The truth is not very popular nowadays, among motivational euphemisms, fake news and pleasant reconfirmations. But Shaun Bythell is here to show us that even the most annoying truths, when written in good humour, can make a book a best seller.
Shaun graduated from Law School, had a lot of different jobs and then, in 2001, he became the owner of the Book Shop in Wigtown, that has 100,000 books in stock. In 2010, he launched the shop's Facebook page, where he began to write about his clients and their habits.
In 2017, he published The Diary of a Bookseller, a book that appeared recently in Romania, in Anansi. World Fiction colection. In 2019, The Confessions of a Bookseller was published, and this year, in November, will be launched the third book of the series, Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops. We talk with Shaun Bythell, in this interview, about 2020, misanthropes, writers and readers:
How was 2020 for the misanthropes
2020 has been an interesting year for misanthropes - lockdown has generally meant that I've seen very few people outside my family, which suits me fine. Eventually I started to miss my customers though. For a bookstore owner - it's been fine by me.
As I run my own business I haven't had rent to pay, wages and other overheads which many other bookshops have had. I've been lucky that it hasn't damaged my business. Others have been less fortunate.
As a writer, lockdown has meant that I could get on with writing without the distractions of the shop being open. I think a lot of people who couldn't find the time before had spent lockdown writing their first book.
I do most of my reading on the train up and down to London, so with travelling restrictions, I actually read very little.
I think I know myself fairly well, so I don't think the pandemic brought any great surprises in the way of self-awareness. When the weather was good, we spent a lot of time in the garden, and at the beginning I thought that we might end up with food shortages, so I planted lots of vegetables and I'm much more conscious about the vulnerability of essential supply chains. About others, I discovered that my wife and I can live quite happily in isolation.
The path to misanthropy
When I bought the shop I was very sociable, but after a couple of years of talking to customers who ask you the same questions day after day. It becomes less enjoyable each time, and probably after two years I began to dread the door opening and customers coming in.
Everyone who has worked in the shop has been so surprised about how interesting it can be that we've all discussed the idea of writing a book. It was always in the back of my mind, but because I have such a dreadful memory, I decided that I'd need to keep a diary if I was to ever have any material to refer to. The diary ended up becoming a book.
It was an interesting journey from the first draft to the final version, and a lot of changes were made, but I have an excellent agent and a brilliant editor who steered me through the process.
One of the biggest surprises for me was how slow the publishing process is. I submitted the first draft to my agent in March 2015, and the book finally came out in September of 2017. There haven't really been many obstacles for me - I'm fortunate that both my agent and my publisher take very good care of their authors.
First days in the shop
My first days in the shop were very happy. It was an exciting time and I was embarking upon something which I knew nothing about. 20 years later I'm still learning. Back then there was still quite an upbeat feeling in the bookselling industry; Amazon was relatively small, and only sold new books, and not even that many so it didn't look like much of a threat. Of course, we all know now that things have changed more than any of us could have imagined. Amazon is slowly squeezing the life out of everything. Publishers have their margins squeezed, writers get paid less, and bookshops struggle to compete.
New categories of readers
With readers and book buyers, things seem to go in cycles. There are authors who used to sell very well in my shop, but the people who read them have now mostly died, and that market has dried up. At the other end of the cycle, you get the likes of J K Rowling coming along and creating a huge new wave of readers, so it's just a question of keeping an eye on your stock and observing what's selling and what is not.
My favourite buyers are the people who don't complain about anything, and don't argue with you over the price. The most annoying kind is probably people walk around the shop sniffing because they've got a cold. I hope the pandemic will have made everyone more aware of coughing, sneezing and sniffing in public, and these people will buy tissues and wipe their noses instead in the future. I'm not sure what category I belong in other than staff.
What annoys you most in 2020
What I find most annoying are that things that we used to take for granted are now much more difficult or even impossible to do, whether it's going to the supermarket and having to queue outside in the rain, or even travelling by train, or having a drink in the pub with friends. I sometimes wonder if things will ever be the same again. I'm also frustrated on behalf of all of the successful business which we will never see again, through no fault of their own.
The book for 2020
The book that best matches this year in my opinion is Blindness, by Jose Saramago