I Ran A Scottish Bookshop And You Can Too
There's a bookshop in Scotland that anyone can run, so I did.
I'm 20 miles into a 33-mile drive through the winding roads and stunning scenery of the Galloway Forest National Park when I begin to wonder why Scotland's National Book Town is so difficult to get to. As the sun cuts between firs and roads weave through lochs, I conjure an image of a hidden wonderland, like the town of Spectre in Tim Burton's Big Fish. A lost city of books, perhaps. Book Narnia.
Even its name has a fairytale quality: Wigtown.
Filled with rows of stone houses and brightly painted door and window frames, Wigtown is home to 10 bookshops and some 900 people. Along with being Scotland's National Book Town, it also hosts the Wigtown Book Festival each September. During the festival the town gets as many as 10,000 visitors, but today, as my rental car rolls down Main Street, all is relatively quiet. Less Big Fish, more Local Hero.
I pull up outside The Open Book, a small used bookshop with a spacious flat above. You can rent the flat on Airbnb. When you do, you get the keys to the shop, too.
It's the world's first Airbnb bookshop.
On arrival, I'm met by George Moore. Tall and be-tweeded, George is treasurer of the Wigtown Festival Company, the organisation that runs both the literary festival and the bookshop. "It's wonderful of you to come," he says. "Thank you for making the trip."
"Not easy to get to," I say. "But a spectacular drive through the forest." George looks at me like I'm quite, quite mad. "Why did you go that way? You must have been driving forever. That's what the bypass is for." He laughs.
George shows me around bookshop and flat, and explains, with a smile, the "highly complex" accounting system: a handwritten ledger and small cash float.
"Just jot down the type of book you sell so we can restock properly. That's it." He hands me the keys. "We say to guests the bookshop is theirs to run, and can be open and closed as they see fit. Though the more it’s open the better it is for the festival."
Before he goes, he tells me to be sure to check in with Shaun at The Bookshop if I get chance. "And there’s a nice pub round the corner there, Craft, but I think it’s closed today," he says. "Which is a shame." He bids me farewell. It's just me and the shop.
My first customer of the day arrives not two minutes later: a woman who buys a book on gardening. I mark "gardening" in the ledger and give her the correct change. Nailed it.
A few minutes after that, a young woman and her two small children arrive. I greet them with a friendly hello, which may come as a surprise to all who know me. But that's who I am in Wigtown. Bookseller me smiles at strangers. They shop in the children's section as I hover behind the counter, ready to fail miserably at assisting with any and all queries.
I sell four more books – 2 x children's fiction, 2 x children's nature – and decide I am excellent at this bookselling thing. Before I got here, I thought perhaps the Festival Company was getting the better end of the deal. Not just free labour, but labour that willingly pays to work. However, after 10 minutes behind the till the cost-benefit exchange is clear: It's not about the work, it's about the experience. One that is, so far, a lot of fun.
Romantic notions of bookselling might not hold up in a national chain or a busy city, but here, in a small Scottish town by the sea, surrounded by the smell of used books, they just might. Certainly beats a central London office on a Monday morning. Or any morning.
I realise I haven't put out the chalkboard sign yet. I ask Twitter what I should write on it.
Bookselling lesson #1: Never ask Twitter for help. With the help my pal Google, I find a compromise:
The rest of my morning passes quickly – 13 books sold – and I shut up shop for lunch. I decide to take George's advice and head over to The Bookshop to say hello.
Wigtown is relatively small and easy to navigate on foot, many of the bookshops being in close proximity. Giving directions might sound like Hank Scorpio in The Simpsons: "There’s The Bookshop, that’s on Main. The Old Bank, that’s on Main too. You’ve got Curly Tale Books, that’s on Main. Byre Books…" You get the idea.
Shaun Bythell has owned The Bookshop since 2001. He grew up in Wigtown and returned here after stints in England and Ireland. He's well-connected to The Open Book too. His parents, Rosemary and David, bought it after the previous shop closed, and it was his girlfriend, Jessica Fox, who came up with the idea to run it as a bookshop holiday.
I ask Shaun about the romantic expectations of bookselling versus the reality. He said he’s always fascinated to see how the two differ with guests visiting The Open Book. “I think people think it’ll be sitting in front of a fireplace reading Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," Shaun says. "But it’s mostly moving boxes.”
Shaun's dry humour and dour tone have built him something of a reputation as Wigtown's Bernard Black. He's well known for his somewhat adversarial approach to customer service. He also once shot a Kindle with a 12-bore shotgun. Fans of said sitcom character might enjoy reading the reviews of The Bookshop on TripAdvisor.
