June 2019

For over three months we’ve had these nine novels by J. Fenimore Cooper (American novelist, 1781 – 1851) in the  used book store that I co-manage for the local library here on the north shore of Long Island. Nobody ever looked at them because they are by J. Fenimore Cooper (who is neither an especially beloved nor notorious author). I thought we’d be stuck with them forever.

Then I went to Wigtown (Scotland’s national Book Town; see last week’s blog post) and I saw that one of the booksellers there had tied up a stack of red books (matching bindings) with a bit of twine and it looked very handsome. So, naturally, as soon as I got home I stacked our nine novels by J. Fenimore Cooper and tied them up with a purple ribbon (I didn’t have access to twine):

Within an hour, they had sold. $10.00.

I also stole other equally excellent merchandising ideas from Wigtown, and I will show them to you at a later date.

Because this week I have so much to tell you about our worst trip to Scotland that I want to dive right in.

As we packed for our Saturday departure, we checked the weather forecast for Scotland. It was going to be cold and rainy so at the last minute, I shoved a pair of black corduroy pants into the suitcase.

Turned out that I wore those damn corduroy pants every day that I was in Scotland. So, YAY for last minute inspirations.

An hour before our Uber was to pick us up to go to JFK Airport, I found the first Blue Jay feather of the year so I yelled to Top Cat: It’s an omen!! Everything is going to go right on this trip!!

And the universe laughed.

Well, we got to JFK two hours early and immediately checked in yada yada yada, and then we headed to the latest fab attraction in New York City. We had to hang out at the newly refurbished TWA Terminal!!

This rehab of a gorgeous mid-century modern building at JFK has been in the news so here’s the press release::

After years of back-and-forth about construction, permissions and rights, the long-awaited TWA Hotel opens its doors  at New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Trans World Airlines (better known as TWA) commissioned groundbreaking Finnish American architect Eero Saarinen to design its JFK terminal in 1962. Following the airline’s closure in 2001, many questions remained about what would happen to the swooping white building.
Now, it has a new and exciting second life as JFK’s only on-site airport hotel, with 512 rooms and some 50,000 feet of meeting and event space.

You get access to the TWA building by an elevator at the Jet Blue concourse in Terminal 4.

Heart. Be. Still. Everything about the place and the excellent re-hab evokes the glory days of air travel, and the mid-century optimism that the future was going to be awesome.

I remember this place from my last visit, in the early 1990s, and it was a bit run down back then but still beautiful. The re-hab makes the place sparkling and exciting.

The cocktail lounge inside the terminal is very cool. You know, of course, that the building is in the shape of a soaring bird of prey, and all the inside lines swoop and glide.

It’s a thrill.

And then you get to go outside to the Lockheed Constellation (in service from 1943 – 1958) . . .

. . . that has been converted into a bar that serves retro cocktails!

See the guy on the left,  (below)?

He reminds me of an observation that David Seders made about American air travelers. David lives in England these days, so when he does a book tour in the land of his birth, he is struck anew by the way Americans comport themselves when it comes to air travel:

“I should be used to the way Americans dress when traveling, yet it still manages to amaze me. It’s as if the person next to you had been washing shoe polish off a pig, then suddenly threw down his sponge saying, “Fuck this. I’m going to Los Angeles!”

The bar, and the TWA Hotel, had been open for 10 days when we stopped by, and were still having opening-day jitters. Meaning that the service was slow and uncertain; I mean the servers were uncertain and slow. It seemed to me that most of the servers had never worked in a bar before, or been to a bar before, and had not come to grips with the concept of taking an order, putting the requisite liquids in a glass, and lastly handing over said liquid refreshment to the person who had ordered it, and not some random person who might look thirsty. Despite all their rushing to and fro, the servers took a long time to get a drink (the one you ordered) and longer to find the person who had requested the drink, and nobody was picking up the used glasses and tid bit plates and napkins throughout the cabin.

Also, I thought the cocktail dress uniforms were ugly . . .

. . . but now I know that they are based upon a vintage flight attendant uniform from the 1970s:

I know an ex-TWA stewardess who flew with the airline in the late 60s and early 70s, and she still goes to reunions with other stews. Once a TWA stew, always a TWA stew.

