If you’re a book lover, you’ve probably entertained the fantasy of packing it all up and moving somewhere quiet to open your own bookstore. In a remote Scottish seaside town, one Airbnb-bookstore has made that dream come true — you sell books by day and sleep in the apartment upstairs at night.
The Open Book started as a daydream. American writer Jessica Fox was working in California, as a storyteller for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, when she started fantasizing about working in a bookstore by the sea. The vision she had was crystal clear: “I knew what jumper I was wearing; I knew what the long counter of that bookshop looked like; I knew what the books smelled like, and I could feel the cold and hear the rain outside. I knew it was in Scotland.” There was also a signature detail that proved to be an omen: “I remember seeing a little brass bell above the door.”
At nights, she was working on a personal project — a screenplay about a pirate girl — when she realized her characters were leading a more exciting life than she was. That’s when she made a promise to herself: “I will invest as much imaginative energy in my own life as I am these pages.” Then she typed the words into Google which forever changed her life: “used bookshop Scotland.”
Up popped Wigtown, Scotland’s National Book Town, which draws bibliophiles from around the world with its annual book festival in September and outsized concentration of bookstores. (It’s said to have one bookshop for roughly every 100 residents.) Fox wrote to Shaun Bythell, owner of The Bookshop in Wigtown, asking about a live-work exchange. He agreed, and when she arrived at his store, there was that brass bell she had dreamed of, hanging above the door. “I didn’t need any other kind of affirmation. I knew this is where I would be spending a very long time.” She not only fell “completely in love” with Wigtown, but with Bythell, who once proved his undying love for the printed word by obliterating a Kindle with a shotgun and mounting the shattered remains on a plaque in his store.
Once Fox settled into her new life, she suspected that her fantasy of working in a bookshop was likely a dream harbored by others. “I thought I couldn’t be the only crazy American with this vision.” So she started scheming about a bookshop holiday. When another local bookstore owner wanted to sell her two-floor bookshop, the timing was just right. The upstairs was converted into a flat and books moved downstairs, “so it is cramped and cozy and exactly what you’d hope a bookshop would look like if you traveled halfway around the world to come there,” she said.
The Open Book started hosting guests through an application process, which proved too time-consuming, so in 2015 the bookshop was listed on Airbnb. Within a month they were booked through the year and have been booked three years out (Airbnb’s maximum) ever since, making it one of the most sought-after Airbnb listings in the world. For $78 a night, with a six-night minimum, guests operate the store based on their own hours and tastes. There is a wait list for people to find out about last-minute openings, and Fox says it currently has enough people on it to fill fifteen years of reservations.
Jess Huckins from Salem, Massachusetts, booked her reservation more than two years ago. “It’s the earliest I’ve ever booked a trip in my life.” She watched the months tick by, and this March, her dream of running a bookshop came true. Huckins and her boyfriend, Gordon Wright, took a red-eye to Glasgow and drove two hours down winding roads through the Galloway Forest Park, passing over potholes and sheep-studded hills, arriving in town without having slept in nearly 48 hours.
The couple was greeted and given keys along with loose instructions. Aside from stocking shelves and operating the register, guests are always given free rein. This aspect is critical to Fox’s vision. “You need to give people the freedom to have it be their own bookshop,” she said. “They can change the stock, relabel the prices, shift things around, create their own hours — it is completely up to them. You want to give people a break from their lives and give them a totally parallel experience of what their life would be like if they owned a bookstore in Scotland.”
Harvey Lindsay, administrative assistant at the Wigtown Book Festival, who grew up on a farm a few miles outside of town and now manages The Open Book’s Airbnb listing, says it’s easy to entrust guests with running the shop. “If anyone was to run off with the till, we could track them down, but book lovers tend to be a reasonably trustworthy bunch.”
