We were in Wigtown for a family holiday just after it was proclaimed Scotland’s National Book Town in 1998. Thinking ‘we could do that’, we were lucky enough to find two semi derelict barns and some waste ground just off the main street that we could buy. We spent the next two years rebuilding, coming down from Glasgow at week-ends, while we gathered stock. We opened officially in 2001, just in time for the foot-and-mouth epidemic to cut off the town. But we persevered, and we are still here, still trading, and with my grandchildren looking forward to the time when they run the shop, hopefully we will continue to do so.
The wide main streets of Wigtown and the handsome buildings indicate the proud past of the town, but it was at a very low ebb when the Book Town project started. The creamery, the main employer for the area, had closed and many businesses were closed down and boarded up. Though the larger bookshops and cafes do employ staff, the main employment has been for the building firms doing up derelict buildings. The town looks smart now and more confident, and the ten-day Festival brings the eyes of the world here. Raymond Armstrong revived the Bladnoch Distillery and was very supportive of the Book Town. He is much missed. The brick warehouses of the disused creamery down by the river in Bladnoch house artists and craft-workers. Though the Agricultural Show was lost to the centre of town in 1992 a community land buy-out scheme would like to bring the disused Showfield into community use again, and a similar initiative is bidding for the recently closed Bank of Scotland building. The Community Shop has been very successful, supporting a myriad of local enterprises, and the volunteers of Wigtown in Bloom keep the town beautiful and have created a gem of a garden in the heart of the town.
Though Wigtown now has antique shops, gift shops and galleries, the bookshops are the main thing. In the the first flush of enthusiasm books were sold alongside pet-food, linoleum and fishing tackle. Now, there may be fewer bookshops but they are curated with more confidence. In some cases, though the original bookseller has moved on, the bookshop itself triumphantly continues, as with ReadingLasses, the Old Bank, The Bookshop and Box of Frogs/Curly Tail (though the name has changed this is still a children’s bookshop). Others continue in the same hands, as with the Book End Studio, Byre Books and Sign of the Dragon. Some bookshops have gone entirely, as with Alternatives, the Cauldron, Creaking Shelves, M E McCarty, Ming and Transformer, as booksellers retire, move away, or die. Some are transformed, as the Music Shop became Beltie Books and Cafe, or the Book Corner turned into the Open Book (the holiday bookshop, where you can play at bookselling for a week or so). Some are still here but no longer open to the public, as with 451F, Webbooks and G C Books. And sometimes a new shop will open, as with Book Rests or Faodail. Best of all, there is still room for more, still empty buildings that can be made into the shop of your dreams.
The longest-established booksellers were A P & R Baker, though they sold their fine archaeology books only by catalogue and never had a shop. Rosemary Baker gave her time and energy to the Book Town bid and we were fortunate enough to be able to record some of her memories of this, not long before her death early this year.
Bookselling makes for a good life. There is always something new to learn. You will not make much money, but you can live well and do no harm.