‘Shortly before closing time on Christmas Eve there is, without fail, a surge of panicked farmers desperate to buy something for their wives, who inevitably show up on the 27th to return whatever their husbands have seen fit to buy for them.’
The Diary of a Bookseller
By Shaun Bythell
Published by Profile Books
Christmas in The Bookshop
For most retailers, the run-up to Christmas is the best of times. For my business, it is the worst of times. Apart from the insufferable cold that inevitably accompanies this time of year, daily footfall – like the temperature – drops to single figures in December. This is, in part, due to the fact that the economy of Galloway is heavily dependent on tourism, and this month is not a time when people choose to visit. And even if they did, I very much doubt whether many of them would be buying second-hand books as Christmas presents for their loved ones. Quite why this is the case bewilders me, but I suppose people generally like shiny new things as gifts rather than old books.
My efforts to decorate the shop for the season are frequently the subject of conversation among the other traders in Wigtown, and not for positive reasons. While everyone else puts their decorations up at the end of November, I wait until exactly one week before Christmas Day. I walk down to the disused railway line with a sack and a pair of secateurs, like some sort of demonic Santa, and cut enough ivy to fill the sack. The freshly cut ivy is then placed, with no nod to any sort of aesthetic, in the front windows of the shop, on top of which are (literally) thrown a set of fairy lights. I think it looks nice, but popular opinion is most assuredly not with me on this, and I’m daily berated for my lack of effort by other businesses and strangers alike. One year, I cleared everything out of the shop windows and put a solitary humbug in each one. I can’t say that praise was heaped upon me for my imagination.
The rest of Wigtown, though, makes a good effort to embrace the bling of the festive season – we have an enormous Christmas tree in the square, and the shops are festooned with flashing lights and all the usual garish horrors that try to bring light to the darkest month. The festivities include Christmas carols by the tree, accompanied by the Creetown Silver Band, and a Christmas Fair in the town hall. This requires someone to dress up as Santa and give presents to the children who turn up. Several years ago, nobody volunteered to play the role, so Jessica – my partner at the time – offered to be Santa, and on that day Wigtown had its first female, Jewish Santa Claus.
Shortly before closing time on Christmas Eve there is, without fail, a surge of panicked farmers desperate to buy something for their wives, who inevitably show up on the 27th to return whatever their husbands have seen fit to buy for them. More often than not, these reflect the taste of the purchaser rather than the recipient, and farmers love nothing more than Westerns. My sales of Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey spike on Christmas Eve, and three days later the shelves are replenished by disappointed spouses.
Last year’s best-selling book in the shop during the festive period was Eilidh MacPherson’s 300 Farmers of Scotland, one of the few new books I stock. I bought a dozen copies, I think, and to my astonishment they sold almost straight away, predominantly (I suspect) to people who she’d included in the book.
The week between Christmas and New Year is – in marked contrast to the week before – extremely busy. Despite the unspoilt landscape and lazy pace of life, Galloway has little in the way of employment opportunities, and many of the industrious young tend to leave the area for more metropolitan lifestyles. They do, however, have to return occasionally to visit their families, and Christmas is the one time when they have little choice but to come home. Starved of daylight and desperate to escape from those most closely tied to them by consanguinity, these exiles flock to the shop to hide for a few hours, and dodge the inevitable leftover turkey and sherry-sipping great-aunts. During this week the shop is populated by bushy beards and skinny jeans as the youths who have been financially forced to leave the area are forced by family to return. It is also a time when many of my childhood friends return, and social life picks up considerably, although I’m usually working alone in the shop, so miss out on most things, but no matter – at least the shop is busy, and there’s a sense of bonhomie about town.
Once New Year has passed there is a mass exodus from Galloway as people return to work. With this comes a crippling drop in takings in the shop, but after 17 years I have finally become accustomed to it, and budget accordingly. Between New Year and Easter, barely a soul darkens the doorstep of the shop and I become (as Dickens describes Scrooge) a ‘squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner’ until the spring sun finally warms up the soil enough for flowers and people to come out once again.
The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell is published by Profile Books, priced £8.99
Another Christmas recommendation: The Bookshop Detective by Jan Ellis, published by Waverley Books, priced £7.99