Scottish Review of Books in conversation with a bookseller—Duncan Furness, Topping & Company, St Andrews
Tell us the story of your shop
Topping & Company in St Andrews is the newest in a beautifully formed trio of bookshops catering to serious booklovers. Our shop in Ely was founded 15 years ago by Robert & Louise Topping, followed by Bath 10 years ago. We have just celebrated our third birthday in St Andrews and are delighted to be able to serve locals, academics, golfers and visitors to the town alike. Readers have been very supportive, both in terms of buying from our very wide range and by attending our ever expanding series of author events.
Where do you fit in?
I am the Senior Bookseller, nominally in charge of a team of funny, vibrant, clever and shockingly youthful bunch of booksellers.
What makes your bookshop stand out from others—physical and online?
We stock over 50,000 titles, have rolling library ladders, a wood burning stove, and our browsers are welcome to a pot of coffee or tea while they peruse the shelves. Our knowledgeable and enthusiastic booksellers are given great freedom to curate and contribute to our ever expanding range, which means the chances of stumbling upon a surprise gem are far higher than online or in more corporate establishments.
Do you have a local author who visits the shop? Which author event has drawn the biggest / most interesting audience?
We are the biggest bookshop in St Andrews and we have a vibrant list of events.Whether it’s Don Paterson playing jazz for an intimate poetry reading, or the team from the National Museums of Scotland entertaining us with the story of the Dairsie Hoard (linked to the exhibition of Scotland’s Early Silver) we always have plenty of interest happening in store. We also do large regular events outside the shop, with recent visits from Professor Richard Dawkins, Gordon Brown and Tom Kerridge (not all at the same time…).
Who wanders in through your door most often? / Which customer has taken you by surprise?
We have a whole host of regular readers who pop in, many with vast and eclectic tastes. Our readers continually take us by surprise, and hopefully we do the same for them.
What’s the most ridiculous request you’ve ever had?
A long ago I once had to very gently tell a browser in a bookshop that no longer exists that she could not return her faulty electric blanket to us because we had not sold it to her (she didn’t believe me). In the same shop I was also asked for our butchery department. (They were not looking for cookery books – they were looking for sausages and rump steak!… Maybe it was something about that shop…)
Where did your love of the printed word begin?
I read constantly as a slightly precocious child (moi?), starting with the Secret Seven and Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings novels. The small town where I was born did not have a bookshop, but when I bumped into a Penguin spinner in a local newsagent I was immediately hooked. The first ‘proper’ novel I read was A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess , and I never looked back. Life without several books on the go is unimaginable.
Which book has influenced you most / which poem talks to your soul?
Impossible to answer, like picking your favourite song. At various stages of my life I have been obsessed with crime novels, central European fiction, Iain Banks and Ian Fleming: if I had to plump for just one it might be Catch 22, the funniest, most absurd and ultimately tragic depiction of life on a US Air base in WW2. Or maybe And The Land Lies Still, by the wonderfully talented James Robertson. Or even Crime and Punishment, but ask me tomorrow and the list will be different…
What are you reading now and why?
As ever I have a few on the go: Six Minutes in May by Nicholas Shakespeare, about how Churchill unexpectedly became Prime Minister on the fall of Chamberlain (I return to books on WW2 constantly, looking for new angles and insights); Goodbye Europe, a collection of essays for a still devastated remainer; and So Here It Is, a fascinating look at the life of a Seventies rock star courtesy of the wonderful Dave Hill (out of Slade…).
If not this, then what?
A quick poll of my colleagues reveals many potential alternative careers: Glam Rock star (more Les McQueen than Dave Hill I suspect), failed politician , a teacher or maybe even a master brewer. Ultimately I don’t think there has ever been a what, this is what I am and probably always will be.
Find out more about Topping Books here.