The tenuous link between NASA and Wigtown….and a book review of sorts.

I promise that this will be my final post about Shaun Bythell and Wigtown, Scotland……at least for a while. This post will hopefully round off and give some sense of finality in the saga of Bythell, Wigtown and Booktowns.


The above picture shows two books…..separate books….. relating two sides of the same story…..but in uniquely different ways.
Shaun Bythell’s – “The Diary of a Bookseller” – is the story of life in the biggest second hand book store in Scotland. It’s told in diary form….one little section per day and always starts off with how many on-line orders were taken and how many of the books could actually be found on the shelves of the shop. He then takes us through an often whimsical look at the daily interaction between himself, his staff and customers. It’s the awkward or slightly weird customers – and what they say – who provide the humour and interest.
His main staff member ‘Nicky’ is, shall we say….a bit of a free spirit, who certainly has a mind of her own, often disregards Shaun’s instructions and basically does what she feels like doing as far as “shop tasks” are concerned. Her dress sense, time keeping, unique turn of phrase and her penchant for dumpster diving add hugely to the humour found in this book. The blurb on the front of the book states “Warm, witty and laugh-out-loud funny” – Daily Mail…and I couldn’t agree more with that. I managed to annoy my wife frequently – I’m pleased to say – by giggling my way from chapter to chapter.
Speaking of chapters….each month is one long chapter and starts off with a quotation from George Orwell’s “Bookshop Memories”…..written in 1936 about Orwell’s experiences of working in a bookshop. The similarities between Orwell’s experiences and Bythell’s are many and are mostly about how life in a bookshop would be far less complicated if it wasn’t for awkward, annoying customers who often interrupt the bliss of being able to kick back and read a good book.
The book is written like a diary – hence the title – and has taken a bit of stick from some people who say it’s repetitive. Well, days working in a bookshop are to some extent repetitive when you’re dealing with the day to day running of a bookshop – but the customers are so predictably unpredictable that each day, more or less, also brings a moment of hilarity. Each day also ends with a tally of the days takings and the number of customers who bought books. But…..I loved it’s irreverant humour and Bythell’s sense of fun and irony.
He also brings into the story a young lady called ‘Anna’, an American writer and film maker who works for NASA, but who in a moment of personal crisis decided to take a break from life in the fast lane and take a month or two to mellow, in a bookshop (chosen at random partly by luck and partly by Mr Google) in Wigtown, Scotland. Long storey short…..Anna and Shaun fall in love and have an on again, off again, on again relationship. Where that relationship finally goes to – you’ll just have to read the books to find out.
Being British, Shaun Bythell keeps the personal side of the relationship to himself and only tells us as much as is needed in order to explain his daily life both in and out of the bookshop. Anna is not her real name. Whether he changed it to protect her anonymity or to protect himself from potential law suits – you know how Americans just LOVE to scream for their lawyers – is neither here nor there….. and since Anna decided to write her own book about the relationship “Three things you need to know about Rockets” under her real name – Jessica… becomes a moot point.
Contrary to the British stiff upper lip – keep your emotional life subdued – way of looking at relationships, the American way…..or at least Jessica’s way… is the polar oposite. Emotions come to the fore and in Jessica’s book we are taken along with her on her emotional roller coaster ride through her relationship with “Euan” (aka Shaun).
The Times says “It’s sweet, it’s charming and it’s funny” and indeed it is all these things in parts. The story of her going for a “special waxing” is particularly hilarious and I had tears of laughter streaming down my face. BUT I would also add the word “frustrating” to the description of the book.
There were times where Jessica’s emotional confusion made me want to give her a hug and there were others where her lack of self confidence and her over thinking of things made me shake my head in frustration. In a relationship where two people know one another, love one another and are comfortable in each others company there can be “a comfortable silence” – a silence of contentment. Jessica is not one who finds comfort in silence and interprets Euan’s/Shaun’s moments of silence as being a sign that “something is wrong…..he’s bored with the relationship and with her…..he’s thinking about some other woman”. She is constantly needing to be reassured and seems hell bent on picking holes in a relationship that is – depending on her viewpoint at that moment in time rock steady yet, at the same time, crumbling on it’s foundations.
Whilst I would love to quote a few passages from each book to give you a feel for the different writing styles and mannerisms of these two writers I don’t want to run foul of the copyright laws – as did Blythell when quoting Orwell in his book. But that’s another story.
Both books are certainly worth a read and Shaun’s in particular – since he signed it for me – will hold pride of place on my bookshelves. Bythell’s book is classed as Memoir/Humour and Fox’s as a Romantic Memoir……you make your choice and take your pick. You really do need to read both books though to get the full picture.
Both books describe life in the small settlement of Wigtown in such a way that makes me want to visit there, someday soon. I feel it’s something that just needs to be done. Call it a pilgrimage of sorts if you will – to the book, the bookshop and the booktown.
AND the good news is that a production company has bought the rights to both books with a view to making a combined movie. Whether they actually take up the option and make the movie remains to be seen. I hope they do.
Further good news is that Bythell’s publishers are now asking him for a follow up book. It used to be that when a customer approached the counter, Shaun would think “Oh no what is this idiot going to ask me?” Now he thinks “Yes…great….a customer – hope he/she says something ridiculous” – eager for new material. Watch this space…..
A final plea. If you’re interested enough in the two stories to want to read these books – and I do hope that you do – please buy the physical books, not e-books/Kindle… and please buy them from a bricks and mortar bookshop….not Amazon….on the internet. It’s the patronage of bricks and mortar establishments like “The Bookshop” by readers like you and me that brought about the writing of both these books in the first place. Without us the bookshop and indeed Booktowns would cease to exist.
BUY THE BOOKS……and preserve a way of life…..please.

