Welcome to our new series of travel blogs, Mesdames Abroad, looking at different destinations with a writer’s eye. This month we feature Mme. Catherine Dunphy and her experience running a Scottish bookshop. A retired journalist (do journalists ever really retire?), Cathy is the author of Morgentaler, A Difficult Hero, which was nominated for a Governor General’s Award, two YA novels and numerous radio and television scripts. Her short stories appear in Thirteen and Thirteen o’Clock.
THE TOWN THAT BELIEVES IN BOOKS
I have just discovered the most perfect place on earth. I was there a week and it rained – hard – most days, but I didn’t care. I was in Wigtown, named Scotland’s National Book Town–an honour the townspeople fought hard for because they thought books would save them.
Isn’t this wonderful? Imagine a town that believes in books.
Let me backtrack a little: In the summer of 2015, I came across a squib on the CBC Arts website about how you can have an AirBnB holiday at The Open Book, a second-hand bookstore. You work in the store and live above it. Sold, I said. This is what I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid reading Enid Blyton under the bedcovers.
The fact that it was in southwest Scotland? Let me just say I can still sing most of the score of Brigadoon.
My husband was not as enthusiastic and this may be why it took two weeks of incessant nagging for him to book the sucker – and by that time the first available week was December 11-18, 2016. We were lucky to get in. These days The Open Book is booked three years in advance.
People come from all over the world to be booksellers in Wigtown. A log upstairs in the cheerful apartment overflows with their thrilled notations of great restaurants in town, great people in town, day trips, the superb shortbread delivered by Nanette, and, of course the customers.
We didn’t have too many of those, I’m afraid. The week before Christmas is the slowest time of the year for secondhand book sellers, I was told by the other bookstore owners.
But we weren’t lonely. Wigtowners were as curious about us as we were about them and they took to dropping in when we finally got around to opening up the place. That was usually around 1 p.m., right after placing our take-away orders at The Rendezvous across the street for their soup of the day and their wonderful burnt bacon rolls.
By our second day, their staff were dashing through the rain to deliver us our food. That’s the kind of town it was. One of the pubs had a blazing fire and a good wine list and a bartender who refused to take a tip. The bar also had Ming Books, Scotland’s only night- time bookstore. Meaning it wasn’t open in the day.
Wigtown won a contest to become Scotland’s National Book Town in 1997. They won it because they needed it – the creamery and the brewery had both closed up — and because it was a pretty medieval town undiscovered by tourists.
Plenty of booksellers flocked to Wigtown to set up shop. At its prime there were 22 book or book related establishments. Not so now. But those who stayed seem to be doing all right. The Book Store says it is Scotland’s largest used book seller and boasts of more than a mile of shelving. The ReadingLasses has one of the country’s finest selections of lesbian literature. Beltie Books stocks books about Scottish nationalism; The Old Bank Book Store specializes in sheet music.
They are all sustained by the Wigtown Book Festival which draws thousands of readers and not a few authors to Wigtown each September.
So where does The Open Book fit in? It’s run by the Wigtown Book Festival as a non-profit. That doesn’t mean it’s not a bona-fide bookstore. It’s cash only and there’s a lined school workbook where we recorded all sales. About 6,000 tomes are shoved onto shelves that line the nooks and crannies of this small space. There are some interesting reads by obscure explorers that my husband loved and a bio of Virginia Wade that tennis- loving me devoured. Our first customer bought three books for his grandchildren. He got them for a steal because I knew I couldn’t make change.
I confessed this when one of the Festival volunteers dropped by towards the end of our week. He just shrugged. “But you’ll have been having a fine time with all this here,” he said gesturing to the books on display, on the table, stacked on the floor, on the shelves.
“God, yes,” I said, looking around. I had been living with these books for a week. I was going to miss every one of them.