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DIARY OF A BOOKSELLER – Scottish Review of Books
Shaun Bythell: Amazon calls him Cromwell


Shaun Bythell
PROFILE BOOKS, £14.99, ISBN 978178258627, PP320
by Shaun Bythell


November 18, 2017 | by Shaun Bythell


Online Orders: 2
Books found: 2

Emily was working in the shop today.

Emanuela came in at 10 a.m. and spent ten minutes insulting my hair, my clothes, and almost everything else so I drove to the warehouse and loaded the van with the reject rotated stock for the recycling plant in Glasgow. Emanuela came to Wigtown from Genoa in the summer of 2015 to work in the shop for a few months in exchange for bed and board. She takes singular pleasure in berating every aspect of my life in her barely comprehensible English. She seems to suffer from every ailment known to man, even though she’s only 27 years old. Because of this, she’s known locally as ‘Granny’.

Left the shop at 12.30 p.m. and drove the laden van slowly to Glasgow. The brakes aren’t working particularly well, and have started to make some unhealthy noises. Arrived at the Smurfitt Kappa recycling plant at 2.30 p.m. and weighed in, unloaded the boxes of rejected stock into the large, plastic bins, and weighed out and left for a house near Ayr which required an emergency clearance of books. The satnav, which was supposed to take me to the address that the owner, Pam, had given me, instead took me to an empty field. An hour (and three phone calls) later, I was still lost. I eventually found the place, Rowan House, as I was speaking to her on the phone. Unhelpfully, it didn’t have a sign on the driveway to give any indication that it was indeed Rowan House, and when I arrived, I realised that I’d driven past it three times previously. Pam, though, was charming and had boxed the books in preparation. A widow, she had put the house on the market and it had unexpectedly sold quickly, forcing her to move to Yorkshire in far greater haste than she’d anticipated. I loaded the seventeen boxes into the van and crawled home through the hills, the brakes making increasingly alarming noises with each application.

Home at 7 p.m.

Till total £631.10 | 42 customers


Online Orders: 1
Books found: 1

Emily in.

At 10 a.m. a customer brought in a set of Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedias. They’re worth nothing now, and – like most second-hand bookshops – I don’t stock them, but in their time they must have been extremely expensive. Arthur Mee was a massive name in his day (the 1930s) but nowadays has disappeared almost completely from the public consciousness. As well as the Children’s Encyclopaedia, he also produced a set of English county guides under the umbrella title The King’s England. These still occasionally sell in the shop, provided they have dust jackets, but not in the numbers they used to, even 15 years ago when I bought the shop. I suppose the generation who grew up familiar with the name Arthur Mee has all but died out.

After lunch, I drove to Stranraer through the horizontal, driving rain. Passed two fields of sheep, all of which were pointed in exactly the same direction, with their backs to the wind. Although I’ve seen this before, I’ve never witnessed them quite so statue- like. I arrived at the terraced house on the sea-front in Stranraer at 2.30 p.m. and was met by John, a 76 year old retired merchant seaman. The books were up a flight of stairs on a landing – interesting collection, a mix of maritime, railway, and Folio Society. I took a few boxes and gave him £250. There was a nice five-volume slip-cased set of Folio Wodehouses among them. This is the third set of Folio Wodehouses I’ve had over the years, and they always sell quickly, and for around £80.

Back to the shop at 4.15 p.m. just as a customer came to the counter with our copy of The Trial of James Stewart, dated 1753, and published by Hamilton and Balfour. It was £300, and he asked if there was any chance of a discount, so I checked on ABE – the go-to website for checking online prices – and found one (admittedly in less good condition) priced at £225. I told him that he could have it at that price, and he was delighted. The Trial of James Stewart – the story of the Appin murder, the story on which Robert Louis Stevenson based Kidnapped. Stevenson’s father had picked up a copy of the same edition of The Trial of James Stewart in a bookshop in Inverness, and given it to RLS, and from that, the seed of what would become Kidnapped was planted. Stevenson even references this edition of his book by calling his protagonist (the only important character not based on a real person) David Balfour – The Trial of James Stewart was published by Balfour. This copy is the only one I’ve seen since I bought the shop in 2001.

Till total £153.18 | 17 customers


Online Orders: 2
Books found: 2

Emily in.

The seeming endless rain eventually stopped at about 10 a.m.

I recently discovered that Amazon is about to charge me £1,600 storage charge for the stock we store in their warehouse under the Fulfilled by Amazon programme. This is a system under which we (and other booksellers) list our stock on a database which we upload to Amazon, then ship the boxes of books to their warehouse, from where they are sent out to customers when the orders come in. Initially, it solved the problems created by large collections coming in, but without the space to sell them in the shop. Now, though, our FBA stock is more or less static, and we probably sell £20 worth of books a week. This storage charge is a new thing, and is probably twice the value of our FBA stock, so I need to find a way around this before they whack the charge on me, so I engaged Amazon’s Live Chat to try to resolve it. The name they ascribed to the person who is dealing with me is ‘Cromwell’.

I wonder if they’ve decided to give all their employees the names of vicious figures from history. I’m hoping that I’m about to be connected to Attila the Hun, or Genghis Khan.

After lunch I drove to Gatehouse of Fleet, to a friend’s house to look at her late husband’s books. He died about fifteen years ago, and his son from his first marriage has been my friend since early childhood. He came to my first birthday party, and now lives in Chile with his wife and baby daughter. There was nothing much of value, but some reasonable shop stock, so I wrote her a cheque for £120.