Suffice to say, we got along excellently.
I ask for some bookselling tips. Shaun's advice on customer service is to reflect the attitude of the customer back at them. "I have a friend who runs a tearoom about 45 minutes drive from here," he says. "I got a text from her one day telling me she had two customers who'd spent their whole time there complaining about the service in my shop.
"I knew who she meant straightaway. They were incredibly rude. People talk to you like you're not human." He’s interrupted by a man who walks in, looks us both up and down, and shouts, “POETRY?!” Shaun points to the back of the room. He's considering turning some of his adventures in bookselling into a book. He has a lot to work with.
As I leave he asks if I have plans for the evening. "Craft is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays," he says, "which is a shame." I agree. "But there's another pub a mile down the road if you fancy a drink?" We agree to meet up later, and I return to work.
As an Open Book bookseller, you’re as much of a tourist attraction as the shop, for the locals at least. They like to pop in to say hello and see who you are. It can make for an entertaining experience.
After lunch, an older man opens the door, takes one look at me, and says "you're not very exotic", before closing it again. He comes back a little later to buy a book. "Every time I come in here I expect to see somebody exotic," he says, radiating disappointment.
A middle-aged couple introduce themselves and tell me they like to come in and meet whoever is running the shop. They tell me about their favourite residents thus far: a musical duo called the Bookshop Band. "They laid out a table display of books they had written songs about. If you bought one of those books they sang you a song, with instruments, right here in the shop! They were wonderful."
They look at me expectantly. I suggest perhaps an interpretive dance. They humour me with a smile, and ask how long I'm here. "Until Wednesday morning," I say, and they give a solemn nod at this news. "You won't get to go to Craft, then," they say. "It's closed Monday and Tuesday, which is a shame." I agree, and they bid me a good visit.
A young woman comes into the shop and pokes around a while before asking: "Do you have any books on foraging?" I decline to point out the irony of her question, making me an excellent person. "Quite possibly," I say, though after several minutes it's clear I don't know what I'm doing and she leaves.
Being the sole shopkeeper, I have to pull the door shutters closed when I need the bathroom. After one such break I return to find the front door ajar and a wrap of fresh-baked shortbread snaps on the counter. I decide that this is just what happens in Wigtown.
A woman named Nanette calls in later to check I got them. Turns out Nanette is one of the festival volunteers. She famously celebrated her 80th birthday by doing a sponsored zip line and was recently honoured by the Queen with a BEM for her charity work. Her shortbread also deserves an award.
My last visitor of the day is Rosemary Bythell. She asks if I'm warm enough (I am), and if I've had many customers (a few), and then tells me to close at four. "Go on," she says. It's ten to four. I ask her if that's OK. "Go on. Everyone shuts at four." I weigh up my options, and decide to close at four.
I've taken £60 and sold some twenty books. Not bad for a first day on the job.
At the pub, Shaun asks how my day was. "It was mostly people disappointed I wasn't someone else," I say. Shaun nods. “That’s all you get in bookselling,” he says. “Complaints and disappointment.”
We are joined by Emanuella Maranci, an Italian the others refer to as "Granny" – "She's 26 going on 86," says Shaun when I ask why – and Lindsey McIntosh, a recent graduate from Glasgow who interned at the last festival. Both now live and work in Wigtown.
Lindsey asks how long I'm staying. "Just till Wednesday morning," I say. "You won't get to try Craft then," she says. I agree that this is a shame.
I ask Shaun more about The Open Book. He explains how Jessica, a writer/director from Los Angeles who came to Wigtown following a romantic vision of working in a bookshop by the sea in Scotland, came up with the idea of a "bookshop holiday".
She fell in love with town and Shaun, and, after a decade, realised she probably wasn't the only one harbouring a fantasy to live the dream of having their own Scottish bookshop.
In the pub, we're joined by Finn McCreath, vice chair of the Festival Trust. Finn first heard Jessica's plan over a pint: "A bookshop holiday, all the fun of having your own bookshop without the full-time responsibility." It was a big idea, but Finn was on board.
“We thought we better not charge people much because we were asking them to work for free," Finn says. "But we quickly found people would have happily paid much more.
"Jess suggested we put it on Airbnb, and it took off by itself. We were featured in The Guardian and the Daily Mail. We've never really had to do any publicity. I got a call the other week from a website in India who were doing a story about us.
"We've had guests from the US, Canada, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, Taiwan."
It makes perfect sense, of course. People love books. People love bookshops. People love Scotland. The opportunity to run a bookshop in Scotland, even for a week, sells itself.