Getting myself out of a reading rut….

While there is nothing wrong at all in finding something you like to do and sticking to it, it does tend to narrow your options – and in turn narrow your mind…..or I should say it doesn’t help you to expand your mind.

I love to travel, love photography and love to read. So to become sort of addicted to travel writing…..travelogues and travel guides….or the pictorial splendor of glossy photography books was an easy trap to fall into. It’s what I like, so what’s wrong with that?

Spoken like a true addict right?

It’s funny sometimes how you stumble across something, apparently by chance, that just happens to provide another view – another option. And it seems to happen right at the time that you need it.

I’m not sure exactly how I came across “The Bookshop – Wigtown” – it may have been a YouTube suggested channel, I’m really not sure. But here was a guy – Shaun Bythell who ran a bookshop – the biggest second hand bookshop in Scotland. He was explaining how, when sales of books were at a low ebb and he had a glut of books of all types, he decided to start “the Random Book Club”.  Customers would sign up to receive one book every month, mailed to their door…..but it would be a book selected at random . It could be fact or fiction, poetry even. The Random Book Club has, against the odds, been a great success and he has been inundated with emails from people wanting to join. The on-line recruitment campaign was so successful that he’s now spending more time than he initially expected to, selecting and mailing out a hundred and fifty books each month. It was getting too popular so he decided to cap it at 150 members.

I didn’t sign up with the Random Book Club, but it did spark an idea.

I didn’t, and indeed still don’t, have much in the way of spare cash – or any cash if I’m completely honest – to spend on books, so decided to have a rummage around the charity shops/thrift shops/Op shops (depending on what you call them in your part of the world). I’d go into a shop and spying the books in a book case at the far end of the shop I’d pick 2 numbers…..say 3 and 8…..and I’d select the book which occupied the 8th space from the left, on the 3rd shelf – regardless of what it was. I repeated this on other book cases and in other stores, until I had amassed an interesting pile of a dozen or so books (for the grand total of less than ten dollars). OK I admit that one of them turned out to be a travel book…..but the rest were a mix of novels, biographies and other non-fiction that for the most part I wouldn’t usually read.

I’m slowly reading my way through them…..and will share my thoughts on each book in another post…or posts. The main thing is though – I have been entertained and I have learned things that I otherwise wouldn’t have done, had I stayed with my usual travel or photo books. AND it has made me more willing to deliberately browse the shelves of new and used books and to expand my library further – much to my wife’s displeasure.

I’m not sticking religiously to my random pile of books though. I am also reading other purchased books and library books in between including several books by the Australian writer (now residing in Paris) – John Baxter – who I will do an in depth post on later and I have recently finished Shaun Bythell’s book “The Diary of a Bookseller” and am half way through Jessica Fox’s book “Three Things You Need To Know About Rockets”. More on both these books in future posts.