Till total £302.79 | 21 customers


Online Orders: 1
Books found: 1

After lunch I left for Garlieston, a seaside village eight miles away, to look at Mr Deacon’s books. Mr Deacon was a regular customer, and had been since I bought the shop. In the intervening fifteen years he regularly came in to order biographies and history books which he could far more easily have ordered online. For this reason, I had a particular affection. And the fact that he was clearly a man of enormous intelligence who cared little for his appearance. He always looked – to me – as though his clothes had been loaded into a cannon and fired onto him. The last time I saw him, he told me that he’d just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. That was two years ago. Last week his daughter telephoned to offer me his book collection. I had no idea that he’d died earlier in the year.

I parked the van as near to the house as I could get, and was greeted by his charming daughter Suzie, who showed me around the house which was not at all what I had expected. From her late father’s appearance, I had imagined that it would have been far less clean and tidy, and considerably more cluttered. It turned out that it had been, and that following his death she had arranged for it to be totally redecorated and refitted. Apparently Mr Deacon didn’t have a washing machine, and a woman in the village used to do his washing and ironing for him (although I can’t say that I ever noticed much evidence of ironing when I saw him). The books were, as expected, of good quality both in their subjects and condition, mostly history hardbacks in dust-jackets, with a few other subjects: politics, biography, law and – highly unexpectedly – nudism. I offered £320 for what I wanted, which Suzie gladly accepted. When I told her that there was no way I could take those I didn’t want (roughly 1,000 books) she looked distraught. She has to clear the house by Friday, and can’t leave anything. Then a thought occurred to me – The Open Book (a volunteer run bookshop in Wigtown) desperately needs new stock, and Finn, who runs it, lives less than a mile away from Mr Deacon’s house. I called him and he came round straight away. He’s going to go over tomorrow with a trailer and clear them. Suzie looked enormously relieved.

Home at 7 p.m.

Till total £264.19 | 20 customers


Online Orders: 0
Books found: 0

Today was my 47th birthday, and the last day of the 10 days of Wigtown Book Festival.

The first people through the door were a couple who asked ‘Do you remember us? We were here six years ago.’ Needless to say I had no idea who they were.
Timandra Harkness, author of a book called Big Data, appeared at 10 a.m. with a hand-made birthday card. She and I went for a swim in the sea yesterday as the weather was glorious. I normally go in on my birthday but the weather forecast for today was diabolical, so we decided to do it yesterday.

Interesting chat with Rachel McCormack about publishing. She described publishers as ‘sausage factories’.

A Dutchman with a beard came to the counter with a three-volume set of books about trees which, for reasons unknown, Nicky (former employee of several years’ standing) had priced at £10 each, rather than £30 for the set. They’d previously been priced at £85 for the set, but the Dutchman wanted all three for £10. I explained that it would be £30 for the set rather than £10. He didn’t buy them. Shortly after he left in a rather bad temper, a woman came to the counter looking panicked. She told me that she’d seen a ghost on the top landing of the building; a woman dressed entirely in black.

As every year on my birthday, my parents came at noon with a cake and sang happy birthday with Carol-Ann and Carol. After they’d left, Eliot (festival director) appeared and asked me to lead an author walk from the County Buildings to the Martyrs’ Stake. I waited outside the County Buildings for ten minutes but mercifully nobody turned up because of the diabolical weather. Just as I thought I’d got away with it and was about to return to the shop, Siobhan (who runs the Wigtown youth festival) cornered me and co-opted me into one of her events. Thankfully it wasn’t particularly taxing.

A woman in her 60s with dyed red hair asked if we had any books on runes just as my friend Stuart was walking past. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a man roll his eyes so dramatically.

Today’s festival event included talks by Tom Devine, Philip Ardagh, Alan Johnson, Debi Gliori and Mary Contini. As always, I didn’t manage to get to any of them because the shop was open.

Till total £640.05 | 67 customers


Online Orders: 2
Books found: 1

The first customer of the day was a woman who asked where we keep books about fairies and witchcraft. I wonder if she may have been the same woman who saw the ‘ghost’ in the shop earlier in the week. She asked me where I was from, and when I told her I’m from Wigtown she kept repeating ‘But you sound really English’.

A Dutchman came in looking for a copy of The Little Grey Men by ‘BB’. He seemed unduly impressed that I even knew it was by ‘BB’, and even more so that I knew that his real name was Denys Watkins Pitchford. I don’t know why he seemed so impressed – it is my job, after all. We’ve had a couple of copies of The Little Grey Men in the first edition, but I couldn’t find one.

Till total £331.28 | 21 customers


Online Orders: 3
Books found: 3

Emily found all the orders this morning. Drove to Milngavie, north of Glasgow
to look at a book collection in a modest Victorian suburban house, owned by a recently widowed woman in her 70s. The books had been her late husband’s and were Folio Society titles, many of which I’d never seen. They were pristine. I took about 120 of them and wrote her a cheque for £580. The house was pristine, and on the wall of the dining room was a reprint of the Declaration of Arbroath and a saltire, so clearly they’d been independence voters.

Home at 5.30 p.m.

Till total £201.96 | 13 customers

From this Issue


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by Joseph Farrell


by Shaun Bythell

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