If any place in the world deserved the label of 'Book Town', then it is Wigtown – a small community of no more than 1,000 people in southwest Scotland. It is home to an incredible 19 bookstores and another five booksellers, and each year it celebrates its literary prowess with a festival attracting thousands.
The seventh annual Scottish Book Town Literary Festival takes place from September 23 until October 2. It is billed as a celebration of the written word through books, art, film and theatre.
Wigtown became a 'Book Town' following a search across Scotland for a suitable town in need of regeneration and willing to model itself on Hay-on-Wye – the small Welsh town that dedicated itself to books in order to breathe life into its failing economy.
In the mid-1990s, Wigtown's agricultural-based economy had declined, young people were leaving the town in droves and, in the words of one current bookseller, "Wigtown was derelict."
John Robertson manages the Book Town Company which promotes Wigtown to the world. "The theory was that the success of Hay-on-Wye could be replicated," he said. "It has been a massive gamble for every bookseller that decided to come here. Some booksellers originally came as a lifestyle choice. Now we are getting younger booksellers. Every single bookseller is different – that's what makes the place so interesting."
Robertson estimates that the town – 90 miles from the nearest major highway – attracts over 50,000 visitors each year. Not bad for a town of 970 people.
Shaun Bythell, owner of The Bookshop, which is Scotland's largest used bookstore, grew up in Wigtown before leaving to find work elsewhere. He eventually returned and took over the town's sole pre-book town bookstore.
"Wigtown has become a stunning place to work in and visit," he said. "It's much more than just books – it's become a huge rural regeneration project. The town cannot be recognized from 10 years ago and now young families are coming to live here. The 20th century did no favours for Wigtown but all that has changed."
Michael McCreath, chairman of Wigtown's festival committee, explained the festival was a key way of attracting visitors. "Publicity is essential to the survival of the book town," he said. "The festival is now attracting big name authors and that will bring in journalists as well as the general public. It is vital that we keep our profile as high as possible. Publishers now trust us and are prepared to send their authors because they know that we are going to attract the crowds."
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