The Importance Of Being An Independent Bookstore
Patricia Köhring takes us through her day of exploring some of the most vibrant independent literary hubs that the city of Edinburgh has to offer, alongside discussing the invaluable worth of independent bookstores:
Artwork by Kate Granholm (IG: @Katesartthings).
It's the last week of November and for once, albeit very temporarily, I am not bound to the library or imminent deadlines. This condition made my day's excursion around the independent bookshops of Edinburgh possible and ever the more joyous. As an English Literature student, I am, of course, guilty of succumbing to the low prices and efficiency of online book shopping- eBay has become impossible to avoid entirely- but it is in the independent shops that my book-loving heart resides.
So come along, follow through this article as I visit a few literary hubs in this literary city, and converse with individuals who agree with me and believe in the value and necessity of independent bookshops:
10:30 @ The Edinburgh Bookshop: A Conversation With Marie, The Edinburgh Bookshop Matriarch
( 219 Bruntsfield Pl, Edinburgh EH10 4DH )
When I planned my trip to The Edinburgh Bookshop this Thursday, I hadn't known that primary schools would be off that day. This realisation soon dawned upon me as I entered the otherwise peaceful little Bruntsfield shop and nearly collided with a child and the bundle of books she seemed eager to go home with. This girl wasn't the only one around either; two other families were browsing the colourful shelves with their little ones tailing after. Of course, there were a few elderly people as well - one lady appeared engaged in a familiar and good-humoured conversation with who I assumed was the store owner. On the whole, I felt like the new neighbour, invited over for a big, jolly family dinner.
Still, cliché as it sounds, I felt a warmth merely through my presence in the bookstore. While the booksellers were occupied with the family frenzy at the counter, I immersed myself in my favourite activity: book browsing. Unlike some independent bookstores, the selection at The Edinburgh Bookshop didn't seem to insist on a classification. Instead, what was offered here was a careful selection of a bit of everything. Sure, I glimpsed Richard Osman on the centre table, but this store was certainly not an ode to the top 100 Sunday Best-sellers.
After I had, guiltily, bought a Christmas is Murder by Val McDermid (my pile of books is growing at an exponential rate and has extended to the carpeted floor of my flat), I had the pleasant opportunity to speak with the owner. Marie appeared to me the embodiment of a friendly and passionate bookseller. She began our conversation by giving me some background on the shop. It was initially opened in 2009 by two former publishers, but with the change of ownership only a few years later, the store came into bloom and became a community-oriented place for booklovers of all ages. Marie revealed that this focus on their customers was now key to the business.
Like most "indies", she said, The Edinburgh Bookshop is under no illusion that they can compete with wholesalers like Amazon or eBay, so they revel in creating relationships with the surrounding neighbourhood and catering to the needs of their regulars. They intend the store to be a homely place where people won't only find books that they'll love but can also feel comfortable enough to have a cup of tea and a chat or even take a seat on the red velvet sofa at the front of the store (where I conducted my meeting with Marie). She also mentioned a few other personal touches the store had implemented to further engage with their familial community. For example, every child who visits is offered a sticker (whether or not they leave with a book), and despite their limited delivery services, they offer free deliveries to customers who, for different reasons, can't physically come down to the store.
Ultimately, if there ever was a bookstore that manages to feel like a living room warmed by human love and perhaps a rustic hearth, The Edinburgh Bookshop is the one.
11:15 @ Armchair Books: A Reclining Drake
( 72-74 West Port, Edinburgh EH1 2LE )
Next on the agenda was a visit down to Grassmarket, where I hoped to speak with someone at the family-run, heavily maze-like Armchair Books. Unfortunately, the present bookseller expressed a disinclination in acting as a store representative in an interview; a shame for me, but understandable all the same. Nonetheless, Armchair Books deserves recognition here. The store is eclectic and well-stocked, lined, wall to wall, with books boasting vintage covers and dusty spines. For those who are enamoured by the literary heritage of Edinburgh, this store will live up to your historical fascinations more perfectly than any other in town. There is a fantastic range of affordable second hands and valuable rare books - the last time I went, I spotted a second edition of Alice in Wonderland.