There is such a vibrant community of former stewardesses that when the TWA Hotel put out a call for vintage uniforms, they got so many women eager to be part of the rebirth of TWA that the hotel had enough material to mount a museum of stewardess fashions and other memorabilia from the 1940s to the 1990s. (Curated by the New-York Historical Society. Serious and fancy!)

Stewardesses were never allowed to gain weight. If you got lax and put on a few pounds, you were grounded until you could fit back into the teeny little uniforms. When these adorable ladies came through the cabin, I sussed that the average stew back then was a size 2:

That’s Top Cat’s $16.00 martini (above). I had a $15 glass of white wine.

Here’s more info about the Balmain uniform seen above:

There is a lot of love for the TWA brand, and a lot of nostalgia for those Jet Set days when air travel was glamorous. If you have the chance to go for a drink or a walk around the TWA Hotel, GO.

I loved our hour in “the Connie”, which put me in a fine mood for jetting off to my favorite foreign land.

And then we boarded our Aer Lingus aircraft.

I am 5’6″ and a size 4, so I usually fit very comfortably  in tourist-class seats. This Aer Lingus tin can had thin, flimsy seats set so close together that I was playing nik nak paddy whack with my shins on the back of the guy in front of me. For 6 hours.

I usually like airline food (It’s so cute! A miniature TV dinner!) but the only non-meat option on the menu was “macaroni and cheese”, which the Irish interpret as a slab of semi-melted dairy product adjacent to a very large noodle.

Hungry and bruised, we landed in Edinburgh and, once again, foreign travel was magical.

If you have my book Gardens of Awe and Folly, you know what this is.

A Paul Weller sighting! Another good omen! My husband in my other life (the one where I lit out for the UK in the 1980s and married a rock star) will be doing a show at Edinburgh Castle on July 11 so I wished him luck:

After walking for hours on a cloudy and chilly afternoon and there is nothing better than warming up at a pub:

Then night came, and we had a heavenly sleep, and then to City Cafe for Eggs Royale (softly poached eggs with smoked salmon in hollandaise space o a toasted muffin) that Top Cat said was the single best breakfast he’s had in his life.

I lingered at a vintage costume Scottish jewelry stand in the Tron Square to buy a brooch. Then it was much too late to be lingering around Edinburgh so Top Cat and I hurried to the hotel to fetch our bags and we began to trot to Waverly Station to catch a bus back to the airport so we could fly to Orkney.

“Trot” is the word I use to denote the average speed between Top Cat, who was (deliberately, it seemed to me) casually strolling down South Bridge Street to Cockburn Street to Market Street, and I (in full panic mode), running ahead of him, my heart and lungs bursting with fear of one mistake in timing over the purchase of a vintage brooch leading to another leading to a missed flight.

I arrive at Waverly Station and oh, joy! The airport bus is there, idling. I turn to find Top Cat, but I can’t see him yet. I get on the bus and pant, to the driver, “My husband is coming!”

The driver says, “Step off the bus, miss. We’re leaving.”

I am almost in tears. “Wait! Please, wait!” And I lean out of the bus and I see Top Cat in the distance.

“Hurry!” I call to him. “HURRY!”

Top Cat, to prove a point, does not break stride.

“HURRY!” I shout. Top Cat does not like to be shouted at, least of all in public. He does will not hurry.

“Step off, miss” the driver says to me; “I’m closing the doors.”

“Oh, please, my husband’s coming!” I plead, but I have to step off. Top Cat is within striking distance, but the driver shuts the door in my face just as T.C. ambles alongside me (proving a point), and the bus pulls out.

The next airport bus is in 20 minutes. These are 20 minutes that we can’t spare. These are 20 minutes that we could have been closing in on the LoganAir desk at Edinburgh airport, 20 minutes that could mean the difference between getting to the airport with a merely uncomfortable allowance of time to get through a rigorous security, and a (now, thanks to Top Cat) impossible one.

For the next 20 minutes, I can not stand the sight of Top Cat. We get on the next bus, and my heart is still pounding and I feel as if my brain is on fire. Were I the kind of girl who cries when vexed, I would be sobbing. Top Cat and I exchange words, tersely at first and then with mounting vehemence.

I won’t give you the back and forth; suffice to say that for the next 12 hours or so, Top Cat and I will have very different, and monstrously strong, and at times loud, ideas about who was being the shithead in taking his sweet old time to prove a point about when it is, and when it isn’t necessary to HURRY, while the other one was trying her best AND WOULD HAVE SUCCEEDED in getting us out of a tight spot. We also have extremely opposed opinions about how much we are entitled to sulk like a two year old if one of us thinks the other one is “yelling” at him.

