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 Book Shops > Harry Bell's Wigtown Trip

Harry Bell's Wigtown Trip

Dear Mike

Bill Burns passed on your message about using my Wigtown report. I have to say that, as one new to the Web, I was kinda thrown by the speed with which my little piece went round the world and up Ming's back.

However, I stand by what I wrote (having one's tongue in one's cheek does not prevent one standing) and have no objections to your using it. Nor do I see any reason not to have my name appended to it. Ming does not know where I live. (Does he?)

There have been further developments on this subject, but I leave it to Bill to decide whether my friend John's somewhat intemperate response and my own addendum should be passed on.

Harry Bell 03.10.03

Harry Bell's account of a trip he and two friends (John & Kevin) made to Wigtown recently:

Perhaps the most interesting day was Tuesday, when John drove us to Wigtown, "Scotland's National Book Town." Self-advertised as Scotland's answer to Hay-on-Wye, it boasts 29 bookshops.

This sounds like a place to go, does it not? The plan was to go for the day and the rule was that none of us could came away without buying a book. Unfortunately, this proved more difficult than we could have imagined. The drive over to Wigtown (it's on the road to Stranraer) was delightful, and by the time we got there, we were fully into that horrendous state of fake Scottish accents derived almost entirely from Janet in Dr FINLAY'S CASEBOOK. "Oh, aye, will ye no hae a wee dram?" "No, but I could do wi' a wee pee." That sort of thing.

Of course, once you get into an actual Scottish bookshop, you have to get it under control. And that proved to be pretty damn easy when the proprietor of Cauldron Books turned out to be a German dealing mainly in organic foods, honey, flour and baskets.

Bits of Wood was a shop which we thought about going into to see if they had any good pine or mahogany first editions (they ARE listed as a bookshop in the town's leaflet), but the window full of jewellery and kids' games kind of put us off. Same with Box of Frogs - games, jigsaws and like so.

Fahrenheit 451 was the sci-fi bookshop. It had a really mind-warping set of shelves which had been designed to play with perspective. All the shelves had volumes of poetry on them. The skiffy was tucked away in a back room.

Menovaur Books had a sign up saying they were closed because they were away at a book festival elsewhere. The damp and musty cellar of the Bayview Bistro and Book Vaults held a pathetic collection of unexceptional books, but through the window of the office we could see a room crammed with other, no doubt far more desirable books. The sign on the door to that room said NO ENTRY.

Ming Books was probably the highlight. Ming Books is located on the edge of town, in a collapsing pile of neoclassic stone, set in an overgrown, weed-infested garden with drooping statuary. It looked deserted, but the sign said OPEN, and sure, enough, once inside the door, we were met by a piercing cry from the back of the house "Ming!" A tall, shaggy-haired figure shuffled out to greet us; "Just browsing?" he said, obviously finding it difficult to let us know that this was a local shop for local people.

Apart from a few Folio Books editions in the hallway, there was only one room which contained several shelves of thrillers and detective stories, and to get to them we had to step gingerly over a huge black dog who seemed to find the prospect of a change from his greatly gnawed bone quite enticing. We didn't stay long with Ming. Any thoughts John may have had about shouting "Turn on the oscillators!" had vanished as quickly as my own need to know how merciless he might be in his pricing.

To be fair, we had an excellent lunch of chocolate cake and tea at the feminist Cafe Bookshop (which wasn't on the leaflet at all), where none of us found any books of interest, but didn't feel the need to hang onto our balls (well, no more than usual) and John deliberately or otherwise left the toilet seat up.

I think the odd thing about the whole collection of bookshops was that, with a couple of exceptions, between them they probably had enough books to fill one good shop. In several cases, John, Kevin or I had more books at home than the shop we were in. And I do not exaggerate.

The exceptions: the Old Bank Bookshop was in the right place - they had a huge selection of very valuable first editions, all wrapped in plastic bags and all at least #45 or more. I had noted that there was a shop with the somewhat unoriginal name "The Bookshop". It turned out to be, indeed, the bookshop. The only proper bookshop in our terms. Several floors of books, rambling from one room to another, a degree of order, but not too much, lending the air of hidden goodies.

I came away with hardback copies of Chris Priest's "A Dream of Wessex", Alasdair Gray's "Something Leather", Mick Jackson's "The Underground Man", and Russell Hoban's "Mr Rinyo-Clacton's Offer." Two of those were simply to replace paperback copies.

Not what I regard as a great book-hunting trip. We'd almost certainly have been better employed scouring the book hell-holes of York or Edinburgh. But you live and learn, and we DID get to exercise our rotten Scottish accents.

Dear Bill

When you asked me for permission to pass on my Wigtown posting I had no idea what a B/o/x/o/f/F/r/o/g/s can of worms I was opening, or that Ming might track me down! Only now do I begin to release the power of the Web. Anyway, I in turn passed on the various booksellers' comments and got this back from John Barfoot:

"Ming may be merciless but he clearly hasn't been on a Customer Satisfaction course. All three of us are book lovers, well used to all kinds of bookshops and I would have said that our reactions to particular bookshops (booktowns even) would be valuable to any bookshop owner (though not to anyone who doesn't like the word 'bookshop' appearing any more than twice in any given sentence [or three times, if you count this parenthesis]}.

Ming Books was a private house, giving very little sign that it was inhabited, never mind trading as a bookshop - and an explanation (ie we are only allowed to use one room to sell books, there are many more upstairs, if you have particular wants let me know) would have been useful.

The lie to Ming's whingeing about our failures as customers is given by the fact that Byre Books and The Bookshop were proper bookshops. So was Reading Lasses (although they didn't think to actually display the name of their shop anywhere except in the leaflet). That basement place and the other quite posh place were also proper shops, though of the PBFA book-fairy type.

What Ming needs is not a Mission to Conquer Earth, but a Mission f**king Statement, something on the lines of 'I will strive to sell books to people the same way every other f***er does!'. The End.

Signed: A Consumer."

You can send this on, I dare say, but perhaps with some judicious editing. For my own part, I was kind of taken aback by this hostile response. I thought I'd written the piece in quite a light-hearted manner and to be sure there was some exaggeration. For example, Ming's dog was quite a nice old thing who wanted only to be friendly and have his belly scratched. Unlike Ming who, whether he wanted his belly scratched or not, spent the whole time we were there tapping away at his PC. I mean, how many visitors did he get that day?

We were in Wigtown for most of the day and saw maybe only a dozen other punters floating about the place (a number of them no doubt looking for a loo since the only public toilets were closed "for painting.") At least the girl in Book Corner engaged us in a conversation about the problems she was having with the credit card machine and continued talking quite animatedly after we'd all gone upstairs and there was no-one left to listen. What really gets me is the somewhat arrogant assumption that "browsing" is somehow a euphemism for not wanting to ask for the books we really wanted to see.

All three of us have been collecting books for something like 40 years. Two of us have been part-time book dealers. What brought us together initially was a love of science fiction, but at any one time now we'd be looking for books on art, literary biographies, history, modern fiction, 19th century novels and their authors, English poets, Welsh poets, horror, thrillers, detective fiction, magic realism, pulp fiction, historical fiction, aspects of British culture between the Wars, music, and science fiction. Etc.

If this kind of search can be fulfilled by anything other than browsing, I'd be very interested to know a shortcut. The simple fact is that we love books and good bookshops and Wigtown, for all its posturing, is woefully short of both.


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