Shortly after arriving in Edinburgh to live, I was walking through Bruntsfield in the South of the city when I saw something that told me with the smack of certain knowledge that I had found home. Travelling swiftly in the opposite direction was a black cab and in the back was a lone passenger and a large bookcase. More loudly than the Scott Monument on Princes St, or Edinburgh Waverley – the only station named after a novel – that unexpected sighting cried out to me, “Welcome to the City of Literature!” I have to admit that I have not since seen a black cab equipped with bookshelves – as I fancy I saw – or even, more probably, just a cab transporting a bookcase and its owner, but there is plenty of other evidence that people in Edinburgh are serious about their books. Inhabitants obligingly advertise the fact at night, illuminating their book-lined living rooms through undrawn curtains. Students stock windowsills with books, draft-proofing their tenement sash windows with curling volumes. In a flamboyant demonstration of faith in the booklovers of Edinburgh, the independent booksellers Toppings opened a new, multi-storey bookshop in central Edinburgh in 2019. Other new bookshops opened the same year in Portobello High Street and in Stockbridge.
Bookshops selling new titles are essential to the whole ecosystem of the printed word, like trees budding fresh leaves in the forest. But, when the seasons change the leaves and books of the year gone are shed into a nether world where different creatures feed upon them. Worms, slugs and woodlice devour old leaves. People like me consume used books. Deposits of them are to be found all over the city, on the shelves of a dozen charity shops dedicated to the trade, or piled untidily in second-hand bookshops where stock arrives more quickly than it can be processed.
Goodness knows how the owners of second-hand bookshops manage to keep their enterprises afloat despite competition from the online megabookshop that Shall-not-be-named, but bless them that they do. (An atheist like me must believe that his/her blessing is no less effective than that of a priest.) Each year more second hand bookshops disappear, but there are still at least half-a-dozen remaining in Edinburgh that deserve a pilgrimage. A hot-spot for these survivors is in West Port, or what locals call the Pubic Triangle because lap dancing bars cluster in the same area of the Old Town. Of the four shops that survive here (there used to be at least 6), the most popular is Armchair Books. In the entrance are the Harry Potters, a trophy buy for tourists, and then comes a narrow passage lined to the ceiling with paperback science fiction, novels and filled with people browsing while others squeeze past them in both directions. At the end of the corridor sits the bookseller at a hatch framed by books. The shop actually continues behind the owner’s cubby hole and through a doorway at the side into a whole other space stocked with non-fiction. Here the books are more antiquarian, more Scottish, bigger, older and more leathery, some of them all of these at once. The art and history sections look worthwhile, but the science section would be a good place to look for an owner’s manual for the Ark.
A hundred metres up the hill from Armchair is the double-fronted shop of Edinburgh Books. There is a well-stocked Scottish room, another filled with poetry and novels, shelves of history, biography and then a basement dedicated to sheet music and religion. Fifty metres farther up the street is the smallest shop in West Port and my favourite by far. Main Point Books is the shop where I always find something I want to buy and rarely have to part with more than a fiver. The window has a changing display, but usually features a large book sculpture. Sometimes John who makes these sculptures out of old books is minding the shop for Jenny, the owner. This stock is varied, but big on art, architecture, philosophy, history and quality literature. A backroom that you coud easily miss contains cookery, science and military history. Despite, or perhaps because of the small size of this shop, Jenny manages a sufficient turnover of stock to keep it perpetually interesting.
A brisk walk away across the Old Town, on the Eastern side of the Meadows is another gem, Till’s Bookshop. This has just two rooms, the front one full of paperback novels, crime, comics and a collection of film posters. The back room is for non-fiction and poetry and in winter it is warmed by a fire in an open grate – yes, in a bookshop! The delightful owner of Till’s for many years retired recently, but thankfully managed to hand his business on.
There are other recent precedents in Edinburgh for second-hand bookshops continuing successfully in business under new owners. Armchair books changed hands recently and the oldest antiquarian bookshop in Scotland, McNaughtan’s at the top of Leith Walk, also did so. A shop called Typewronger books selling new books and old typewriters has opened inside McNaughtan’s – is this the future as well as the past? The top of Leith Walk is all New Town posh, while the Foot of the Walk at the bottom of the hill is much more down-at-heel. Half way down this feeble metaphor is the second-hand bookshop and rare vinyl record store called Elvis Shakespeare. The books are all at bargain basement prices if you can find one you actually want.
The charity bookshops in Edinburgh are many and there seem to be plenty of spare books in the city to keep them bursting with stock. What they lack is any kind of filter on what they acquire, but in a bookish city like Edinburgh you can find cast-aside jewels anywhere. The ultimate proof of this is the annual charity book sale held each May during Christian Aid Week. A gigantic book sale with more than 100,000 books runs for a week upstairs, downstairs and all around the outside of the lovely, circular building of St Andrews and St George West in George Street in the New Town. This is the place to stock up on paperback novels for £2 each and to find all kinds of book treasures. Trade buyers queue to get in on the day it opens, but even at the end of the week there is plenty to browse through. Also in Christian Aid week there is a similar, through smaller book sale at the United Church in Morningside, S. Edinburgh. I thought the Morningside sale was pretty amazing until someone told me about the even bigger one. Both are calendar events if you love books.