Edinburgh airport security is no joke. It’s not that there’s a thousand people herded into a space that would be quite jolly as a tea for two parlor; it’s that the officers are as suspicious of everyone as if this was Tel Aviv and all our hand luggage is branded TerroristsRUs.

I inch my way though all the hurdles, but Top Cat has brought two bottles of Duty Free vodka in his carry on (don’t ask) and Security is sure it’s nitroglycerin. He’s searched again, and again. And then again.

I am having a heart attack: it’s 5 minutes until LoganAir flight 19 to Kirkwall, Orkney closes its doors. I yell at Top Cat that I will meet him at the gate and I tear through an absurdly lengthy shopping area to get to Gate 25. I will lay my body down in front of the jet if it tries to leave without Top Cat.

Naturally, it’s the last gate in the terminal. The one furthest away from ANYWHERE.

Yes, we eventually get on the plane. But at this point, neither of us has any desire to go to fucking Orkney. Or to speak to each other. Or to be married.

Jet lag, too many glasses of hooch the night before, anxiety about the itinerary. . . there are a lot of contributing factors to why people are more touchy than usual when in foreign lands.

And that is all for this week’s installment of Fight Club Goes to Scotland. Thank you for letting me use this space to process my vacation. As I write about it, even now, I feel my blood pressure rocket. I will do some deep breathing and try to stop my heart from pounding in my eyeball sockets.

I am sorry that this post is late, because the internet hates me. I have to call my blog host about this “Bad Gateway” situation again. We’ll probably have to chat about caches, and ADSLs, and codecs and jjlodaasl;dfj. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to do it sober.

I’m sorry if the TWA Hotel was boring — next time, I’ll stick to the travelog and all the scintillating ways your spouse can drive you crazy.

Here’s Taffy:

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I’m used to getting weird phone calls from people who want to donate books to the little used book store that I co-manage for our local library here on the north shore of Long Island. But still, when the phone rang last Tuesday evening I was surprised, because it was the first time in about five days that I’d had to answer it .

And it’s a guy, explaining that he and his wife are empty-nesters and down-sizing, so they loaded up her car with all their unwanted books — lots of good adult and children’s fiction, hundreds of books, the car is stuffed full — and she’s been driving around to libraries in the area all day but all those libraries have refused to take their donation, and that’s how he got my number from the people at the library that I sell used books for.

So me, being the helpful and saintly person that I am, I tell the guy: I’m sorry, but fiction does not re-sell, so GOOD NEWS! You can throw it all away without guilt!

But the guy on the phone does not want to hear the GOOD NEWS because he is operating under a common delusion known as the Endowment Effect (it’s a real thing. you can look it up) so he’s thinking that because these are his old books that the mere fact of his ownership makes his old books unlike anybody else’s old books and much much more valuable than other people’s old books. Phone Guy is shocked at my advise to throw his books in the trash and he can explain why his old books are a cut above your average old books that have already been rejected by every library in the land.

Well, Phone Guy says; Two of my children went to Harvard, so they were reading really high quality fiction.

He says: Can’t I drop them off with you anyway, and your people can sort through them and throw out what you don’t want?

In other words: Can’t I make this filthy load of useless old books that everyone else has rejected your problem now?

And what’s with this “your people” shit?

Oh, no, I say; I can’t ask my volunteers to do that kind of dirty work and I can’t do it myself because, actually, I’m in Scotland right now.

I can literally hear the sneer in Phone Guy’s voice as he says, Well dear me, I wouldn’t want to bother you in Scotland, and he hangs up on me.

Yes, Dear Readers, it’s the truth. I went to Scotland for ten days in late May/early June and if you read the headline to this week’s blog post, you already got the gist of it. . . Top Cat and I agree that it was the worst experience that we’ve ever had in our favorite foreign country, and is quite possibly, in general, the worst nine out of ten days we’ve ever had in life.

You’ll have to read all about it next week because I’m here, today, to tell you about the one out of ten days that did not chomp down on our last nerve like a ravenous vulture feeding on a rotting raccoon carcass and then puke it back up all over our hopes and dreams of a nice get-away from the cares and worries of every day der Dumpster’s America.

