‘The Confessions of a Bookseller,’ A Year in the Life of a Scottish Bookseller

I have an inclination to acquire books. My small upstairs office has shelves full of them. I have a friend who runs a small bookstore in Warrenton, Virginia. Originally from Portland, Oregon, I vividly remember Powell’s, a legendary independent bookstore billed as the largest in the world. I like everything about books and I like people who share my love of books.

For me there is something magical about turning the first few pages of a new book and reading – what new information is waiting for me? Which characters will I meet? Which riddle will be solved? What drama will unfold? – a whole new world in words, perhaps sprinkled with photos or illustrations.

The title alone made me pick up Shaun Bythell’s Confessions of a Bookseller. That, and it has a charming cover depicting what was once a great Georgian town house, now a bookshop, with every window filled with scenes of books, staff and book browsers. The owner stands in front of the entrance, his faithful cat Captain at his side. It’s all so inviting.

I also keep a diary and this book is structured like a diary chronicling a full year of Bythell’s life managing the largest antique shop in Scotland.

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Participate in the community

I laughed out loud several times. This is a hilarious read.

Bythell has a keen eye for quickly spotting the makeup of his often eccentric clients. Add to that the personalities of his inquisitive associates, legions of friends and acquaintances, and his family, and you have the recipe for a read that combines biting sarcasm with a man who is passionate about books and often lends a sympathetic ear to his co-workers or Customers – when it suits him.

Each month recorded in the book begins with an excerpt from a 1942 London publication, The Intimate Thoughts of John Baxter, Bookseller, by Augustus Muir.

These snippets set the stage, or provide a theme, to begin this month’s book buying and selling adventures in Bythell.

Bythell is an avid reader and passionate about the world of books, from their content to their covers. He is a bookseller in a small Scottish village by the sea.

As a shop owner, he faces all the challenges of a businessman in an industry that has dramatically changed its structure, particularly with the advent of online ordering. He remains optimistic that while tactics have changed and he has an online presence, the strategic spirit of reading and buying books in traditional corners around the world, like his Wigtown store, will survive.

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Bookstores have always offered more than just books. They speak to the character of the communities they serve by hosting book signings, talks and workshops, and are filled with community event bulletin boards.

The Bookshop in Wigtown is no different. Additional rooms are available for guests. There’s always room for dinner or a yoga class or a pop-up wine bar. The shop hosts a Writers’ Retreat and Wigtown Book Festival each year. It’s all about a caring community, and despite Bythell’s often argumentative and grumpy exterior, he has a deeply soulful side in matters of the heart.

Embrace the unexpected

There’s a graceful rhythm and routine to each day as Bythell notes how many customers come into the store, how many orders it takes and fulfills, and how much sales it makes.

But there’s always that odd character walking the aisles of the store or the treasures being brought in between a box of books. The result is usually a succinct dialogue or silent observation that is left unsaid and fails the reader.

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His odd staff could be the catalyst for your own novels. Emanuela, a young girl from Italy, comes with his offer of free room and board in exchange for her help in the shop for a summer. Despite the strong language barrier, she manages to enchant many locals and diligently maintains the books. She’s also a terrible cook, but a voracious eater of other people’s cooking.

take notes

Another tidbit of this book is the exciting description of other readings that Bythell regularly throws in during his daily observations. Readers will no doubt find themselves noting new authors and titles, or rediscovering books they’ve read in the past that merit repeat reading. This is a bonus for book lovers.

Not only does the author share other titles in his book, he will also offer parts of the story, like the making of bookplates or the best method of bookbinding.

If you are in Wigtown Scotland I would suggest a visit to The Bookshop. In the meantime, pick up a copy of Confessions of a Bookseller. You will not be disappointed.

Bookseller's Confessions
The “Confessions” takes place at The Bookshop in Wigtown, Scotland, which offers more than 100,000 titles spread over a mile of shelves.

“The Confessions of a Bookseller”
By Shaun Bythell
David R Godine Publishers, 2022
Hardcover: 324 pages

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