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Welcome to Wigtown: A Photo Tour of Scotland's National Book Town

If you've ever dreamed of running your own bookshop in a picturesque town full of bibliophiles, now's your chance. For anyone curious about the life of a bookshop owner, The Open Book in Wigtown, Scotland, is open for bookings. More of a residency than a straight rental, the Airbnb experience allows renters free rein of the bookshop with accommodations in the apartment directly above. In exchange for a $38 per night rental, guests get the chance to manage the day-to-day operations of the bookshop with responsibilities ranging from bookkeeping to decorating.

With a team of volunteers and fellow bookshop employees for support, the residency aims to celebrate and encourage education in running independent bookshops. "The bookshop holiday provides a creative, social, energizing holiday for both seasoned booksellers or novice bookies (like me)," says Margi Watters, who took over the shop for a week all the way from Philadelphia. "The ability to make the shop one's own encourages each new visitor to invest in the project and put his or her personal stamp on the shop."

But the area offers plenty of other things for book lovers to do that don't require ringing a register. In 1998, Wigtown (population: 900) was designated Scotland's National Book Town and is now home to more than a dozen book-related businesses, in addition to the annual Wigtown Book Festival, which this year runs from September 23 to October 2. Here are some of Wigtown's highlights.

THE OLD BANK BOOKSHOP

Formerly the Customs House and Bank, The Old Bank Bookshop is now home to five rooms full of secondhand fiction, local history, antiquarian titles, and, most distinctively, a room full of sheet music and art history. 

READINGLASSES

While ReadingLasses offers a variety of new and used titles, its first distinguishing feature is its charming cafe. Whether stopping in for lunch or a spot of tea, you can get cozy in the back cafe or in the front reading rooms surrounded by books. The cheery pink store also sets itself apart from the rest of the town by specializing in books "by and about women."

GLAISNOCK CAFE AND GUEST HOUSE

The Glaisnock is Wigtown's three-for-one, offering books, bites, and board all in one place. While their book collection is small and comprised mostly of secondhand fiction ($1.50 paperbacks!), their diverse, locally-sourced menu is a bit more wide-ranging. Here you can try traditional favorites ranging from fish and chips to haggis, neeps, and tatties, followed by a decadent selection of cakes and sweets. On the first Saturday of each month, they also host Drink, Read, Relax, which offers special deals on its drinks, treats, and books.

CURLY TALE BOOKS

Curly Tale Books, the town's newest addition, appeals to Wigtown's youngest visitors. Functioning as both a publisher and a brick-and-mortar shop, the store has an extensive collection of children's and young adult books, including their own titles. They also often open their space for readings and children's activities.

BYRE BOOKS

Almost completely hidden from the town square, Byre Books is off the beaten path and almost completely overtaken by greenery. Up until 2000, the building used to be a cow shed ("byre" in Scottish) but is now home to a book collection centered around folklore, archaeology, and history.

THE BOOKSHOP

The largest and perhaps most well-known of Wigtown's bookshops is The Bookshop, simply named and most reminiscent of the Hogwarts Library. With more than 100,000 used books, The Bookshop is Scotland's largest secondhand bookstore and home to a maze of an ever-changing selection and an owner who will shoot your Kindle on sight (not really, but he does have footage of burning Kindles in mock emulation of Amazon's "Kindle Fire"). From the rows of Penguin classics, to the rustic ladders for help reaching higher shelves—not to mention the lofted bed nook and the comfy recliners in front of the fireplace—this bookshop is every bibliophile's dream. Did we mention the spiral stairs? And if you want to take a piece of The Bookshop's magic home with you, sign up for The Random Book Club, where you'll be mailed one random secondhand book each month.

BELTIE BOOKS AND CAFE

Wrap up your tour of Wigtown's bookshops with a stop at Beltie Books and Café. Beltie's has a small selection of secondhand books, mostly nonfiction, and many with a focus on all things Scottish. Enjoy coffee and tea in the cafe alongside art on display—most of it astronomical photos of the night sky taken from the Galloway Forest Park.

