Being out in the countryside with my dogs gives me time to think. I’ve learnt the pleasure of solitude without being lonely, and that’s a good feeling for me.

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This is my countryside diary which appears each Saturday in the Dundee Courier newspaper.

Life’s an open book

June 11th, 2016

DSC03454A CHANGE is as good as a holiday, so the saying goes. This week’s article comes from Wigtown, Scotland’s National Book Town and home of the Wigtown Book Festival. It could hardly be more of a change for the Doyenne and me, and we are on a working holiday.

This time last year we visited Wigtown for a day and discovered The Open Book, a community bookshop run by the Book Festival which is offered to volunteers to manage for a week or a fortnight, staying in the flat above the shop, and running the shop as their own, how they wish. The concept appealed to me as a writer and my suggestion that it might be fun for us to do together was met, initially, with some scepticism.

It’s not a pop-up shop, but you might say the Doyenne and I are pop-up booksellers for the week. The dozen or so bookshops in the town deal almost exclusively in second-hand books. The range, depending on the shop, is from antiquarian and rare to the latest paperbacks.

They say the book is dead, but this week’s experience reassures me that that idea is nonsense. A wide spectrum of humanity has drifted into “our bookshop” looking for John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Milton’s Paradise Lost, books on mountaineering, trees, children’s books, poultry, science, birds and much more. It’s only on holiday that people have time to rummage around the dim corners of bookshops for the books they’ve hunted for for years.

More and more I reckon that the novelty of the Kindle is fading despite its convenience when travelling. For a start you must remember to take the charger with you as one husband discovered when his wife bought a dozen paperbacks and turned to him to pay for them

Renita is American, the minister’s wife and welcoming. It was she I met a year ago and who told me all about playing at bookshops. She greeted us this year with a hug that can only be described as cosy. Not everyone gives us a hug but everyone is most welcoming and keen to give us all the help to make our week a success. One lady brightened our day when she brought delicious home-made shortbread.

It’s difficult to escape your past, let alone your present. We’d opened the shop for the first time on Sunday morning and were taking in the enormity of what we had taken on and a voice said – “What are you doing here, Angus Whitson?”

It was retired Brechin architect Bob Fraser and his wife who were holidaying in the area. So, for the first time of many, we explained how we came to be in charge of a second-hand bookshop.

It has been an illuminating experience. Most people who look in are friendly and ready to talk. Some are looking for a particular book but in the short space of a week it’s only possible to pick up a brief knowledge of the stocklist and where to direct them. The other side of the coin is recognising those who want to be left alone to get on with doing their own thing. It’s made me wonder how I am perceived when I walk into a shop.

We would come back again but almost overnight The Open Book has become a victim of its own success. An American volunteer wrote up his experiences last month on BuzzFeed, the story went viral and the Book Festival was overrun with applications from all corners of the world. The Doyenne and I are the surprise exceptions coming from the north-east of Scotland and actually being Scottish volunteers.

Residences are filled until mid-2019 which gives an idea of how many closet bookshop owners are out there nursing a secret longing to jack it all in and escape to Scotland’s south-west and live the dream. A young couple from the Midlands were so infected that they had been looking at property locally and were starting to put together a business plan for when they move up here.

National book town
Wigtown gave its name to the shire, was the county town and a Royal Burgh serving the outlying farming community. The Mercat Cross and the square-turreted County Buildings have a French air about them and would not be out of place in a French village. You wouldn’t be surprised to see boules instead of bowls being played on the bowling green which occupies the middle of the wide town centre.

The town’s predominance as an administrative centre diminished with changes in local government, its prosperity declined, the population contracted and buildings fell empty.

Wigtown’s designation in 1997 as Scotland’s national booktown has been the catalyst for its regeneration, attracting new businesses and reinvigorating the old town. The annual Wigtown Book Festival started in 1998 and the town has won many awards, the most recent being the Creative Places Award in 2012 as Scotland’s most creative small town.

And it brought the Doyenne and me here for the most unusual holiday of our lives.

Written on Saturday, June 11th, 2016 at 7:39 pm for Weekly.