Issue 217
July/August 2021


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Jul 29, 2021

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Life in Scotland's locked down Book Town

Ian and Joyce Cochrane with daughter Helena outside The Old Bank Bookshop, Wigtown. Photo: Emily Nash.

MANY BUSINESSES, during the past 18 months, have suffered as a result of Covid and lockdown, but even before the virus appeared, it was tough for booksellers in Wigtown, Scotland's National Book Town.

Although it's situated in 'an idyllic corner of southwest Scotland', Wigtown in winter, can daunt all but the most resilient. In summer, sales of second hand and antiquarian books may be buoyant, but come winter with short days, cold nights and tourist venues and café s closed, it's hard for booksellers to make a decent living.

In 2004, six years after Wigtown became Scotland's National Book Town, Joyce and Ian Cochrane opened their bookshop in an old bank building standing close to the County Buildings in the town square.

They were both suited to such an enterprise in spite of having few books, no shelves and sleepless nights tending to their baby before their working day began at 4 am. Owning a bookshop was a pipedream for the gregarious, book-connoisseur Ian and from the time when Joyce graduated with a degree in modern languages, she worked with books in an Edinburgh resource centre in multi-cultural education and re-trained later as a librarian.

Eventually, she became disillusioned with the library system which forced its staff to reach targets. If a book wasn't summoned at least five times within a given period, it was removed from the shelves and sold and with book requests, they had to second guess how often a book might be summoned.

The prospect of lockdown last spring was frightening. The Cochranes were proud of having built up a traditional second-hand bookshop but had put off creating a catalogue (as an ex local authority librarian Joyce was aware of the amount of work it entailed) and selling online.

After closing in March 2020, they turned their back room into a warehouse and made-up book bundles, priced at £ 20, including postage & packing. It was time-consuming, second guessing customers' likes and dislikes and difficult to find four paperbacks within the price range and postage cost. But these bundles allowed the Cochranes to tread water financially until re-opening in mid-July.

To observe Covid rules, they installed bookshelves across the original office doorway and constructed a counter in another wall near the shop entrance, using spare materials in the building and an old stable door. The only object they bought was a sheet of Perspex.

With the onset of coronavirus, sellers of used books became wary of visiting houses to buy stock. However, the bulk of second-hand bookshop purchases stems from 'death or down-sizing', states the Cochranes' neighbour, Shaun Bythell, Wigtown bookseller and best-selling author.

"There are three things that are bad for books. Fire, flood and farmers!" says Ian. While out book-buying, he has come across piles of hard-covers crammed into chicken coops, barns and attics and on investigating a cellar, so low he was unable to stand up in it, he could see nothing until the farmer handed him a torch.

Lockdown offered Joyce the chance to step up her old interests in multi-culturalism and literature in translation. Last summer's Wigtown Book Festival was online and coincided with Black History Month, which highlighted aspects of history not generally acknowledged. This, along with the Black Lives Matter movement, encouraged her to display a collection of newly-published books on black history and authors like Lemn Sissay's memoir, 'My Name is Why', poems by Benjamin Zephaniah and reprints of Zora Neale Thurston, who wrote on racial struggles in the American South in the early 1900s.

Joyce has also introduced titles from small presses and since she was brought up on a farm near Newton Stewart, she has an interest in nature, the countryside and resilience. These books on nature, include Robert MacFarlane's 'Underland' and 'Landmarks', that concern landscape, nature, place, people and language.

Another table of new books in the Cochrane's five room shop is devoted to authors they have sponsored over the years, like Aline Templeton, 'czar of small town crime', as Val McDermid describes her. A resident of Edinburgh, Aline Templeton sets some of her fiction in Galloway.

Lockdown has increased people's interest in books and those who are already aficionados have bought more. Ian is surprised by the number of young customers buying new books on black history and fiction in translation. One customer remarked that Joyce's collection represented 'a one woman revolution'.

Working with books for 35 years, it's unsurprising she has an eye for what's interesting and will sell and has noticed that good reviews of titles she has already chosen often appear in the national press.

Although it is summer now, the Cochranes are mindful of Wigtown winters. When the windows rattle and the wind whistles around the old bank, shaking the roof slates, Joyce asks herself why she left the South of France, where she once lived. But, when all's said and done Wigtown, with its seasonal drawbacks, has given her the chance to realise an ambition. A life with books.

MARY GLADSTONE


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