COMMUNITY SHOP

If you've checked into all of Wigtown's bookshops but are still hungry for more, don't forget to stop into the Wigtown Community Shop—a charity shop across the street from The Open Book. While you're sure to find the typical thrift store odds and ends, they also have a smaller second room piled high with book donations, categorized by genre, with all proceeds going to local Wigtown organizations.

When your eyes are tired of scanning row upon row of books, you can take a break and visit Craigard Gallery, The Bookend Studio, and Historic Newspapers for a change of pace that's still on-theme. While these shops aren't centered around bookselling, the majority of their goods are all book- or print matter-related. From The Bookend's jewelry made of old book pages to gorgeous letterpressed journals, each of these shops finds a way to continue the bibliophilic love of the town. Even the local pub has a small corner of books!

Finally, our last and most unique stop on the tour is a visit to Christian Ribbens's, a local book binder. Ribbens began restoring bindings of old books as a hobby and, just as he came to Wigtown, the current book binder of the time was just about to retire. He bought her supplies and set up his own home workshop, where he restores book bindings for customers all over the UK. Although most of his business happens to be the preservation of heirloom family Bibles, he also restores antique books.

While most of these businesses are open year-around, the town's main attraction is the Wigtown Book Festival, which runs for 10 days each autumn. Each year, thousands of visitors come to Wigtown to attend events centered around literature, music, film, theater, and other arts, with guest authors and speakers from around the world. But no matter what time of year, there are plenty of places for every book lover.

All photos courtesy of Celeste Noche.

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The Plucky Teenage Stowaway Aboard the First American Expedition to Antarctica
The Ohio State University Archives
The Ohio State University Archives

Documentary filmmaker and journalist Laurie Gwen Shapiro came across the name "William Gawronski" in 2013 while researching a story about Manhattan's St. Stanislaus, the oldest Polish Catholic church in the U.S. In 1930, more than 500 kids from the church had held a parade in honor of Billy Gawronski, who had just returned from two years aboard the first American expedition to Antarctica, helmed by naval officer Richard E. Byrd.

The teenager had joined the expedition in a most unusual way: by stowing aboard Byrd's ships the City of New York and the Eleanor Bolling not once, not twice, but four times total. He swam across the Hudson River to sneak onto the City of New York and hitchhiked all the way to Virginia to hide on the Eleanor Bolling.

"I thought, 'Wait, what?" Shapiro tells Mental Floss.

Intrigued by Billy's persistence and pluck, Shapiro dove into the public records and newspaper archives to learn more about him. She created an Excel spreadsheet of Gawronskis all along the East Coast and began cold-calling them.

"Imagine saying, 'Did you have an ancestor that jumped in the Hudson and stowed away to the Antarctic in 1928?'" Shapiro says. She got "a lot of hang-ups."

On the 19th call, to a Gawronski in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, an elderly woman with a Polish accent answered the phone. "That boy was my husband," Gizela Gawronski told her. Billy had died in 1981, leaving behind a treasure trove of mementos, including scrapbooks, notebooks, yearbooks, and hundreds of photos.

"I have everything," Gizela told Shapiro. "I was hoping someone would find me one day."

Three days later, Shapiro was in Maine poring over Billy's papers with Gizela, tears in her eyes.

These materials became the basis of Shapiro's new book The Stowaway: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica. It's a rollicking good read full of fascinating history and bold characters that takes readers from New York to Tahiti, New Zealand to Antarctica, and back to New York again. It's brimming with the snappy energy and open-minded optimism of the Jazz Age.

Shapiro spent six weeks in Antarctica herself to get a feel for Billy's experiences. "I wanted to reach the Ross Ice barrier like Billy did," she says.

Read on for an excerpt from chapter four.

***

As night dropped on September 15, Billy jumped out of his second-floor window and onto the garden, a fall softened by potatoes and cabbage plants and proudly photographed sunflowers. You would think that the boy had learned from his previous stowaway attempt to bring more food or a change of dry clothes. Not the case.

An overnight subway crossing into Brooklyn took him to the Tebo Yacht Basin in Gowanus. He made for the location he'd written down in his notes: Third Avenue and Twenty-Third Street.

