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The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell

24 November 2017

Graham James on the decline of bookshops


ON A Scottish holiday, I persuaded my wife that we should make a significant detour to visit Wigtown without admitting that its charm was enhanced for me by a surprising number of secondhand bookshops.

The largest is owned by Shaun Bythell. For a year (2014), he kept a diary. People had often said, “You should write a book” when he told stories of odd customers. Now he has. We are taken on a journey of small-town life, and introduced to a world populated by eccentric characters — much like the Church.

Each day’s entry begins with the number of online orders received, and the number of those books found in the stock. Customers move books around in real bookshops (and pilfer some, too): one of the many frustrations recorded here. We are told the number of customers each day (those who actually bought something), and the takings.

The figures are comparable to a not-very-thriving rural church’s attendances and collections, with an occasional surge during the Wigtown Book Festival: the equivalent of Christmas or a funeral.

Nicky, the only regular member of staff, features on almost every page. She is a Jehovah’s Witness with a penchant for both tardiness and clearing supermarket bins of outdated foodstuffs, which she brings to work. Although Nicky is inclined to consign anything by or about Charles Darwin to the fiction shelves, Shaun teases her by putting Bibles there, too. Sometimes, Shaun will go to inspect collections of books, and it is clear that the theological libraries of deceased Presbyterian ministers do not excite him. Nor does he believe that the customer is always right; he is not inhibited in sharing that conviction.

By the conclusion of the diary, I had grown rather fond of stiff and formal Mr Deacon, a regular customer still ordering new books from his local bookshop at full price rather than buying them online. Mr Deacon develops Alzheimer’s, and goes into a sad decline. It is hard to see that sort of customer being replaced. Even Shaun has to bow the knee to Amazon, much as it grieves him to do so.

This is not in any sense a religious book, but it does capture the dying of a culture. It expresses, for the most part gently, what will be lost. Many Anglicans will sympathise.


The Rt Revd Graham James is Bishop of Norwich.


The Diary of a Bookseller
Shaun Bythell
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Church Times Bookshop £13.50

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