Do you dream of packing in the 9 to 5 and opening a bookstore amidst the hills and heather of Scotland? If you do, you probably dismiss the fantasy as a pipe dream - but that's where The Open Book steps in. This unique vacation rental in Wigtown - Scotland's National Book Town - lets guests run their own bookstore by the sea.
The Open Book is the brainchild of American writer Jessica Fox, a former NASA employee who packed in her Californian lifestyle at the age of 24 after dreaming of another life in Scotland. Fox fell in love with Wigtown and its plethora of book shops. She never looked back.
“It’s not just me. I think the people who come to the Open Book have a very similar reaction to Wigtown,” Fox, now in her 30s, tells CNN Travel. “It’s a magical place, it has all the things you could hope for in a trip to Scotland.”
The idea for Open Book was sparked by Fox’s own whirlwind love affair with Wigtown, which hosts the popular Wigtown Book Festival each September.
“I’d never been to Scotland, I’d only seen it in films,” recalls Fox. “I went from a very densely populated place with a car, and stuck in traffic a lot, to a place with hardly any people, amazing scenery, and absolutely no car […] I absolutely loved it.”
In a plot twist straight out of a romantic comedy, Fox fell head over heels for local bookstore owner Shaun Bythell. The community of Wigtown welcomed her as one of their own. She realized she was living the fantasy that had formerly played in her head.
“I thought I couldn’t be the only crazy American who dreams of working in a bookshop by the sea in Scotland, there has to be more of us,” she laughs.
Fox knew most people wouldn’t want to give up their old life forever – but she was sure a week experiencing a slice of “Local Hero”-style small-town Scotland would appeal to many. While Fox was mulling over this idea, one of Wigtown’s bookstores announced it was closing shop. It seemed serendipitous.
“Finn McCreath, who is on the Board of the Festival, and I decided to take it over and try out my idea of having a bookshop holiday,” she says.
Five years later, The Open Book is a runaway success. It’s booked up on Airbnb until years ahead, and there’s an extensive waiting list.
The Open Book’s success has put Wigtown firmly on the map, with book-lovers trekking to this coastal corner of Scotland from across the globe.
“We’ve had some incredible guests. We have guests from almost every single country now, and we’ve had people of all different ages,” says Fox.
Open Book is run by local volunteers: “Any profit that the Open Book makes goes right back into the community of Wigtown,” explains Fox.
Local characters pick guests up from transport hubs and bake them homemade shortbread. Visitors become local celebrities for the week, with everyone taking an interest in the newcomers.
“The town really makes sure they’re comfortable and will invite them to dinner or the pub, so it’s a community effort,” says Fox.
In return, guests look after the shop and put their own stamp on Open Book. “We suggest that people take the initiative and do events in the shop, even share the culture that they’re coming from with Wigtown. People really do that. They do some imaginative, wonderful ideas,” says Fox.
“We’ve had Spanish wine tasting, we’ve had book readings, we’ve had game nights – so they bring a lot of life to the bookshops themselves. There isn’t a typical day, it’s really what you bring to it.” Guests also blog about their trip on The Open Book website and on Twitter.
Fox wrote about her love story with bookshop owner Bythell in a romantic memoir, so perhaps it’s unsurprising the town’s become an epicenter for romantics — even if original Wigtown power couple Fox and Bythell are no longer together.
“We’ve just had the first bookshop proposal, which the entire town got very excited about,” gushes Fox.
Particularly memorable guests include a couple in their 80s who were on a honeymoon.
“They’d do Tai-Chi out on the lawn, which was very sweet,” says Fox.
As for Fox and Bythell, Fox says they remain close, despite their separation.
“[It] disappoints the romantic in a lot of people,” laughs Fox. “I want to make sure people know that it’s really OK, we’re both really happy, we’re very good friends, he’s like family. It’s all happy in the end.”
As Open Book hits the big time on Airbnb, it might not be long before it has a starring role on screen.
Bythell has also written a book, “The Diary of a Book Seller,” which has been a success. The former couple are in talks with a production company about turning their story into a series.
“We’re joining up our books together,” says Fox.
If Wigtown goes to Hollywood, it likely won’t be long before The Open Book is booked out indefinitely.
Time for a sequel?
In the meantime, Fox and her team are also considering other options for visitors keen to experience Wigtown’s delights.
“It’s totally surreal, we’re delighted and really surprised and, I think, anxious to welcome as many people as possible to Wigtown,” Fox says.
“We’ve been talking about possibly a second location, but we don’t really want to take away from the specialness and the uniqueness of the first,” she adds. “We’re trying to encourage other people in the area to open up other Airbnb experiences, and make the most of our very long waiting list.”
The founders have also considered lending their expertise to other similar projects.
“We’ve got a couple of questions from different towns in the UK,” says Fox. “And we’d be really happy to help share our expertise and maybe open up a couple of Open Books around the UK in really interesting locations. I think that would be the next step.”