In 1928 William Todd's Tebo Yacht Basin was a resting spot— the spot—for the yachts of the Atlantic seaboard's most aristocratic and prosperous residents. The swanky yard berthed more than fifty staggering prizes of the filthy rich. Railroad executive Cornelius Vanderbilt kept his yacht O-We-Ra here; John Vanneck, his Amphitrite. Here was also where to find Warrior, the largest private yacht afloat, owned by the wealthiest man in America, public utilities baron Harrison Williams; yeast king (and former mayor of Cincinnati) Julian Fleischman's $625,000 twin-screw diesel yacht, the Carmago; General Motors president Alfred P. Sloan's Rene; shoe scion H. W. Hanan's Dauntless; and J. P. Morgan's Corsair III. The Tebo Yacht Basin's clubroom served fish chowder luncheons to millionaires in leather-backed mission chairs.

Todd, a great friend of Byrd's, lavished attention on his super-connected pal with more contacts than dollars. He had provided major funding for Byrd's 1926 flight over the North Pole, and helped the commander locate and refit two of the four Antarctic expedition ships for $285,900, done at cost. Todd loved puffy articles about him as much as the next man, and press would help extract cash from the millionaires he actively pursued as new clients; helping out a famous friend might prove cheaper than the advertisements he placed in upmarket magazines. Throughout that summer, Byrd mentioned Todd's generous support frequently.

Two weeks after the City of New York set sail, the Chelsea, the supply ship of the expedition, was still docked at the Tebo workyard and not scheduled to depart until the middle of September. Smith's Dock Company in England had built the refurbished 170-foot, 800-ton iron freighter for the British Royal Navy at the tail end of the Great War. First christened patrol gunboat HMS Kilmarnock, her name was changed to the Chelsea during her post–Royal Navy rumrunning days.

Not long before she was scheduled to depart, Byrd announced via a press release that he was renaming this auxiliary ship, too, after his mother, Eleanor Bolling. But the name painted on the transom was Eleanor Boling, with one l—the painter's mistake. As distressing as this was (the name was his mother's, after all), Byrd felt a redo would be too expensive and a silly use of precious funds. Reporters and PR staff were simply instructed to always spell the name with two ls.

As Billy eyed the ship in dock days after his humiliation on board the New York, he realized here was another way to get to Antarctica. The old, rusty-sided cargo ship would likely be less guarded than the flagship had been.

As September dragged on, Billy, back in Bayside, stiffened his resolve. No one would think he'd try again! On September 15, once more he swam out during the night to board a vessel bound for Antarctica.

Since his visit two weeks prior, Billy had studied his news clippings and knew that the Bolling was captained by thirty-six-year-old Gustav L. Brown, who'd been promoted weeks earlier from first mate of the New York when Byrd added the fourth ship to his fleet. Billy liked what he read. According to those who sailed under Brown's command, this tall and slender veteran of the Great War was above all genteel, and far less crotchety than the New York's Captain Melville. Captain Brown's education went only as far as high school, and while he wasn't against college, he admired honest, down-to-earth workers. Like his colleague Captain Melville, Brown had begun a seafaring life at fourteen. He seemed just the sort of man to take a liking to a teenage stowaway with big dreams.

Alas, the crew of the second ship headed to Antarctica now knew to look for stowaways. In a less dramatic repeat of what had happened in Hoboken, an Eleanor Bolling seaman ousted Billy in the earliest hours of the morning. The kid had (unimaginatively) hidden for a second time in a locker under the lower forecastle filled with mops and bolts and plumbing supplies. The sailor brought him to Captain Brown, who was well named, as he was a man with a mass of brown hair and warm brown eyes. The kind captain smiled at Billy and praised the cheeky boy's gumption—his Swedish accent still heavy even though he'd made Philadelphia his home since 1920—yet Billy was escorted off to the dock and told to scram.

A few hours later, still under the cover of night, Billy stole back on board and was routed out a third time, again from the “paint locker.”

A third time? The Bolling's third in command, Lieutenant Harry Adams, took notes on the gutsy kid who had to be good material for the lucrative book he secretly hoped to pen. Most of the major players would score book deals after the expedition; the public was eager for adventure, or at least so publishers thought. The catch was that any deal had to be approved by Byrd: to expose any discord was to risk powerful support. Adams's book, Beyond the Barrier with Byrd: An Authentic Story of the Byrd Antarctic Exploring Expedition, was among the best: more character study than thriller, his grand sense of humor evident in his selection of anecdotes that the others deemed too lightweight to include.

