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Visit Scotland | Alba
Article published 28/09/2022

2022 was Scotland’s Year of Stories. It spotlighted, celebrated and promoted the wealth of stories inspired by, written, or created in Scotland. Each month we heard from people with a passion for stories and got an insight into their work.

We spoke to Shaun Bythell, author and owner of The Bookshop in Wigtown, to find out more about his work and life in Scotland’s National Book Town. 

What is your job and how did you get into this line of work?

I run The Bookshop in Wigtown. It's Scotland's largest second-hand bookshop, and is a Georgian townhouse which was home to the town's Provost in the 1830s, and parts of which - principally the main staircase and the grand drawing room - reflect his extravagant taste. I grew up on a small farm near Wigtown, and bought the shop in 2001 (aged 30) because I wanted to return to the area I’ve always thought of as home. I’d never wanted a conventional career, and the chance to run a bookshop seemed like the perfect opportunity to do that, and have possibly the most fulfilling job I could have ever imagined.

Shaun Bythell, owner of The Bookshop, Wigtown
Shaun Bythell, owner of The Bookshop, Wigtown
Image credit Wigtown Book Festival

Why do you think stories are so important?

Stories are important partly because they connect people who might otherwise have nothing in common, and because - like Lord Reith’s vision for the BBC - they ‘inform, educate, and entertain’, but also because they offer a form of escapism into the lives and worlds of others.

Do you know how many books are in your shop and how do you keep track of them?

We have a stock of around 100,000 titles in the shop. Because most of them pre-date barcodes and ISBNs, there’s no easy way to keep an inventory, so we rely on our memories. It's remarkable how much information the subconscious can absorb and retrieve when it is required, even just from pricing up books and putting them on the shelves.

The books you’ve written provide a lot of insight into the realities of running a bookshop. What are some of the things that you think people might have been most surprised to learn?

I think people - and I include myself in their number - might be surprised to discover just how much physical work is involved in bookselling. Because bookshops tend to be very calm, relaxing places it’s hard to imagine what goes on behind the scenes, but there’s a huge amount of lifting of heavy boxes, and even moving furniture and bookcases around to accommodate new stock. The other thing which takes people aback on reading about the realities of running a shop is quite how rude some customers are capable of being. Admittedly it’s a very small minority, but it is quite shocking how offensive people can become without the slightest provocation.

What does it feel like to live in Scotland’s National Book Town?

I have to own up to a huge bias - I grew up here and would love Wigtown regardless of whether it was the Book Town or not, but since it was awarded that status it has become a truly wonderful place to live. It attracts curious people (in both meanings of the word) and - remarkably - people seem to get on extremely well. It’s impossible to cross the (admittedly very wide) main street without stopping to chat with almost everyone you meet. The festival brings an extraordinary cultural boost to the town for the ten days it runs every year, but the legacy of that is that visitors to it tend to return off season, and that there’s a huge amount going on all year round.

Wigtown - Scotland's National Book Town sign
Wigtown - Scotland's National Book Town sign
Image credit Molly Wilders

What do you enjoy most about your job?

Probably exactly the same thing that I dislike about the job - customers. The overwhelming majority of them are kind, friendly, and remarkably knowledgeable, and balance out those who mutter in dark disappointment that we couldn’t find the book they were looking for. It’s extremely rewarding to see the palpable delight of those who discover a book they wanted, or even one which they didn’t know they wanted. Being surrounded by books all day, and constantly discovering new material is another source of pleasure, as is going to people’s houses all over the country to buy books. In fact, there’s nothing much that I don’t love about the job.

What are you looking forward to in Scotland’s Year of Stories 2022?

I’m not sure I could say that it’s something specific that I’m looking forward to, but I hope that the idea of Scotland’s Year of Stories will encourage people who might otherwise be too nervous, or perhaps unwilling, to write, film, or start to tell stories that otherwise might lie buried forever. It’s almost like giving people permission to do something which they otherwise might not have felt they could do. I have no doubt that great things will come from it.

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