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Issue 27 - Read all about it

Scotland Magazine Issue 27
June 2006

 

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Scotland has some fantastic secondhand and antiquarian bookshop. Hannah Adcock browses through some of her favourites

If there is one word to sum up the secondhand book buying business – and this is asking a lot – it is serendipity.

So often you go in to a secondhand bookshop with a title in mind before leaving with something unexpected and far superior. The internet and chain stores can offer a certain kind of bookbuying experience, but they can never rival the secondhand bookshop as a place to idle away a few hours (or days) before luck intervenes and you find yourself clutching the perfect volume.

One of Scotland’s hidden secrets is its great wealth of secondhand bookshops. Edinburgh alone had 30 at the last count. To cover them all is impossible, but I’ve selected a few of my favourites to help you on your way.

McNaughtan’s Bookshop in Edinburgh, owned by Elizabeth Strong, was established in 1957 and is probably the longest established business of its kind in Scotland. The shop offers an impressive choice of quality antiquarian and secondhand books on a wide-range of subjects, being particularly strong on illustrated children’s books, art and architecture.

Two of the star tomes of the shop contain exquisite examples of needlework by Parisian schoolchildren, painstakingly stitched in the years 1913-15. Professionals and academics are regulars at McNaughtans, perhaps attracted by the dignified atmosphere, which has been enhanced in recent decades.

It is refreshing to find a bookshop, which has evolved in such a cohesive manner.

Even the copper pipe used to divert floodwater from a plastic sheet above the roof into a bucket in the shop was designed to resemble a snake, wriggling down the tree of knowledge (a bookcase) bringing evil (floodwater) from the place above.

Armchair Books, owned by David Govan, has a rather more roguish charm. Located on West Port, as famous for strip joints as for bookshops, the shop has a large general secondhand stock as well as many antiquarian books.

A love of older books permeates the shop.

David Govan considers himself “a glorified book collector, but as well as buying I sell. I constantly rejoice in newly acquired books.” You will often find staff, from a bewildering array of countries, creatively repairing old volumes so that they will last another 100 years or so. A plentiful supply of labels makes sections relatively easy to locate, but quirky health and safety notices may also provoke a smile.

West Port also boasts four other fine bookshops: Peter Bell, Andrew Pringle, Main Point and West Port, all located within a stone’s throw of each other.

Voltaire and Rousseau in Glasgow, owned by brothers Edmund and Joe McGonagal, is a quirky secondhand bookshop, offering an eclectic range of books crammed onto bulging shelves or stacked in gravity-defying piles on the floor.

Despite the French name, the shop has a good Scottish showing as well as a room of £1 or less books, which includes surprisingly decent titles.

The atmosphere is both quiet and chaotic.

Shelves have a semblance of order, but the stacked books have a tendency to migrate.

Edmund McGonagal comments: “things will stray into other sections so that you might be looking in the art section and find something about learning Italian. People always say that although they might not find books they were looking for, they find something else.” Established in 1972 on Park Road, Voltaire and Rousseau opened this west end branch a couple of years later, before committing solely to the present premises.

Customers include passing students, older ladies who like the shop cat and firebrand Ulster politician Rev. Ian Paisley. Edmund recalls that Paisley “looks for theology, but also for copies of his own books, which are out of print.” For high quality secondhand and antiquarian stock visit Cooper Hay Rare Books in Glasgow.

The Bookshop in Wigtown, owned by Shaun Bythell, claims to be Scotland’s largest secondhand bookshop with a stock of approximately 80,000 books. It also pre-dates Wigtown’s metamorphosis into ‘Scotland’s National Book Town’ by a good 12 years.

Immediately identifiable by two helix sculptures made out of books – perhaps the best use for encyclopedias and law books I have ever seen – it comprises six areas and 77 sections.

The choice is almost overwhelming: two full shelves are devoted to car manuals, there is actually a section, not just a book, on oceanography and the Scottish books, including some interesting antiquarian titles, have a room to themselves.

This is an unusual secondhand bookshop experience. Secondhand bookshops are typically smaller affairs with no room to swing a (bookshop) cat. However, The Bookshop gives the feeling of different small bookshops bolted together and thereby maintains charm.

While in Wigtown be sure to sample some of the other bookshops that have sprung up in the last 10 years. Most have some interesting stock, but they will gain more character as they age.

Leakey’s Bookshop in Inverness, owned by Charles Leakey, has rather more than its fair share of character. Located in a former church, Charles is used to visitors confiding that their grandma is buried outside or that they were married there. Today, the atmosphere and purpose of the place is rather different.

“Instead of being dedicated to just one book it’s now concerned with all books,” says Charles.

Despite the rather stark exterior, visitors are amazed by the space and light inside – and by the sheer number of books. The layout also complements the space and a visitor can either hide out in the book bays flanking the walls or promenade on the mezzanine level, added seven years ago.

But size isn’t everything as Charles is quick to point out: “I believe this is the largest secondhand bookshop in Scotland, but that doesn’t say very much; it’s all to do with the quality of the books. The objective has always been to increase the quality of the stock as time went on.” Leakey’s has a general stock covering most subjects and is strong in Scottish books and history.

Quarto Bookshop in St. Andrews, owned by Margaret Squires, is one of Scotland’s most famous bookshops. Journalists from as far afield as Sweden and China have written articles praising her shop. Why?

Because, in the words of one out-of-hours Chinese gentleman, “let me in, let me in, you are famous in Beijing. I want to buy golf architecture books from you!” Today’s Golfer, Britain’s biggest golfing magazine, described Quarto as “the best golf bookshop on earth?” only spoiling the accolade by the addition of the question mark. With a stock of about 500 golf books ranging from £3-£600 and the patronage of top golfers such as Greg Norman and V.J.

Singh, Quarto is a must for golf enthusiasts and professionals. Quarto also sells ‘experienced’ golf balls, fresh from adventures on the fairway.

For everyone who isn’t in St. Andrews for the golf – or is dragged there on sufferance – then Quarto will also appeal. Only 10 per cent of its books are on golf and although they slap you in the eye as you walk in, they soon recede as you move through the shop.

Margaret describes the shop as having “a split personality. It’s an all things to all men bookshop and to all women hopefully.” For more committed bibliophiles, there is a comprehensive list of secondhand bookshops in Eddie Fenwick’s excellent leaflet entitled Secondhand and antiquarian bookshops in Scotland.

The leaflet is priced at £1 and available from most secondhand bookshops!