Billy was not the only stowaway that September day. Also aboard was a girl Adams called Sunshine, the "darling of the expedition," a flirt who offered to anyone who asked that she wanted to be the first lady in Antarctica. (In the restless era between world wars, when movies gave everyone big dreams, even girl stowaways were not uncommon.) Brown told a reporter that Sunshine had less noble aspirations, and soon she, too, was removed from the Bolling, but not before she gave each crew member a theatrical kiss.

As the early sun rose, Captain Brown called Billy over to him from the yacht yard's holding area where he had been asked to wait with the giggling Sunshine until his father arrived. The captain admired Billy's gumption, but it was time for the seventeen-year-old to go now and not waste any more of anyone's time.

As Lieutenant Adams recorded later, "Perhaps this matter of getting rid of Bill was entered up in the Eleanor Bolling log as the first scientific achievement of the Byrd Antarctic expedition."

*** 

From THE STOWAWAY: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Copyright © 2018 by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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The Truth Is In Here: Unlocking Mysteries of the Unknown
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In the pre-internet Stone Age of the 20th century, knowledge-seekers had only a few options when they had a burning question that needed to be answered. They could head to their local library, ask a smarter relative, or embrace the sales pitch of Time-Life Books, the book publishing arm of Time Inc. that marketed massive, multi-volume subscription series on a variety of topics. There were books on home repair, World War II, the Old West, and others—an analog Wikipedia that charged a monthly fee to keep the information flowing.

Most of these were successful, though none seemed to capture the public’s attention quite like the 1987 debut of Mysteries of the Unknown, a series of slim volumes that promised to explore and expose sensational topics like alien encounters, crop circles, psychics, and near-death experiences.

While the books themselves were well-researched and often stopped short of confirming the existence of probing extraterrestrials, what really cemented their moment in popular culture was a series of television commercials that looked and felt like Mulder and Scully could drop in at any moment.

Airing in the late 1980s, the spots drew on cryptic teases and moody visuals to sell consumers on the idea that they, too, could come to understand some of life's great mysteries, thanks to rigorous investigation into paranormal phenomena by Time-Life’s crack team of researchers. Often, one actor would express skepticism (“Aliens? Come on!”) while another would implore them to “Read the book!” Inside the volumes were scrupulously-detailed entries about everything from the Bermuda Triangle to Egyptian gods.

Inside a volume of 'Mysteries of the Unknown'
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Mysteries of the Unknown grew out of an earlier Time-Life series titled The Enchanted World that detailed some of the fanciful creatures of folklore: elves, fairies, and witches. Memorably pitched on TV by Vincent Price, The Enchanted World was a departure from the publisher’s more conventional volumes on faucet repair, and successful enough that the product team decided to pursue a follow-up.

At first, Mysteries of the Unknown seemed to be a non-starter. Then, according to a 2015 Atlas Obscura interview with former Time-Life product manager Tom Corry, a global meditation event dubbed the "Harmonic Convergence" took place in August 1987 in conjunction with an alleged Mayan prophecy of planetary alignment. The Convergence ignited huge interest in New Age concepts that couldn’t be easily explained by science. Calls flooded Time-Life’s phone operators, and Mysteries of the Unknown became one of the company’s biggest hits.

"The orders are at least double and the profits are twice that of the next most successful series,'' Corry told The New York Times in 1988.

Time-Life shipped 700,000 copies of the first volume in a planned 20-book series that eventually grew to 33 volumes. The ads segued from onscreen skeptics to directly challenging the viewer ("How would you explain this?") to confront alien abductions and premonitions.

Mysteries of the Unknown held on through 1991, at which point both sales and topics had been exhausted. Time-Life remained in the book business through 2003, when it was sold to Ripplewood Holdings and ZelnickMedia and began to focus exclusively on DVD and CD sales.

Thanks to cable and streaming programming, anyone interested in cryptic phenomena can now fire up Ancient Aliens. But for a generation of people who were intrigued by the late-night ads and methodically added the volumes to their bookshelves, Mysteries of the Unknown was the best way to try and explain the unexplainable.

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