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Me, my shelves and sigh: Scotland’s grumpiest bookseller on the seven customers he loves to hate (but mostly loves)

Shaun Bythell at The Bookshop in Wigtown, Dumfries and Galloway
Shaun Bythell at The Bookshop in Wigtown, Dumfries and Galloway

Scotland’s grumpiest bookseller is back… and less impressed than ever with some of customers.

Shaun Bythell hit the bestseller list with his first two books Diary of a Bookseller, and Confessions of a Bookseller – slightly jaundiced but warm-hearted accounts of running a second-hand bookshop in the era of Amazon and ebooks.

The bookseller’s comic writing and world-weary take on his trade has burnished the reputation of Wigtown in Dumfries and Galloway as Scotland’s book town and brought it new international renown.

Now Shaun has written a third book, drawing sharp portraits of his regulars that would put Spitting Image to shame.

In Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops, he casts a beady eye over his unsuspecting customers, from the Person Who Doesn’t Know What They Want (But Thinks It Might Have a Blue Cover) to the harried Parents Secretly After Free Childcare, and all the way over to the erotica section where we’ll meet The Person Who Is Up to No Good.

He says of his new book: “In a further sign of appalling business acumen, I’m now responsible for this book, which attempts to bracket my customers unkindly into broad categories which will undoubtedly offend the very people on whom I depend for a living.”

Despite mocking his customers, Shaun realised how fond he is of them when he had to close the shop during lockdown.

“I missed the customers like long-lost friends. From the charming and interesting to the rude and offensive, I missed them all. Apart from the fact that without them I have literally no income, to my enormous surprise I discovered that I missed the human interaction.”

Shaun fell into the second-hand book trade when he bought The Bookshop in 2001.

“I’d just turned 30 and my life wasn’t going anywhere. I popped into the bookshop and the owner said, ‘why don’t you buy my shop?’”

Shortly afterwards, Shaun found himself the owner of The Bookshop, ripping out the old shelving and installing a fireplace, sanding the wooden floors, and stripping off the old wallpaper.

He also installed two spiralling concrete towers of books either side of the front door. But the most popular – and instagrammed – feature in the shop is a kindle he shot and hung on the wall as a sign of his contempt for ebooks.

Shaun’s the first to admit that his profession is a precarious one, but don’t be fooled by his grumpy bookseller persona.

“I don’t regret taking on The Bookshop for a moment – it’s the best decision I’ve ever made. I complain about it endlessly but despite the impression I give, I’m really happy and I love what I do. Who wouldn’t want to be surrounded by books all day? I travel all over the place to buy book collections, getting a glimpse into people’s lives,” he says. “It’s exciting as you never know what every day is going to bring. Besides, I couldn’t do anything else – after two decades of being self-employed no one would take me on, and if they did, I’d be sacked within 20 minutes.”

He is unapologetic about mocking the customers who pay his bills in his book.

“Anyone who deals with the public will tell you that 90% of them are great, friendly and polite. But it’s the other 10% that stick in your mind,” he says.

Shaun started his writing career by penning a diary to record his observations about life in a bookshop and sent it to literary agent Jenny Brown, who he’d met during the Wigtown Book Festival.

Jenny said: “I was immediately hooked by his frank descriptions of the highs and lows of running a bookshop, the sense of community around the shop and the town, the insight into his buying trips to auction rooms and old houses, and, above all, the brilliant, irresistible humour as he describes his encounters with eccentric customers, and characterful staff.”

Chapter and verse on bookshop customers

Shaun’s guide to the less than magnificent seven visitors to his shop.

The Expert

This kind of customer is, on the whole, a self-appointed expert who comes into the shop for no other reason than to lecture you about their specialist interest is and derives a singular pleasure when you know nothing about it.

The Young Family

Before I had a family, I was resentful of young families coming into the shop. Nobody wants sticky-fingered children getting stuck into shelves, particularly when they contain rare books. Now, though, I understand both that there is nothing you can do to stop children behaving the way they do and that their parents still want to have a tiny dose of culture in a world of nappies, Peppa Pig and vomit.

The Occultist

They are solitary creatures, and always visit the shop unaccompanied, although I suspect this is not through choice. They lack even the most basic social skills, and in most cases seem to have failed to grasp the rudiments of personal hygiene. The dead, it would appear, have no sense of smell, or style.

The Erotica Section Loiterer

They certainly dress as you imagine a flasher might: long coats, collars turned up, hats and occasionally dark glasses. And beards. They all have beards.

The Pantalons Rouges

It is not mandatory the red trousers are made of corduroy, but in most cases they are. They are over 55 and have children who are stockbrokers. They know exactly what they want (usually military or family history, hunting or heraldry). No member of this species is complete without a Labrador, named after a historical figure or object connected with the armed forces.

The Not So Silent Traveller: The sniffer

I don’t understand why some people, when afflicted by a cold, choose to sniff every three seconds rather than blow their noses. A number of the people who fall into this category appear to wear anoraks.

The American Family Historian

I’m fairly sure they’re really looking for some sort of evidence they are the clan chief, and that a damp ruin in Argyll is their birthright, when in fact it is obvious their great-great-great-grandfather’s status in was not laird but rather that of the laird’s latrine cleaner.

Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops, by Shaun Bythell, is published on Thursday by Profile Books