Loch Awe in spring - Photo courtesy of Neil Donald Photography






Saturday, 27 August 2016

Wigtown - Discovering what makes a great Book Town

On a recent visit to the sleepy coastal village of Port William, south-west Scotland, imagine my delight when I discovered that Wigtown, Scotland’s famous book town, was a mere ten minutes drive away. Twelve bookstores in one pretty rural location; I couldn’t wait to explore.


But what exactly makes a book town?

Well according to the all-knowing Wikipedia ‘A book town is a town or village with a large number of used book or antiquarian bookstores. These stores, as well as literary festivals, attract book-loving tourists’. Count me in!

Further Google searches revealed that Wigtown was in excellent company. Other globally recognised book towns include, where it all began - Hay-on-Wye, Wales; Hobart Book Village, New York; Fjaerland, Norway, with countries as disparate as Spain, Australia, Italy, Belgium, Malaysia and Canada all proudly encouraging the ‘Book Town’ philosophy.   

So why did Scotland choose Wigtown?

Well during my visit to The Old Bank Bookshop I had the pleasure of meeting the proprietors, Joyce and Ian Cochrane, along with their daughter Helena, where Joyce kindly explained that after the collapse of the local economy, when the town’s main employers, the whisky distillery and creamery, were forced to close, this remote rural town was struggling to survive. Fortunately, its regeneration was secured when Wigtown won a national search, beating off stiff competition, to create Scotland’s first book town. Booksellers, including Joyce and Ian, quickly snapped up empty premises, establishing over a dozen bookshops and highly successful literary festival.

Bookshops with personality...

Whilst I was browsing the five rooms of high quality antiquarian books on sale at
The Old Bank Bookshop, Joyce was keen to share that some 250 years ago, the building was used as a customs house, before it was bought, 100 years later by the City of Glasgow bank. However, records show the directors of the City of Glasgow bank were found guilty of indulging in some creative accounting and were sentenced to lengthy periods in jail – little changes! The original safe makes for an unusual feature in this truly unique bookstore.

Crossing the wide main street, my next stop was Curly Tale Books, specialising mainly in children’s and young adult literature, where I received a warm welcome from publisher and author, Jayne Baldwin. Here’s Jayne seated outside Curly Tale Books on what is affectionately known as ‘the Beltie bench’. Painted in black and white, the bench is a tribute to the iconic Belted Galloway cattle, which dot the surrounding countryside. To find out more about Jayne's writing, you can watch her recent television appearance on Border Life here.   

Next door we find the oldest bookstore in Wigtown, aptly named  The Bookshop. Claiming to be Scotland’s largest second hand bookstore, The Bookshop has no less than nine quirky rooms to investigate. This is the kind of heaven I used to dream of as a child; row upon row of books, leading ever deeper into the depths of the bookstore.


 After an hour or two browsing, I was ready for some coffee and cake, so made a welcome stop at the trendy, newly refurbished ReadingLasses Bookshop and café. Comfy sofas, Peggy Lee’s Fever playing in the background, over 8000 books on sale in the shop and another 10000 stored in the ‘Hut’ (an old WW2 telephone exchange), there was plenty to keep the most avid bookworm happy whilst enjoying their coffee. The thing that attracted me to the
ReadingLasses café though, was that their front room is dedicated to books ‘by and about women', proudly stocking directly from Persephone Books. A publishing house specialising in reprinting neglected fiction and non-fiction by mid-twentieth century women writers.

My only disappointment during my visit to Wigtown was that The Open Book, which offers an unusual holiday experience, welcoming guests from all over the world to stay and run a bookshop in the middle of Scotland’s book town, was closed on the day I visited… I supposed you've guessed, I’d love to try that some day!

Making new friends...

As well as the terrific selection of books Wigtown has to offer, it was the wonderful friendly welcome I received that made such fond holiday memories. Thankfully, Wigtown’s annual book festival, running from late September to early October, provides the perfect excuse to return.

Now, which other book towns might I explore... 



25 comments:

  1. I love book shopping in Wigtown. I'd love to know who thought up the idea of book towns. They deserve a medal!

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  2. Hopefully someone who reads this might be able to tell us, Jennifer. Hay-on-Wye, Wales led the charge and I believe it was a Glaswegian (whose name I can't find) who came up with the idea of a competition to find a Scottish book town. I agree, it's a great idea.

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  3. I remember Dalmellington was one of the other towns in competition to be Scotland's Book Town. There used to be far more bookshops in Wigtown than there are now.
    WagTongues pop-up bookshop and mini lit-festival will be at Wigtown during the Festival on Saturday October 1st from 12 noon to 5pm so if you are around, do pop into the Living Room tent and see us.
    Joyce and Ian's shop is my favourite and for amazing home made soups and baking it has to be Beltie Books and Cafe.

