By Megan Alvarez
From January 3rd to January 16th, Fred Powell of Frostburg’s Main Street Books, accompanied by his wife, Kathy, immersed himself into the village life of Wigtown, Scotland. While there, the pair assumed temporary proprietorship of a quaint little bookstore named The Open Book, which is owned by The Wigtown Book Festival.
According to Powell, “The southwest section of Scotland is very rural and underdeveloped,” so The Wigtown Book Festival, which takes place in late September/early October, began as a way to increase tourism in the area. However, even though the festival has been an annual event since 1999, the opportunity to manage The Open Book only began about four years ago when the festival purchased the store. Powell says, “It is now so popular that it is booked until sometime in 2020. I knew about it about a year in advance.”
When asked how he learned of the opportunity, Powell explains, “I read about it in an online newsletter I get every day for bookstores…and I thought, ‘well, that would be fun,’ so that night I went home and asked my wife and she was like, ‘well, sure. Why not? Let’s look into it,’ and then it morphed into actually going.”
Powell elaborated on the opportunity by saying, “People from all over the world go for about a week or two and stay in this little town and you manage the bookstore for them. It’s a little, tiny bookstore. It is only about 400 square feet and it has about 6,000 titles in it—all used. They provide the money, they provide the books, and you provide the hours and the labor, and in exchange for that you get to live upstairs.”
Even though most people only manage the store for one week, Powell and his wife stayed for two: “we thought if we are going that far we might as well stay for two weeks because two weeks is the longest.” He even commented on his enjoyment of living above the store because it provided a great view of the two-block-long town. Powell describes, “You could be sitting at the desk and watch the whole village come to life and be active all day.”
However, when it came to running The Open Book, Powell faced a slight learning curve. He says the hardest part about it was just not knowing what the store had to offer in comparison to Main Street Books.
“I created [Main Street Books] and have been ordering the books for 27 years. I know every book in this store. The first day I walked into [The Open Book] I knew nothing. I didn’t know what any of the books were, and also a lot of British books, so I don’t know that,” he added.
Although, Powell did note that mystery novels were the biggest seller during his time at The Open Book. He speculates, “The days are short and people are spending time at home. There is no night life there, none, nothing, so people spend a lot of time at home, especially in the winter, and so that was our biggest sellers, the mysteries.”
Fortunately for Powell, he and his wife found other ways to spend their nightlife other than being cozied up with a mystery novel. Over the course of their trip, the Powell’s were invited to five different people’s houses for dinner. He even added, “Two people took us on field trips—one to a waterfall, one to a mountain range. They were just, ‘we can’t really give you directions, so we’ll just take you there,’ so just incredibly hospitable.”
When talking about his reasoning for taking the trip to begin with, Powell says, “Honestly, the bookstore got me there, but it was all the other things that came with the bookstore. I mean, I didn’t expect this incredible social life.”
Not only did Powell enjoy his time in Wigtown, but the trip itself gave him a fresh perspective along the way. Powell explained, “I think it is really important to get away from your store for a while. It is amazing to come back and see how really neat Frostburg is. It shocks your system a little bit to come back. They are so much more world wise than we are.”
Coming back to Frostburg after a trip like Powell’s may be hard for some, but Powell emphasized, “One of the biggest things I learned is this is not a small town. We may think it is a small town, but this is ten times—more than ten times—the size of where I was. It has about 900 people and Frostburg has 9,000 residents plus 5,000 students. The closest city of that size was over an hour away. This is an area of villages, so village life is really important and people are really supportive of [their small town].”
If you want to learn more about Powell’s trip, you can read about it in The Open Book’s blog, which he wrote for during his stay.