Shelf life – my dream weekend with a bookstore
I can’t walk past a bookstore without stopping. That can? Sometimes it’s just a glance out the window. Very often it is a complete search for the cavity.
I went to good bookstores and bad bookstores, new bookstores and used bookstores, bookstores where I could barely see anything, bookstores where I could definitely smell something. I still have the feeling that booksellers have the answer, even when I’m not sure what the question is.
These are the simplest stores: non-perishable goods stacked on shelves or tables. You could do it at home. You probably do. Maybe that’s what makes bookstores welcoming – they look like carefully literate versions of our own living rooms. They almost seem good enough to live there.
Despite all the threat of the internet, there are a few places where bookstores not only survive, but have become the basis of the city’s survival. From the 1960s, Hay-on-Wye in Wales established a reputation as the homeland of books, later becoming the site of an internationally renowned literary festival. Other cities around the world have created something similar: the International Organization of Book Cities now has 19 members, from Norway to New Zealand.
A few decades ago, the people of Wigtown in southwest Scotland – reflecting on the closure of the local creamery and distillery and the relocation of the council to Stranraer – wondered if they could follow suit. by Hay. Wigtown defeated at least four other contenders to become Scotland’s national book town.
Book Village could have been more appropriate. Wigtown has around 900 residents. Much of it consists of a single, branching main street, with a bowling green in the middle and a co-op, post office and pub along the edges.
It has an ATM and eight bookstores. The most established of these, The Bookshop, is widely recognized as Scotland’s largest second-hand bookstore, albeit with the competition. Its owner, Shaun Bythell, wrote the delicious Journal of a bookseller, recounting in a misanthropic way his relationships with customers and Amazon. In 2015, he drawn on a Kindle e-reader with a gun. The carcass is on display in the store, next to a sign that says, “No wholesale discounts.” “
The others each have their own niche: for example, Well-Read Books, the retirement plan of a crime lawyer named Ruth Anderson, Beltie Books specializing in “all things Scottish”, and ReadingLasses in books by and about women.
The open book is perhaps the most unique. A few years ago, a cultured young American who had enjoyed working in a second-hand bookstore in Wigtown had the idea that many other cultured young Americans would like to work in a second-hand bookstore in Wigtown.
The result was a second-hand bookstore, with a one-bedroom apartment above it. The Open Book has become an Airbnb experience, commendable by book lovers around the world. Holidays are defined by the absence, even theoretical, of work. It turns out that many people would instead choose a transition to a touching, unprofitable job that they could only tolerate in small doses.
The open book was reserved almost immediately for years in advance; Airbnb’s calendar system has cracked under the pressure. I found a niche because the pandemic ripped pages out of the newspaper and for much of the past year this little bookstore has been closed.
For a few days, I ran my own bookstore. Did I see myself as Hugh Grant in Notting hill, politely but firmly telling a shoplifter to remove the Cadogan guide to Bali from his pants? Yes I did it. Have I considered selling multiple copies of my own recently published book, How to love animals, to widespread local acclaim? Yes I did it. Deep down I knew I wasn’t stupid enough to try and run a bookstore.
It turned out that maybe I wasn’t smart enough to try to run a bookstore. My first mistake was buying a train ticket to Wigton, which is not – as I assumed – just the way National Rail spells Wigtown, but a town entirely separate from Cumbria, 50 miles to the east. . Shortly after opening the bookstore on the first day, I knocked over and smashed a glass frame, due to the hand sanitizer.
The apartment is not luxurious, but it is comfortable: a small kitchen, a somewhat austere bedroom and a spacious living-dining room whose wooden windows without curtains overlook the main street. A guestbook contains advice from former occupants, mainly praise for the local community. “Friday is karaoke night at the store. Do it. Do not think about it. “If Renita invites you to dinner, go.” “Lynette makes fantastic cookies.” Social distancing saved me from karaoke.
On the first day, I learned that Wigtown isn’t as distinguished as his Book Town status might suggest. A sandwich panel appeared in the doorway of my shop: “Did you know there’s another nice bookstore just around the corner? Below, an arrow pointed from my shop to well-read books. All is fair in love and War and peace.