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    1. Mary you are correct.There were more bookshops before but the remoteness of the town and Amazon do not help. I closed my business Ming Books but hope to reopen in November

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    2. Oh, that's good news about Ming Books reopening. Good luck.

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    3. Thanks for reading and commenting and I'll be sure to pop into Ming Books the next time I visit. Good luck. : )

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  4. Interesting there used to be even more bookshops, Mary. I think Wigtown is doing fantastically well supporting the number that are there, especially given how hard it is for independent book shops to thrive, or even survive. Beltie Books and cafe wasn't open the day I visited but I'll keep that recommendation in mind for next time. : ) Also, I wish I could make the festival but it's not 'to be' this year. Good luck with the WagTongues pop-up bookshop, I remember reading your blog post about it. Such a creative venture. And next time I'm in the area we must meet up! : )

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    1. Sorry you won't make the festival but, yes, do get in touch next time you are down this way.
      WagTongues popped up in Gretna today, Wigtown on October 1st and probably one more pre-Christmas. If you look on the WagTongues website you can read interviews with soem of the people who read at Gretna.

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    2. Thanks, Mary. I'll have a look. : )

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  5. Lovely post, Rae. Wigtown is a truly great little place, I always feel better after a visit there. Definitely encourage others to try it.

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  6. Have you been to the festival, Gill? Books and wonderful cafés to try - no wonder it's a hit with visitors. : )

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    1. I have been to the book festival a couple of times - even did a joint (very small) event once with lovely Gwen Kirkwood. I won't be there this year but you've made me want to go again soon!

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  7. I'd never heard of this town before. Many thanks for introducing me to it, Rae. I hope ne day to be able to see it for myself.

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  8. Come back, come back!! As I pressed Publish, I saw too late that I'd written 'ne' not 'one'. It won't let me make an alteration so my 'more haste, less speed' illustration will have to stay. So be it! :-)

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  9. Oh thanks so much for taking the time to comment, Liz. I always spot something I'd like to change as soon as I press 'publish'! Wigtown had been on my bucket list a while and it definitely lived up to the 'book town' hype... and more. Such a unique place. Hope you get to discover it's delights for yourself some day. : )

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  10. I knew of Hay as a book town but hadn't heard about Wigtown, so thanks for the introduction. It sounds wonderful and I want to visit.

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  11. That's lovely to hear, Merryn and thanks for popping by. Wigtown lies in such a pretty area of Scotland, it's well worth a visit.

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  12. Hi Rae, I love that part of the world and used to visit more often to go to Historic Scotland sites and the Costume Museum (now closed, boo!) Been to the literary festival once and enjoyed it hugely. There's such variety and because it's on a small scale it's quite like a writers' conference, too. Oh, like you, can't go this year. anne stenhouse

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  13. Hello Anne, I'm ashamed to admit it was the first time I've visited Dumfries and Galloway but it won't be my last! You're right, there's so much to see and do. We did a lot of hiking and biking whilst there but visiting Wigtown was the highlight for me.

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  14. Thank you so much for introducing Wigtown to so many people. It's a wonderful place and people comment on how friendly it is. We have a Spring Weekend in May, which is a mini festival organised by the booksellers, and there's also an annual writers' gathering - a day of making connections, workshops and inspiration, so something else to look out for. Details are on the festival company website. So great to meet you Rae and look forward to seeing you again, perhaps to give a talk at Spring?

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  15. Hello Jayne and thank you so much for taking the time to comment. I'd no idea there were other events to look out for in Wigtown, other than the main book festival, but both the Spring Weekend and the writers' gathering sound interesting. Perhaps just the place for a Novel Points of View writers get-together! Wishing you every success during the coming Book Festival and hope we meet again soon. : )

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  16. Oh, I've been there when we lived in Scotland! Such a fun place :-) Brings back great memories. Cheers - Ellen | thecynicalsailor.blogspot.com

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    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, Ellen. Nice when a post acts as a reminder of happy times. : )

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  17. We stayed in POrt William a couple of Septembers ago and our stay (luckily) happened to coincide with the Wigtown Festival. It was so lovely to be in a town dedicated to books, and we visited a couple of the bookshops but didn't have time to do more than that. A return visit is needed. A writer friend mentioned to me this weekend about a book shop (she thought it was in Scotland) which you could 'run' for a week and display your own books in the window as part of a deal. Anyone know anything about this? A very attractive blog page, BTW.

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    1. Gosh that was a happy coincidence, Lizzie, staying in the area during the Wigtown Festival. I think your friend might be thinking of The Open Book in Wigtown. Perhaps something to investigate? I believe 'Scotch On The Rocks' and 'Tall, Dark & Kilted' would look rather nice in the window! Thanks again for commenting and sharing, and I hope you make it back to Wigtown soon. x

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