Last week I went to Wigtown, Scotland’s self-styled ‘Town of Books’. It’s only a wee place, but it is in a very pretty part of the world, and its inhabitants obviously have some imagination. Standing in the pouring Galloway rain and reading the information board in the town square, it appears that it was once the affluent centre of a long-extinct administrative district, and after taking the standard knocks of provincial Britain, it finally got to the stage round the late 90s where the main employers were pulling out, and Wigtown was about to be left high and dry. How it became ‘Scotland’s Town of Books’ is unclear, but reading between the lines a bunch of the townsfolk probably just decided in the pub one night that it might be fun. Turns out it wasn’t a bad idea.
The cluster of new and secondhand bookshops around the compact town centre is not the sort of place one goes to find a particular book. Displeasing monopolies aside, Waterstones and Amazon have that sort of thing pretty well covered. I spent the better part of an afternoon failing to find a volume of one of the greatest works in 20th-century literature, but hopped back into the car with a completely different book in my jacket pocket, and a notion that this course of events had been inevitable from the start.
It is however a town that makes a rather cheering study of character and eccentricity, and there is a kind of very personal order to each distinct brand of chaos. Rooms stretch back through converted cottages, with little signs on the wall pointing up the staircase for ‘Archaeology, Naval History and Local Interest’. In one shop Stevenson is conspicuously absent in ‘Fiction’ because he belongs in ‘Scottish Authors’; in another, 19th and 20th-century fiction are lumped as one, whether it be Dickens or Dan Brown, (older classics have a separate section…); occasionally you will come across a room that looks suspiciously like it has been ordered simply by size of book. As I ducked out of the rain from shop to shop, I came across one place with a big rack of the old orange Penguins, a section halfway up a back-room wall devoted to Churchill, and bags of mushrooms for sale on the counter. Another fellow had decided he was going to shoehorn his fiction into ‘chick lit’, ‘bloke lit’ and ‘classics’ – a classification system that was not entirely functional, but inspired all the same. If you couldn’t find something in hardback, chances were it might be on a paperback shelf elsewhere.
Another thing that you lose in more contemporary bookshops is the intriguing range of dated non-fiction. Knowledge, opinions, interests, situations and leisure pursuits change, and with them slip into obscurity generations of books written by old buffers who have devoted themselves to researching the lives and ripping times of obscure Scottish outlaws, the perfection of coarse fishing in a particular geographical region or the spotting of aircraft you would be unlikely to see outside of Duxford and Sunday afternoon movies. There are obsolete road maps, and black and white guidebooks of countryside days out by train on lines that were demolished over forty years ago, their tracks now sunny cycle paths and their stations cottages with grassed-over platforms. I spotted a book that I recognised from one of our shelves back home, called ‘Better Than New’ – a publication with a bright orange cover that told one how do useful things like re-upholster chairs, stick a table back together with something more reliable than marmalade, or French-polish teacup stains out of the drawing-room windowsill. Somehow I just can’t see something like that selling nowadays, recession or not.
I bought a £2 copy of Anthony Powell’s What’s Become of Waring? from one of the tiniest and most chaotic shops, where chimes clattered above the red door as I entered and a cat came padding down the corridor to see what all the commotion was, carefully avoiding the drips from my jacket. I was not uncommonly interesting, and it bounded onto a coffee table and curled up on a stack of large hardbacks.