by Jennie Renton

Bookselling in Lapland

November 26, 2013 | by Jennie Renton

A work acquaintance – a born-again Christian – once charitably shared with me that he guessed I’d been round the block a couple of times. Perhaps because of my love of secondhand bookshops, I chose to take this as a compliment. The great thing about used books is that they’ve been round many blocks, and for me the marks they bear of previous relationships make them objects of desire. So I’m like the pig in the proverbial, being based at Main Point Books in the West Port, which has become known as Edinburgh’s book (and lap dancing) quarter – hence our slogan: ‘For only £5 a book will sit on your lap all night long’.

Our proximity to Edinburgh College of Art means that customers often have plans to transmute books into something else. The future destiny of a book never fails to fascinate me – often it’s nothing so simple as being read. Hamer Dodds, an artist who explores the interface between art and science, leapt on a 1960s I-Spy Wild Flowers as a source of inspiration. On the botanical theme, he likened our books to spores disseminating unanticipated ideas, connections and trains of thought. Another artist, Donald Urquhart of ECA’s ‘Land Space and Nature’, picked up three Scottish Mountaineering Club volumes, seeing them as elements in an exhibition he’s having in Japan next spring. Books with marginal notes were the quarry of a young art student, for a project exploring the relationship between handwritten and printed text. This triggered a conversation about Fermat’s Last Theorem, referenced concisely in the margins of Arithmetica; 385 years passed before the theorem was solved, in 1995, by Andrew Wiles. Buzzing with ideas, she left the shop with a copy of Amir Aczel’s account of Wiles’ impassioned quest.

 Conversations with customers – their unpredictability and variety – make secondhand bookshops fascinating places. I recently bought a small collection of books on the history of costume that had belonged to the late David Beeton, for many years a designer with the BBC. The ones on pattern and cut attracted the eye of Gavin May, a descendant of Samuel May, a leading theatrical costumier whose firm was founded in the early nineteenth century. It was great to see books from a real working library go into the right hands. Gavin opened a copy of a book on theatrical costume by James Laver and pointed out a picture of Edmund Kean as Richard III, in highly dramatic pose, bearing a sword – which Gavin has in his attic. 

Take a few strands of interaction from a single day. A Canadian beekeeper, fresh from a beekeeping conference in Ukraine that attracted an astonishing 10,000 delegates; he bought a 1980s manual, ‘for historical interest – beekeeping has completely changed since the advent of the Varroa mite’. Then in came the winner of the Golden Spurtle Award at the World Porridge Making Championships, John Boa, on his way to the Mod in Paisley and in search of a ‘smallish’ Gaelic dictionary because his Dwelly wouldn’t fit in his backpack. After much hunting, which gave us time for a chat about the new Gaelic Tin Tin (An t-Eilean Du), we found a concise MacEachan tucked at the end of a row of Highlands and Islands books. Strangely enough, the next person through the door was a member of the MacEachan clan – Alasdair MacEachan of the Islands Book Trust, making an Edinburgh detour on his way back to Lewis after attending the Dublin launch of the autobiography of Michael Carney, the last living person to have been born on the Great Blasket Island (another book for my list of customer recommendations). Later that afternoon an academic from Durham, editor of a journal on Victorian music, lamented the fact that the ancient cathedral city does not have a single secondhand bookshop. This he put down to the lack of a ‘critical mass’ of book buyers – then confessed to reading fiction exclusively on his handheld device, and older books free online (having noted the titles in shops such as Main Point). In tune with the bleakness of what he called the ‘real world’ (a place I am often advised to visit), I produced An Incomplete History of the Art of Funerary Violin but he would not be tempted, though he perused it for while – memorising a few details for a Google search, I suspect.

I am becoming inured to the plight of a secondhand bookseller in the Age of Kindle and believe that, like the Death of the Author, the Demise of the Bookshop remains pending. This optimism flies in the face of certain facts. Across the UK hundreds of bookshops have closed in the last decade. This summer, for the first time in over twenty years, the PBFA Edinburgh Festival Book Fair did not take place.