That’s right, Dear Readers. Top Cat and I drove on Scotland’s narrowest, foggiest, scariest, slowest piddly back roads all the way to the southwestern uplands of Scotland, a part of “the Borders” called Galloway. The area became a popular destination for young lovers after the Marriage Act was passed in 1754 in England, which outlawed marriages without parental consent if either party was under 21, but you were good if you could make it to Scotland because the marriage laws there were much more lenient. Galloway is just over the northern border from England and a cruel, horrible 95 miles south of Glasgow.

I was in Galloway because I wanted to see (as the sign says), Scotland’s National Book Town.

This is Wigtown, Scotland’s Book Town (population 982), on a good day:

We were not there on a good day:

We stayed at a BnB and our room was over the Shoots and Leaves Vegetarian cafe:

To get the lay of the land, Top Cat and I climbed the tower of the County Building:

The body of water in the distance is a slice of The Irish Sea:

From our overlook I noticed something interesting in one of the back gardens:

Bunny! Please note the fur on this pet rabbit. It will become almost unbearably too cute at a later point in this story:

I had come to Wigtown, Scotland’s Book Town, because of a book. This book:

Shaun Bythell (it’s pronounced exactly the way it’s spelled) owns and operates the largest used book store in Scotland. I came across his book a few months ago in one of the donations that came in to the used book store that I co-manage for the local library here on the north shore of Long Island. IT IS FABULOUS. Shaun Bythell is cranky, funny, smart, and open-minded about the oddities and peculiarities of people. He observes and records friends, rude customers, incompetent employees, villains (Amazon), and famous writers with the same deadpan amusement. Even if you do not co-manage a used book store, you will adore this reading experience. I guarantee it.

This (above) is the American hard cover version of his book, published by Melville House in Brooklyn in September 2018. It was originally published by Profile Books in Great Britain in 2017, when it became a huge best seller in the UK.

Since I got my copy of the book for free, I felt honor-bound to buy a copy from Shaun’s bookshop and this is the UK  paperback cover:

Look carefully at both covers. They have something crucial in common.

Shaun has a book store cat.

Shaun’s cat is named Captain and his comings and goings are one of the recurring sub-plots in the book and I had to meet this cat.

I stopped in at Shaun’s book shop — it’s called The Bookshop — and I asked about Captain and was told that he’d just been let out for his morning ramble. What a disappointment.

Anyway, I looked around The Bookshop, bought my copy of Diary of a Bookseller, and wandered next door to the children’s book shop, called Curly Tale Books, in search of the vintage illustrated children’s books that I like to cut up and make into castles and miniature golf courses. I rummaged for half an hour.

And then this happened:

Me, in love.

Without a doubt, these were the happiest moments of my Scotland vacation. Captain is huge, by the way, and very cool. He moseys around town and likes to drop in on other booksellers, as you can see, and make himself at home:

Captain, having surveyed his realm and deduced that all was well in Wigtown, departed Curly Tale Books and headed back to Shaun’s place:

There’s a reason for the bench in this picture (above) being painted this way. Although you might not have any idea how to find Galloway on a map of Scotland, I think you might be familiar with one of its most famous namesakes:

The Belted Galloway is a traditional Scottish breed of beef cattle. It derives from the Galloway cattle of the Galloway region of south-western Scotland, and was established as a separate breed in 1921. It is adapted to living on the poor upland pastures and windswept moorlands of the region.

Belted Galloways are primarily raised for their quality marveled beef, although they are often kept for ornament.

Thanks, Wikipedia.

Now, take a quick back track to that bunny rabbit I spied hopping around the back garden. I’ll wait here while you take in that rabbit’s fur.  And now we’ll both go SQUWEEEEEEEE!!!! HOW CUTE IS THAT!!!!

Back to our story: So Captain walks a few feet and then pauses, taking in his options:

These two West Highlanders were soon banished from the streets of southwestern Scotland and here is Captain, doing his mind-meld with whoever is on the other side of the door, to let him in:

Spoiler: It was me.

Now I can give you a quick tour of Shuan’s book shop. It has over a mile of shelving, where 100,000 books hope to one day find their forever homes.

