Wigtown, in Dumfries and Galloway on the Machars Peninsula, was officially designated as Scotland’s National Book Town in 1998 and is thus home to a wide range of book-related businesses, “A book lovers haven – and with over quarter of a million books to choose from, old and new … it is impossible to escape empty-handed”. It had a population of 1,000 in 2020 and has 24 beaches. Readers of Harry Potter will recognise Wigtown as the home of a Quidditch team. Another claim to fame is that it is one of the places where The Thirty-Nine Steps was filmed. This spy thriller written by John Buchan was adapted for the big screen by Alfred Hitchcock. One of the businesses is The Bookshop, the largest second hand bookshop in Scotland. Its stock of books is accommodated in over a mile of shelving. Diary of a Bookseller is the autobiographical account of a year in the life of The Bookshop owner, Shaun Blythell, from February 2014 to 2015.

The town of Wigtown delights too in its annual show and a book festival, which offers more than 200 events for adults, children and young people, including literature, music, film, theatre, arts and crafts, and which has nurtured the community growth in cafes, hotels and restaurants, and those interested can learn how life as a bookshop owner might suit. Above the shop there is a holiday flat to rent but it has a rather long waiting list due to its popularity. The shop and flat together are known as The Open Book. There is also a book group, the Random Book Club that can be joined for a fee, and Shaun’s choice of novel is promoted monthly as Book of the Month. There has been a resident dog-hating cat for about ten years, claimed to be the biggest in Wigtown and possibly in Scotland.

Although Diary of a Bookseller describes a calendar year in the life of the bookseller and the characters he meets, underneath the stories is the depiction of a small independent bookseller battling with the changes and adaptations needed to deal with big corporations such as Amazon and the media-driven world. Shining through is the power of the book to delight, to comfort, to be a companion.

I enjoyed the characters, those who worked with the owner, those who visited, Bumbag Dave, Nicky, who wore very strange apparel and liked to ferret in supermarket bins for out-of-date food wonders, Captain the cat, Eliot, who stayed to plan the Wigtown Book Festival, and Sandy, who carved walking sticks. I also valued the George Orwell (bookseller and author) quotations each month, adding a depth to the inner world of the profession.

There were several of us in my book group who really appreciated learning about the strange life of the bookseller, entering people’s worlds at tender moments when they are clearing homes after the loss of someone precious and purchasing (or not) their unusual and beloved collections.

Shaun Blythell has gone on to write several more books since this one but Diary of a Bookseller chronicles how it all began. Long may it continue.

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