First published in my now defunct academic blog, ‘Alicia Izharuddin’, on 14th September 2014.
In the last leg of my rather prodigious series of travelling this year, I went to Scotland for the first time during a thrilling period of the nation’s history. My visit there was made more exciting, however, by the prospect of going to the country’s first and only women’s bookshop, Reading Lasses in Wigtown, on the coast of the Scottish South-west peninsular. To top my excitement further, I was booked to stay above the shop itself for two nights. Lodgings in a women’s bookshop! As you can imagine, my delight was not easily contained…
Like its more well-known Welsh counterpart, Hay-on-Wye, Wigtown is Scotland’s official town of books and comes to life during its annual literary festival – and I, the book-lover, did not know this important bit of information! Smaller than Hay, Wigtown is effectively a one-main street market town, with three or four pubs. It was declared a book town in 1997 and boasted around 20 second hand bookshops. Sadly, like Hay and everywhere else in the UK, bookshops are rapidly closing down. 6 now remain in Wigtown. Those who are still going, like Reading Lasses’s owner, Gerrie, are passionate romantics and bucking the prevailing trend.
What is the bookshop like? Or rather, how would the average academic feminist bibliophile find it? Upon entering the shop, the ‘gender’ of the bookshop did not manifest itself instantly. The books are arranged according to rather conventional genres (thrillers, children’s, history, fiction, film and television) and upon closer inspection, most of the books are not targeted at female readers or concern women at all. There is, however, a rather good ‘biography’ section, featuring biographies of women both well-known and not. Between the Katie Price and Martine McCutcheon autobiographies, are some real gems, the biographies of Margaret Sanger, Dorothy Wordsworth, and women of science and letters of the 18th and 19th century.
Sad to say, the difficulty of selling the books contributed to Reading Lasses’s rather diminished title of ‘women’s bookshop’. In fact, all the good stuff are relegated to the shed behind the shop. In the shed lay some real treasures of women’s studies sold at £1 a piece (£2 for hardbacks). There were back copies of Feminist Review and other feminist academic journals from the 1980s and 1990s and many, many books on sex and sexuality, gender studies, and key texts of feminist theory sold at, I repeat for emphatic effect, £1 a copy.
The sheer amount of women’s and gender studies books printed between the 1970s to 1990s (concurrent with the institutionalisation of feminism into academia) was symbolic of the zeitgeist and demonstrates how not so far (mainstream) feminist discourse has come. As I browsed, I started to imagine how many of the books that were collecting dust in the shed could have been written today; the Caitlin Morans, the Hadley Freemans, the Laura Bates, who write rather pedestrian books that are unlikely to last the test of time.
Because we stayed at the bookshop, we were entitled to a 10% discount on book purchases and food (Gerrie is a real foodie, so the breakfast and lunchtime meals are very good). There is only one double bedroom (plus one single bed) for guests – tastefully decorated, a kitchen area with mini fridge, and a beautiful nautically-themed bathroom awash in blue, all priced at £65 a night. Like any wonderful bookshop owner will tell you these days (the venerable London Review bookshop included), they don’t do it for the money. If you dream of being locked in a women’s bookshop for the night (or two), Reading Lasses is the only place in the UK where you can.