My long suffering wife thinks that I already have too many books….and in all honesty I probably do. Although my taste in genres has changed over the years since I first became interested in books at primary school……as an adult, I’ve gone through detective and crime novels…..Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Richard Laymon, Shaun Hutson and other “supernatural” authors….my beloved travel writers, particularly Bill Bryson…..the classics… and photography….gardening and D.I.Y. etc etc. I rarely get rid of any of them. So they gather dust on any of my six book cases or languish, discarded, unloved and hoping to be rediscovered, in any number of banana boxes in my garage. I’ve even considered opening a “pop-up” second hand book store in a tent on my front lawn to off load a few books and give me a much needed cash-flow……to buy more books of course.

I could call it “Intent books – for books within tent“…..

Hmmmm. Certainly something to think about.


Above – my dozen random books.

Featherston Booktown is now official.

I’m very pleased to report that as of October 2nd 2018 the small, lower north island, New Zealand town of Featherston has become a full member of the International Organisation of Booktowns (IOB). This makes Featherston the first Booktown in New Zealand and the 22nd Booktown internationally.

A Booktown is a small rural town or village in which second–hand and antiquarian bookshops are concentrated. Most Booktowns have developed in villages of historic interest or of scenic beauty. They have usually had a hard time economically and have turned to the Booktown idea in a bid to turn around the economic downturn.

Gunnel Ottersten, President of the IOB said: ”The IOB has observed with great interest the successful growth of Featherston Booktown over the last four years. The Featherston Booktown Board of Trustees and the Featherston community have done a fantastic job taking Featherston Booktown forward to its current impressive stage – and the IOB voted unanimously to make Featherston Booktown a full member of the IOB.’

Peter Biggs, Chair of the Featherston Booktown Board of Trustees said that the whole of Featherston had been behind them 100% in their bid to become a Booktown and it is a proud moment to finally achieve their goal.  It will also give Featherston the opportunity to promote itself internationally as a Booktown and add significant value and innovation to all of the other Booktowns around the world.

Featherston is currently home to six bookshops and now it has become officially accepted into the family of the IOB, could well attract more potential booksellers.

The concept of the Booktown was initiated by Richard Booth in Hay–on–Wye in Wales. Hay has a population of only 1500 people, yet is home to around two dozen bookshops. In comparison, the population of Featherston is over two thousand so the potential to add more bookshops is not simply pie in the sky.

Booktowns have proved extremely popular with book lovers and tourists alike overseas. The Hay–on–Wye Literature Festival now attracts over 80,000 visitors across ten days in May-June every year. A phenomenal number when the usual population size is considered.

Similarly, Scotland’s Booktown, Wigtown – population of less than one thousand people, yet around a dozen bookshops, have benefited increasingly over the 20 years since being hailed as Scotland’s Booktown. The 10 day festival held in 2017 was said to have generated over 3 million UK Pounds. This years is just finishing and figures are expected to be up on last year.

I was in Featherston at the end of August this year to attend an authors event at which Wigtown’s unofficial Booktown Champion Shaun Bythell – owner of Scotland’s biggest second hand bookshop – was promoting his own book “The Diary of a Bookseller”. The book takes a look at a typical year in the life of a bookseller (Shaun) – recording the daily and often humorous exchanges between himself, his staff and customers.

I loved the book, met the writer and found him to be a charming, witty and intelligent human being, with the voice of a 1950’s BBC presenter, a very casual sense of fashion style bordering on “op-shop” and a mop-top of unruly orange hair. He’s a very likable sort of guy – self depreciating, yet confident. The event received an audience of over a hundred and twenty people eager to meet the man and to listen to readings from the book, listen to rib-tickling tales of book-shop life and to take part in a question and answer time. Bear in mind that this was on a cold winter Monday evening in a tiny rural town. The weekend before, he had been in Auckland and had a smaller audience. It goes to show that Featherston is ready to step up in literary circles.

Featherstons next literary festival runs from 9th to 12th of May 2019. I for one will make sure it’s on my calendar. Achieving the title of Booktown along with the upcoming festival and other events throughout the year should help to put Featherston firmly on the tourist map.


Above photo – the writer (on the left) with author Shaun Bythell