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(Photog by Colin Tennant)

‘As a bookseller, I’ve become less sentimental about books’

By and
Shelfie | 8 minute read
In the first of our 'Shelfie' series on bibliophiles and their shelves, the bookseller of Wigtown talks about breaking spines, reading by the fire and beautiful books.

Can you remember the first book you bought?

No I can’t – I think the school library was fairly well stocked and I borrowed books from it. I clearly remember, though, the first book I was completely transfixed by. It was The Pool of the Black Witch, by ‘BB’ (the author and illustrator Denys Watchkins-Pitchford) which I read when I was 8 or 9 years old. I was completely transported to the world he created.

How big is your library now?

If you take my shop stock of 100,000 books out of the equation, I probably only have a couple of hundred books that don’t go back onto the shelves of the shop once I’ve finished them. I think as a bookseller, I’ve become less sentimental about books than when I was before I bought the shop. The books I keep are usually books that I’ve been given, or books which I consider to be beautiful as objects.

How do you arrange your books? 

In the shop, by subject and – where appropriate – alphabetically. In my own shelves, there’s no order. When I’m buying books I’ve discovered that in most of the homes I go into to look at other people’s collections, it’s very rare to find them in any sort of order.

Favourite reading spot in your house?

Cliché, I’m afraid. Old leather armchair by the fire.

Do you have a regular purge? 

Not of my own books. The collection is growing slowly, but normally the books I’ve read end up selling in the shop once I’ve finished with them.

(Photo by Caroline McQuistin)

Favourite bookshop new or second-hand?

I’d be missing a marketing trick if I failed to say it was my own shop, but there’s a particularly charming second-hand bookshop tucked away down a lane in Boston, Massachusetts called Commonwealth Books. I don’t get the chance to visit other bookshops as much as I would like to, largely by virtue of being stuck in my own for most of the year. A few years ago, on a visit to London I thought I’d have a wander down Charing Cross Road, once famed for its bookshops and immortalised by Helene Hanff through her correspondence with Frank Doel of Marks & Co. In a microcosmic reflection of the rest of the country, the number of bookshops there is a fraction of what it was, and Marks & Co’s famous address at number 84 was, I think, a McDonalds when I was last there. I’d like to visit Shakespeare and Company in Paris. Perhaps my book will afford me the opportunity.

What’s on your ‘to read’ pile?

It’s more of a mountain than a pile, but at the top of it are Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved, followed by Jonathan Meades’ An Encyclopaedia of Myself. I have a few pages of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Micheal Chabon to polish off before I start one of them.

What is your favourite edition that you own and why?

I have a copy of Lanark in which Alastair Gray sketched a portrait of me with a biro during our book festival a few years ago. I’d be very reluctant to part with that.

To break the spine or keep it as immaculate as possible?

I had to clench my fists to prevent me screaming aloud in the shop even reading that question. As a bookseller, condition is critical to a book’s resale value, so definitely the latter.

Do you lend books? 

Never. Every day I hear the same story from customers who are looking to replace books they lent to people who never returned them. Literally every day. And since I would only lend books that I liked, why risk it?

Do you like to get books signed by the author?

I do for the shop, but it rarely makes much difference to the value. Nowadays authors are obliged to sign so many copies at festivals and events in bookshops that there’s no scarcity of them. I once had a copy of Westward Ho that had been given as a gift by Florence Nightingale to a nurse, and was inscribed in her hand, and I’ve had a similar experience with Walter Scott’s signature inside a book which he didn’t write. And a book signed by Aubrey Beadsley. These sort of things excite me more than the biro scribble of a contemporary writer.

What is your favourite book currently funding on the Unbound site?

I’ve just had a trawl through and very much like the sound of Rachel Buchanan’s The Underwater Bike and other Stories, and Liz Fraser’s Lifeshambles looks like it could be useful now that I’m middle-aged. Too hard to call.

Shaun Bythell’s ‘The Diary of a Bookseller’, is published by Profile