The real wisdom of a bookseller is to determine what customers will buy. My first instincts were completely wrong. I placed a few copies of my own book, inviting customers to come and tell me about it. Nothing. I thought a customer was going to mention it, but instead he told me to buy whatever I found by a certain local Wiltshire historian. I do not intend to do so.
A second-hand bookstore offers serendipity. Her books are there because someone died or declutter or lost faith in the power of typed paper, and someone else bothered to save their belongings from the landfill, sort a box and expose them.
I looked at The Open Book stock. Which would sell? Has everyone who wanted to read Alan Clark’s diaries read them yet? What about the biography of Margaret Thatcher by Charles Moore? It was new and well commented. . . but Thatcher? In Scotland?
“Some used books are there for the long haul. Years, ”assured me Ian Cochrane, co-owner of the Old Bank bookstore in Wigtown. “There is someone for every book.
But were there two clients for the two copies of Michael Parkinson’s autobiography? Would a man really walk in a day, land on the vasectomy guide in our health section, and head over to the counter? Instead, for example, of Google searching for up-to-date medical information? When I came across a book called MySpace Music Marketing in the culture section, I started to worry.
I found a copy of Customer service for dummies, and propped it up next to the cash register. I sat behind a plexiglass screen and prepared myself not to sell anything at all. Finally, a customer bought Pride and Prejudice. Reader, I almost married her.
Safe to say, I misjudged the request. An out of print airplane book, which I thought was unsaleable, turned out to be the perfect gift for someone’s brother. No one bought the John McPhee or Martina Cole stocks, which I assumed were bankers. Defeated, I went upstairs and enjoyed the late evening light and the view of the deserted main street.
On the second day, I moved a table to the center of the store and iced it with books. Surprisingly, a few of them sold out. I put a few Penguin 60s next to the hand sanitizer and was delighted when someone paid £ 2 for a Jan Morris. The comics, which I brought to the front of the store, flew out of the box. A couple rolled their eyes for promoting Clive Cussler’s dozen of trashy thrillers, which they said were only good enough for growing mushrooms. But several other people bought three each.
Like Hay, Wigtown isn’t that easily accessible: Presumably book-only towns are based on uncompetitive house prices. Customers were mostly day trippers, straying about twenty miles on their way to a quiet town with cheap books and easy parking. A Birmingham man was baffled by the lack of parking meters. I could see what brought them Wigtown – a quiet street, with clean air and a lack of the usual commercialism. You left Amazon’s algorithms behind and entered a world of adorable junk.
I quickly realized my status as an author was not impressive in Wigtown. In San Francisco, everyone seems to be working on a start-up. And in Wigtown, everyone seems to be working on a novel. The town is also home to The Bookshop Band, a folk duo of Beth Porter and Ben Please, who write songs inspired by books. (The exception, “A shop with books inIs a delicious tribute to the booksellers themselves.)
There is also more to the area than books. There are beaches and caves in Whithorn, bird sanctuaries and the Galloway Forest Park. Cream o ‘Galloway is a nearby dairy farm with tours. When the sun rose, I closed the shop and strolled to the boat-free port of Wigtown and out to the sea, where – local history says – two religious dissidents were tied up in the swamps. and drowned by the rising tide.
The open book is currently rescheduling stays disrupted by the pandemic for 2024. By then, some guests will have waited six years. I guess a lot of the brown-page books that I failed to sell will still be there waiting for them.
I wish I had brought some of my used stock from home to thicken the mix. But I still sold more books than expected, around 30 a day. I also developed my idea of a bookseller. Too small, and it becomes unnecessary. Too big, and it looks too much like a normal bookstore – the overwhelming choices, the underwhelming discounts. Ruth Anderson of Well-Read Books said you can make a profit with a bookstore, as long as you don’t factor in the capital costs.
I could have sat in The Open Book longer, drawing in and out of books others had long forgotten. By the time I left I had, of course, received no interest in my own book. The organizers of Wigtown Book Festival kindly invited me to come back this month. Maybe I’ll sell some of my books then. Or maybe not.
Henri mance is the editor-in-chief of the FT’s feature films
Check out our latest stories first – follow @ftweekend on Twitter