Yes, it was as dark as it looks in these pix. I asked the young girl at the wrap desk about this and she told me that Shuan was away for the weekend and he had left her in charge and she didn’t know where the light switch was. Once you read Shaun’s book, you’ll understand that this is pretty much how The Bookshop usually works.

The wee sign says, The Littlest Antique Shop in the World. It’s in an old fireplace.

This is one of the reading areas and it quotes Terry Pratchett on the mantel: Build a man a fire, and he’ll be warm for a day. Set a man on fire, and he’ll be warm for the rest of his life.

Doesn’t every book store have a stuffed badger? You can buy reprinted antique maps from the drawers of the bureau. I was in the shop for ten minutes when a neighborhood guy came in and showed the young girl in charge where the light switch was.

People from around the world like to send Shaun postcards with bookish messages:

I had brought my copy of Diary of a Bookseller from the north shore of Long Island in hopes of getting Shaun to autograph it but he was out of town and besides, it was only the second-most important thing on my Wigtown To Do List. I’d met Captain — I’d held Captain — and that love-fest would do fine as my Wigtown Fantasy Fulfilled.

I had a lengthy chat with the neighborhood guy who had bestowed light upon The Bookshop and I learned a lot about what Shuan has been up to since his book was published. He also assured me that Shaun’s “bark is worse than his bite.”

This is the UK hard cover of his book, in which the cat is too small and looks like a dog:

And this is my 11 0’clock at night photo of the same, Scotland’s largest used book store:

In late May and early June the sun sets in Scotland at 10:09 PM but it takes a looooooong time for the last rays of light to fade from the sky. And then, at 4:11 AM it comes blasting in through the window and you think Holy Shit, how do people sleep in these conditions??

It was Saturday night in Wigtown and we were at the pub watching Liverpool beat Top Cat’s Tottenham Hot Spurs for the Champions Cup. In case you don’t know, it’s soccer. And the game was played in Madrid. It was a huge deal over there.

Top Cat (in the green shirt) talking to his new Wigtown friend about driving down on the A82 from Inverness. Oh, the horror.

Half time:

Pink Gin Venom is a good name for a drink but I’ll stick with a glass of Pinot Grigio and bitter memories, please:

One last thing that you must know about about Wigtown is its world-famous Bed and Breakfast called The Open Book:

The Open Book is the brainchild of Shaun Bythell’s ex-girlfriend, an American from LA. Her name is Jessica Fox and she wrote a memoir about taking a vacation in Galloway and falling in love with a tall, red-haired owner of the largest used book store in Scotland. She published her book first, and encouraged Shaun to write his, so we have her to think for Diary of a Bookseller and for this genius BnB.

Jessica Fox’s book is called Three Things You Need to Know About Rockets and it is horrible. I bought it in Wigtown and I hated reading every page of it. Save yourself. Don’t buy it. I don’t have the energy to tell you why it is so very repugnant but when I get my second wind (I’ve only had two days back from the worst nine out of ten days of my life) I might do a full review for you — I noted all the most whiny, dumb, egotistical, self-flattering, and unlikable bits.

But I can’t take away the fact that her idea for The Open Book is wonderful.

The deal is, you rent out the BnB upstairs for a week and you get to operate the book store below, however you want. It’s been an enormous success, and the place is booked up until 2025. You can read a New York Times article about it here.

When I was in Wigtown, one week ago (May 31 and June 1), The Open Book was being “managed” by a nice 9th-grade school teacher from Oklahoma:

She brought paint chips from Muskogee (really):

This was from some Italian “managers” a few weeks ago:

And with that, we must close the shutters on The Open Book and start counting the hours until it’s five o’clock somewhere.

My darling Top Cat is the best husband a co-manager of a used book store could ever have. He took me all the way from the north shore of Long Island to Wigtown, in the remotest far nether regions of Scotland, all because I wanted to meet a cat and he still loves me and I haven’t even told you about dragging him to the opposite end of outer limits yet.

P.S. I was in Scotland when the Friends of the library met to discuss the Odious Wednesday Volunteer’s “issues”, however I got a full report and it was as petty as expected. You and me, Dear Readers, let’s meet here next week and I’ll fill you in on that, as well as why you should never go to Orkney and Wigtown on the same trip, and why you should definitely never go to Glasgow. I fucking hate Glasgow.

Have a great weekend, everyone. 75 years ago the world was united against evil. We will overthrow evil once again in 2020.

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