback, eBook and audio download.
Read more
the-bookshop.com
@WigtownBookShop
@ProfileBooks

Author portrait © Ben Please

The 2022 Wigtown Book Festival runs from Friday 23 September to Sunday 2 October
wigtownbookfestival.com
@WigtownBookFest

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