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:
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.
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.
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.
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.