No mobile phone in the pocket with internet access, no instant comparison of prices. In those days book hunters built up a cache of ‘points’ (who now knows by heart the precise selection of creatures on the endpapers of Jemima Puddleduck that show it’s a ‘first issue’?). Many booksellers were scholarly and delved deeply the history of printing and publishing. In competitive situations such as auctions, their knowledge gave them an edge; or in bookshops, where even the best bookseller might undervalue an item. One of my own best bookshop ‘finds’ was the very ordinary looking Histoires Extraordinaires (1856) by Edgar Allan Poe, translated by Charles Baudelaire – what they call a ‘sleeper’. That was back in the 1970s in McNaughtan’s Bookshop, when it was run by John ‘the Henty King’ McNaughtan and his wife Marjorie, an authority on early children’s books, who generously gave me a grounding in the trade. Of course I’ve made some bloomers myself, but none keeps me awake at night. You can always learn by your mistakes.

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Thanks to the internet, everyone now believes they have a handle on book values, equating the top prices being sought to actual values. Sometimes they actually are. Often it’s just someone flying a kite. And as anyone who has bought a book online knows, one seller’s ‘good condition’ is another’s ‘falling apart’. So I have to rein in my knee jerk scepticism when people tell me they have a valuable, rare ‘vintage’ book. More often than not these turn out to be tattered copies of the works of Robert Burns, but with family associations which might really interest young family members, so best not sold.

A piece of my own family history was recently brought to my attention by one of our customers. Stewart MacLennan, who is Chair of the Scottish Labour History Society, told me that my father, Donald Renton, is mentioned in A Bible of Discontent: The memoir of Hugh D’Arcy, bricklayer and trade unionist, which has just become available online. My dad fought in the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, left the Communist Party in 1956 at the time of the Hungarian Revolution (when the contrarian MacDiarmid decided to join it) and later became an Edinburgh councillor. Both he and D’Arcy were Portobello lads from Pipe Street. In his memoir, D’Arcy recalls his science teacher warning him that Donald, who ‘showed good promise’ at Towerbank School, had become ‘a troublesome agitator and a person we should not get involved with’. D’Arcy’s eyes were soon opened to the fact that people like my father were responding, with social responsibility, to the dreadful hardship and inequalities of the Depression years. When filling in his Census form, I remember my dad entering under Occupation: Revolutionary Communist; and under Religion: Militant Atheist. But then, he didn’t read the Mail.

So yes, I do enjoy the connectivity offered by the internet. And also on the positive side, I’ve noticed that having such a barrage of words on electronic tap is making some of us seek out the discriminating bookseller or publisher, appreciating the results of the exercise of taste.

‘Don’t let me buy anything,’ some plead as they enter the shop. Or, ‘My flight luggage allowance is tiny.’ Or, ‘I’ve got all my books on my ******.’ My stock reply – ‘No worries, did you know I’m planning to turn the bookshop into an “installation” and charge entry at the door?’ – is in danger of being taken seriously. This has actually been done by a Dutch artist, multiplying the value of the stock by a factor of ten.

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I kid you not. At least once a month someone comes into Main Point, takes a deep breath and announces: ‘I just came in because I love the smell of old books.’ At such moments, homicide is never far from my thoughts. Putting on my marketing hat, that’s just given me a new thought. What about: ‘Wake up and smell the books’? Which brings George Orwell to mind. In The Road to Wigan Pier, he recounts his disgust at the smell of dossers’ socks, and in his ‘Bookshop Memories’ he mentions another nasal challenge: ‘the person smelling of old breadcrusts who comes every day, sometimes several times a day, and tries to sell you worthless books’. He also reports that: ‘Scarcely half the people who ordered books from us ever came back. It used to puzzle me at first. What made them do it? They would come in and demand some rare and expensive book, would make us promise over and over again to keep it for them, and then would vanish never to return.’ He has a mild gripe, too, about bookshops being among ‘the few places where you can hang about for a long time without spending any money’, and the sometimes dubious clientele this attracts. But for my own part, I see browsing as one of the joys in life, and an essential part of what a good bookshop is about.

Trade seemed to be picking up the other day. A woman told me she wanted 200 books, and then added, ‘to make into clocks’. Unlike those who shudder at the thought of destroying a book, I can’t ignore the practicalities of bookselling. In a slack market, space is at a premium. Things must move on, or they become stale. The books she wanted had to have an attractive cover design and be very cheap. Perhaps my decision was cuckoo, but I decided to go for it and filled five boxes with potential candidates. Weeks passed, hopeful sounding emails arrived, but it looks as if Orwell was spot-on about what happens when you set books aside.

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