Since Huckins and Wright were there in the sleepy off-season month of March (the book festival is in September), they spent most of their time reading, journaling, and chronicling their experience on the store’s blog and Twitter feed. They created window displays, found inspiring quotes to write on the sandwich chalkboard outside, and made new friends in town, including a couple who invited them to dinner and gave them handmade wooden walking sticks. “What really made the experience,” said Huckins, “were the people in Wigtown, how nice everyone was, how excited they were to get to know us and hear about our stories and our lives.” Local volunteers welcome and orient the guests, and others simply add charm, like Nanette Craig, who brings new arrivals a plate of her famous shortbread.
Fox said guests integrate themselves during their stay by hosting everything from wine nights to karaoke, and contribute to the store’s character, citing a pair that “even came with window decorations in their suitcases. They had been dreaming about what they wanted the windows to look like for years.” The spot also appeals to die-hard romantics like Neil Chue Hong who proposed to Stephanie Mlot while she was working behind the counter of The Open Book. Chue Hong handed her a book titled “Our Adventure Book” which he had custom made in secret; upon opening it, Mlot discovered hollowed out pages with a pearl engagement ring nestled inside. The town has now become like a “second home” to the couple.
Huckins, who once planned to go into the publishing industry but chose content marketing as a more fiscally viable lifestyle, saw this as an opportunity to have a taste of the career path that might have been. “It’s definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience to go and run a bookshop on the Scottish seaside.”
For lawyer Betina Cuñado of Buenos Aires, staying at the Open Book was an opportunity to live out a lifelong dream. “I always wanted to run a bookshop. I think it’s every book lover’s fantasy. So when I read about this small town in Scotland with less than 1,000 people and this bookshop that you could run living in the flat above the bookshop, well, it was like magic. I didn’t think twice.” She got in through a last-minute cancellation via the waiting list. “I was prepared to fly there if they called me,” she said. When the email came saying there was a spot open on Airbnb (it’s first come first served), she pounced.
She took two trains and two buses to arrive in Wigtown, which she describes as a “fairy tale town.” Once she settled into the store she noticed a map on the wall behind the counter with pins in it marking where guests come from, so she stuck a pin in Argentina. “I was the first one from South America,” said Cuñado. “It was emotional to put my mark there.” In her imagination, running a bookstore involved playing Joni Mitchell and hanging out, so that’s exactly what she did. “I opened the door, I put Joni Mitchell on, and I just enjoyed the place.”
While Huckins and Cuñado have returned to their normal lives, they both plan to return to Wigtown, which Lindsay says is common of “alumni.” They return, not to stay in the Open Book (since spots are so hard to come by), but just to catch up with the town’s residents, or attend the book festival. “There was one weekend where it just so happened that there were five Open Book alumni in the town at once, just by sheer coincidence,” said Lindsay. “Once people come to Wigtown, they tend to come back.” There’s also a Facebook group for alumni to stay in touch and exchange stories.
Huckins felt the pain of leaving Wigtown. “As we got closer to the end of our stay,” she said, “there was definitely a night where I was crying to my boyfriend up in the flat, saying, ‘I don’t want to leave and I don’t want to go home.’ He was like, ‘We can come back, maybe not to the bookstore, but to Wigtown.’ So we are going to try to come to the book festival next year.”
Meanwhile, Cuñado is carrying the dream of the bookstore with her as she navigates her busy life in Buenos Aires. There is a photograph of Cuñado, taken by Kim Ayres, which shows her sitting peacefully among the stacks at The Open Book. When Cuñado is struggling with the stress of being a lawyer, she says she looks at the photograph and thinks, “This is me. My essence was there.” And for her next chapter? “Well,” she said, “I think maybe in the future I will get the courage to open my own bookshop.”
About the author: Anisse Gross is a San Francisco-based freelance writer and editor at Airbnb Magazine. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, TheNewYorker.com, The Guardian, Quartz, Lucky Peach, The Believer, BuzzFeed, and The San Francisco Chronicle, among other publications.