To mark the release of his second book, Confessions of a Bookseller, Shaun Bythell—who owns The Bookshop in Wigtown—shares his diary extracts.
Opened the shop at 9 a.m. and before the door had swung shut behind me, the telephone rang. Around this time every year, I receive a call from a concert pianist who wants to sell me self-produced CDs of her work. She has an accent which I have yet to even begin to identify, and is ruthlessly insistent that I should stock her CDs. Every year, I resist until she eventually wears me down with relentless phone calls and emails, and I weakly capitulate to rid myself of this troublesome pianist. Over the years, I think I’ve bought about a dozen of them, and sold one. The rest I’ve given to the charity shop. I doubt they’ve fared any better.
After I’d finished dealing with her (me: "I’ll take three", her: "Is that all?"), I headed off to Balmaclellan (about half an hour away) to look at books in a house left to the children of an elderly couple. It was in the wilds of the Galloway Hills, with a majestic view. The couple who were clearing it had been in the shop a few weeks ago and we’d arranged the visit back then. It had belonged to a man called J B Pick, whose obituary in the Daily Telegraph described him as "a man of letters". Embarrassingly, I had never heard of him, but his library certainly lent weight to the Telegraph’s claim; many biographies of obscure literary figures as well as more mainstream characters, and a great deal of anarchist literature, as well as full runs of the works of John Cooper Powys, and Colin Wilson.
Pick was born in 1921 and died in 2015. He befriended and championed the Scottish novelist Neil M Gunn (author of The Silver Darlings) and became a leading figure in the revival of near-forgotten Scottish writers. He was instrumental in the Canongate Classics series which continues to publish the works of these almost-lost works. The house was, as David (his son) pointed out, typical of a property which had been lived in by a couple in a remote corner of rural Scotland for the final 40 years of their lives. Beautiful, but neglected, with pragmatism taking priority over aesthetics. The garden, though was pretty, and well maintained. I suspect that sadly, surrounded as it was by marginal marshland it is almost unendurable during the summer for the bloodthirsty clouds of midges.
J B’s library, as well as clearly being the collection of a literary academic, contained almost every one of the Canongate Classics, with their stylish, uniform grey, white and black paperback spines. I don’t think I’ve ever come across so many in a single collection and I know they’ll look as good on the shelves of the shop as they did on his.
I packed about a dozen boxes, and I parted with £500 for the books I knew I could sell. Many of the books I left behind would have been good shop stock had it not been for the fact that J B disliked dust jackets and disposed of many of them, leaving the books naked and worthless.
On the way home I stopped at the Grey Mare’s Tail, a waterfall just off the road. It rained yesterday, and the water was thundering down creating a hazy rainbow mist in the evening sunshine.
Got home to discover that I’d left my diary in J B Pick’s house.
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.