The store is a flash from the past if I've ever experienced one, and the Armchair Books website describes the store with an undeniable superiority to anything I might have written;
"In view of the castle, above the Grassmarket, it bakes under the torrid Scottish sun. The dangers are manifold; our overburdened shelves groan like masts in a squall, our threadbare and quasi-oriental rugs may distractingly catch the eye or foot. Books in the window may spontaneously burst into flames, and the Managers must be kept locked in at all times.... Sporadically under feeble but sinister attack by thecgovernment, we struggle under goad of Fear, towards Beauty."
With this hommage to the independent store, I'll leave this poetic interlude at Armchair Books.
12:00 @ Tills Bookshop: 'In Other Words, the rise of works in translation
( 1 Hope Park Cres, Newington, Edinburgh EH8 9NA )
I resume my quest and return to familiar territory, Hope Park Crescent on the Meadows. Most University of Edinburgh students who wander around the George Square campus will recognise the name of this next store. Tills Bookshop stands dark and green on the North East corner of the Meadows. The store was first opened by Rick and Ann Till in 1985 but is now run by two former teachers and academics.
Having been in Tills before on a hunt for Anna Freud's Defense Mechanisms, I was already aware of the extensive academic section that the store boasts. When asking the bookseller about this, she said that though the owners of the store don't want their store to target a specific demographic, they have a personal investment in academic works and therefore decided to split the store into two sections, with half of it dedicated to fiction and the other half to nonfiction. The bookseller noted that the nonfiction section is, in fact, extremely popular, especially with university students looking for affordable and slightly 'niche'
works. In addition, the store relies almost entirely on the Edinburgh community's sale of preloved books, which makes the size of their collection even more impressive.
For me, though, the bookstore's main appeal is its investment in works in translation. Over the summer,Tills set up an outdoor stall titled 'In Other Words’, in a retired police box opposite the store. Unlike the secondhand books of the main store, their pop-up shop featured new editions of translated works, fiction and nonfiction, by small publishers. I recall speaking to the bookseller in the stall several times when I passed by and was repeatedly amazed by the knowledge she demonstrated regarding the books on sale. Upon asking for recommendations, she didn't hesitate to point at a copy of The Journey of a Caribbean
Writer (2014) by Maryse Condé: a phenomenal read that nearly swayed me to change my dissertation topic (if only my indolence hadn't gotten the better of me).
Anyhow, despite the cold weather and the closing of the outdoor stall, the bookseller I spoke to revealed plans for an indoor corner that would function with the same purpose of promoting transnational literature and minority voices. Definitely stay tuned for this.
13:30 @ Rare birds books: Girl, Woman, Other
( 13 Raeburn Pl, Stockbridge, Edinburgh EH4 1HU )
An hour and a half later, I am sat on bus 29, en route to the farthest destination of the day; Rare Birds Books in Stockbridge. This store claimed my intention through its unique quality; Rare Birds is the only bookshop in Scotland that features works solely by women writers.
Speaking to Sara, the store manager, I discovered more about the recent but exciting history of the store.The idea for an all-women writing bookseller began in 2017 when the owner, who had been recommending books by female authors for years, decided to create a book club where such conversations could extend transnationally. Today the book club hosts members from over 23 countries and involves subscriptions, blind book bundle orders, talks, and a blog that offers a space for people to seek recommendations and read about the books sold through Rare Birds.
In 2021, the brick-and-mortar shop was launched, and it has only been expanding since then. Starting off with fiction, primarily, the store has recently expanded its space and opened up a nonfiction and essays section. Sara also disclosed that further plans for a children's and YA area are in the works for later this year.
In my conversation with the store manager, I was warmed by her enthusiasm for the Rare Birds initiative. Sara emphasised the necessity of opening up a space for inclusivity and featuring women writers who are often neglected or unintentionally thrown under the rug in favour of established bestselling authors. Rare Birds is interested in spotlighting female writers from all over the world and texts from a wide array of genres. This is a store, Sara said, where women of all backgrounds should be able to find a book that they can connect with in a meaningful way and, perhaps, learn something from.
I, for one, can't argue against the initiative here.
