In the next instalment of his Confessions of a Bookseller takeover, Shaun Bythell travels to a remote location to pick up stock for his bookshop.
Emily in. Left the shop at 11 a.m. and drove in the hot July sun to a house on the shores of Loch Ness.
We got to Inverness at about 3.30 p.m. and to the address we’d been given about half an hour after that. Well, we would have arrived there if there had been any indication that the address we’d been given existed, but it didn’t, and after driving up a terrifyingly steep hill, we turned around and returned in search of the house. Two further ascents proved utterly fruitless, so - after leaving a message on the telephone number we’d been given - we dropped back onto the main road and drove another two miles, unfortunately ending up at the Nessie Visitor Centre where I asked the man at the counter of the horribly mobbed kitsch shop if he recognised either the name of the woman who was selling the books, or the address. In a small, snatched moment between serving a coachload of Japanese tourists, he admitted that he knew neither, so we returned to the desolate road one final time, but not before Lena had plundered the wreckage of the tat they had for sale and complained that she hadn’t seen Nessie.
After another palm-sweating drive up a gradient that the van was singularly ill-equipped to deal with, we turned around and on our descent back to the loch, I decided to stop at the only house on the ribbon-development that had a car parked outside it, hoping that this would mean that someone was home. Fortunately, this proved to be the case, and - after knocking on the door at 5 p.m. - an English woman in her 60s wearing a mauve dressing gown appeared. When I explained that we were looking for a house whose occupant was about to move and wanted to sell her books, her initial confusion soon became a spark of understanding, and she grabbed her telephone and dialled the number which (when I called it) had gone to the answerphone. Christine - who I had been looking for - had clearly screened my number, but recognised the number of the woman in the mauve dressing gown and answered. Thus cleared of the high level security, we were given directions to the house: "back down the steep hill, when you get to the building site on the left (three new houses) with the traffic cones, she’ll be waiting for you".
Low gear, grinding back down the hill for the third time, we finally came across the new build (three houses with coned-off drive) where Christine was waiting at the road end. She was, and I say this with a degree of fear that she might read it, a small and wild-looking woman. She pointed us down an unlikely looking track down which I drove with nervous anticipation. The wheels sunk almost to the axles, and I wondered quite how - even unloaded - we might ever return. At the end of the muddy track, littered on both sides with the detritus of a lifetime, was a shack-like house. Surrounded by trees and wildlife, and with a snaking stone path down the steep slope to the front door, it looked like something from a fairy tale, and not the sort you’d want to be in. Christine was perfectly friendly, although quite quiet, not volunteering any information. I suspect form the location of the house, she eschews company, and has perhaps lost some of the skills of dull conversation. When I asked her about the house, she told me that a friend had built it entirely from materials gathered from skips and rubbish dumps. It was cut into the steep hillside, and timber clad and concealed from view by the forest. I doubt very much whether the planning department had been involved in any way during its construction, and from its location and Christine’s disposition, it was clearly designed to be hidden, and not to be easily found. In this regard, it nobly fulfilled its ambition. Inside, it was equally fascinating, and resembled an interior version of the junk-strewn track which led to it. It was dark, and cluttered with curious, interesting artefacts. Over the fireplace hung the reconstructed skeleton of a harbour porpoise, and in other rooms were the skeletons of an albatross and a seal. I could see on Lena’s normally inscrutable face a look of almost horrified fascination.
There were about 60 boxes of books by the door, but downstairs, in the sitting room were the boxes of what she considered to be more valuable books. In most regards she was wrong, but there were certainly some interesting books there, including a beautifully bound copy of Garnett’s Tour (falling apart) and some other Scottish travel books from the 18th Century with stunning copperplate illustrations. I offered her £300 for those, and told her that I’d sort the rest when we got home and get back to her with a price.
The three of us loaded the van in the warm summer evening, winding our way up and down the steep, colourfully overgrown path, under the incessant barrage of ravenous midges until we’d finally completed the job. We said goodbye, and I managed to turn the van around in the tiny space allocated for this at the end of the muddy track, and slowly began the ascent to the summit of the hill and the six hour drive back home to Galloway.
Shaun Bythell is the owner of The Bookshop in Wigtown, and also one of the organisers of the Wigtown Festival. His first book, The Diary of a Bookseller, has been translated into twenty languages, including Russian, Korean and French. His second book, Confessions of a Bookseller, was published by Profile Books on 29th August 2019.
This diary extract is published as part of Shaun Bythell's FutureBook takeover. Read the rest of his Confessions of a Bookseller entries here.