We sit and drink until closing time. I'm introduced to Steve, "Captain Haddock to Shaun's Tintin," as Finn says, and the gang regale me with stories about sailing misadventures, bookselling, and festivals past. It's like drinking with old friends.
Day Two is a quieter affair, but no less interesting. There’s the visiting book merchant who bobs in to scour for tractor titles. "I come down every year," he says. "Is there still an upstairs?" After a few minutes, his thirst gets the better of him and he nips off for a pint.
He returns two hours later looking for books on Victorian Glasgow. We only have one on Victorian Edinburgh. This won't do. He leaves empty-handed, a bit parched. "Need to get another pint in before the wife picks me up." He says he'll see me next year. I don't argue.
Mid-morning, Finn delivers a mystery box of used books and asks me to price them. "There's no real guidelines for this," he says. "Just your best guess. Anything that looks terrible keep to one side." He wishes me luck and ducks out.
I open the box. Among the tat and tattered is a near full set of Penguin '60s Classics, along with two Where's Waldo books (not Wally), two books on Bigfoot, a full set of turn-of-the-20th-century Rudyard Kipling volumes, and a book on card games for one.
For each, I find an analogous book from the shelves to base my price off. I've no idea if I'm doing it right. But as long as I don't burn it down, or flood it, there's no consequence for getting it wrong. I'm the boss. This is my bookshop.
Visitors are encouraged to make the bookshop their own. Last week's guest created a section for romance novels. Another brought the half dozen inflatable globes that sit atop the bookshelves. Someone hung bunting. I should probably make my mark too.
Short on time and a bit feckless, I decide the least I can do – quite literally – is to redo the staff recommendations table. I stalk the shelves, choosing either books I've read or books by authors I've read. I lay them out. It's an eclectic mix.
In the middle of my task, a customer: "I'm looking for a present for my nephew," he says. "Do you have books on polar exploration? He's into that." I find a book on polar exploration. It's by Michael Palin. His face sours. "No, my nephew doesn't like Michael Palin," he says. I suspect the bias isn't his nephew's, but fair enough. "Fair enough," I say.
He forgets about all things polar and Palin when he spots the Westerns, a collection amounting to two short shelves of battered titles. "Name of a book I didn't write down!" he shouts as he plucks one from the shelf. He tells me a story about reading it as a kid. "Fallen out of fashion, Westerns," he says. I nod. "Most things are Westerns," I say. "Star Trek, Star Wars." He gives me the quizzicals and leaves without buying anything.
Mid-afternoon I’m visited by Renita Boyle, a writer and festival volunteer, and her dog, Bonnie Belle, a black lab. After a quick hello, and a hug, Renita wishes me well and leaves me to it. In London, nobody pops in to say hello. Nobody hugs me. I could get used to it.
From what I've seen in my two days here, it's a simple life. One full of friendly faces and strange queries and shortbread. One full of books. I've run a shop for two days, but I'm not stressed. The day ends with a short walk upstairs, not a hellish commute. It's bliss.
In Local Hero (1983), an American oilman travels to the west coast of Scotland to persuade villagers to sell their homes to make way for a new refinery. Instead, he falls in love with it. It's a magic at work in Wigtown too: a place and people so warm and welcoming you'll feel right at home. A magic that means you might not want to leave.
It's a town that attracts people from all walks of life, from all over the world. There's Jessica from Los Angeles, Emanuella from Genoa, and Lindsey from parts east. There's Ben Daures, the Frenchman who owns and operates Craft, and Renita, who hails from Wisconsin. An Australian just bought the old whisky distillery and plans to start producing barrels. All arrived here on different paths. All stayed.
Thanks to The Open Book, it's a town you can experience for yourself. For a week, at least. Before I came I had my reservations. Paying to work in a shop? How good could it be? After two days in Wigtown, I think it might just be Book Narnia after all.
For those who want to sample the Scottish bookshop life, The Open Book costs £28 per night, with a minimum seven-night stay. It is currently booked solid into 2018, so plan well in advance. The listing is here, and you can follow The Open Book on Twitter and Tumblr to get updates from visiting booksellers.
And if you don't want to wait that long to visit Wigtown (you shouldn't!), the literary festival runs from 23 September to 2 October this year. You can find more info here. If you visit The Bookshop, be sure to ask for the soup.
Craft is open Wednesday to Sunday, and serves what I'm told are incredible burgers and "proper beer". It was closed the two days I was there, which is a shame.
I suppose I'll just have to go back for another visit.