14:45 @ Lighthouse Books: R is for Radical
( 43-45 W Nicolson St, Newington, Edinburgh EH8 9DB )
Finally, I end my journey with the famous home for 'radical' works, The Lighthouse Bookshop. This is a store with a refreshing focus on feminism, climate change, the arts, leftist politics and Queer literature. Its presence is only slightly ironic, opposite the beer drinkers and (currently) Qatar World Cup watchers of The Pear Tree...
Doing some digging, I discovered that West Nicolson Street has been a centre for political literature for years. Prior to Lighthouse, the store was an overtly Communist bookshop launched with the name 'Word Power' in the early 90s. Since then, the store has developed with the times to encompass works relevant to current conversations, i.e. surrounding gender politics or fourth-wave feminism.
One must be careful, however, not to label Lighthouse Books in terms too definitive. On their website, they clearly announce their aim to "challenge dominant and domineering ideologies and champion diversity, equality and free speech.". Though there is a political inclination, the store's shelves are as diverse as their featured author; at Lighthouse, one can find poetry, history, biography, cookbooks, children's books, nature writing, fiction and more.
After browsing through such a plethora of works, I again had the opportunity to exchange words with a store manager. Lindsey truly emphasised her belief in creating safe spaces where conversations can be started and where people can find books that explore heteronormativity and give voice to underrepresented demographics. The store manager also highlighted the 'Radical Book Fair', which the Lighthouse hosts in Roxy Assembly Hall every November, with great success in the Edinburgh community. The book fair hosts book sales and panel events (recorded and still accessible on their website) with professionals, academics and writers. One of the '21 talks was on 'Feminist Futures', led byAkwugo Emujulu, a political sociologist at Warwick University, but Lindsey also mentioned that events are held throughout the year by student societies and individuals engaged in related topic matters.
There really is no excuse not to enter this store. If there ever was a 'woke' book store, Lighthouse is it.
18:00: So…where are we?
It is 6pm. The sun has since long retired, and thus my day of bouncing between bookshops has at last expired. I'm back in my living room. Now, what can I say of my day? Were there discoveries made? I left this morning to interview the people at independent bookstores and then write a piece on why we should support them, but I see now that I have reached the end of my article without having done a whole lot of promoting. All I seem to have expressed is the different personalities of the independent bookshops I voyaged to. Oh well, excuse my negligence and turn with me now to examine some of the aspects of the bookshops I observed to more explicitly uncover the value of these independent bookstores:
First of all, it must be noted that the sellers at independent bookshops - and this applies to every single one of the stores I visited today - are invested in their inventory in a way that is far less common at sellers, especially online wholesalers. The individuals I met today impressed me with their keen knowledge of and apparent love for the works they were selling. Such genuine care and interest were directed too, at the shops themselves as well as at the people that visited them; in nearly all of the shops, I saw owners or managers engaged in conversations with their customers. The interest expressed in the local community
truly reflected the quality of connections and relationships between readers and sellers I witnessed throughout the day.
So, largely, independent bookshops are unique because they have personality. Lacking the space for all of the bestsellers of the 21st century, the individuals working at independent bookshops have to be extra scrutinous in their selections of work. A balance has to be found in providing the community with their needs and ensuring the chosen works stay on theme with the image and ambitions of the store. Often, however, smaller bookstores offer a variety of products that range beyond what you might find on the shelves of mainstream booksellers (like WH Smith). In addition, independent bookstores often support smaller publishers and up-and-coming local writers who might face depressingly short or non-existent shelf lives elsewhere.
Less spoken of is the economic benefit independent bookstores can have in communities. Smaller bookstores recycle a much more significant portion of their sales revenue to the local economy than online sellers would. Additionally, they source locally more often, provide jobs to people in their communities, and more frequently collaborate with other local businesses and charities, which are all beneficial to local society at the end of the day. Finally, many independent bookshops in Edinburgh function beyond their retail titles. Lighthouse Books and Rare Birds, in particular, focus on events that promote literacy, learning and engagement with topical issues. This means that often, independent bookstores can have a broader impact on society, promoting integration and diversity and providing informative sources through means accessible to local communities.
I hope this article inspired you to support Edinburgh's independent bookshops, which in turn, are ever working to support the city's title as a literary capital. Au revoir!