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The Edinburgh Booksellers – Scottish Review of Books
by SRB

The Edinburgh Booksellers

April 1, 2019 | by SRB

Hector M’Niell was the pseudonym of John Leyden. Born in the Teviotdale village of Denholm, Leyden (1775-1811) numbered among his admirers Sir Walter Scott, James Hogg and Henry Lord Cockburn. Wild of appearance and formidably learned, he collected languages as some now do parking tickets. It is estimated that he knew at least thirty languages. The following piece was written for the Scots Magazine in 1802 at the height of the Enlightenment when it was commonplace in Edinburgh to bump into men of genius, of whom Leyden was undoubtedly one. Edmund Curl, who is mentioned by Leyden, was a notorious and unscrupulous English bookseller who specialised in obscene publications and was the butt of Alexander Pope’s satire. Hence ‘curlicism’, a synonym for literary indecency.

The Edinburgh Booksellers
Hector M’Niell, Esq.

Sir,–Booksellers have been termed, with some degree of propriety, the midwives of literature; on the manner in which they perform their office, the healthy or sickly state of literature in a great measure depends, and for the exercise of their functions they are amenable to the public. To the public I therefore appeal, through the intervention of your publication, for the redress of an impropriety, which, if not timely corrected, may swell into an abuse.

The booksellers of this city are no doubt a respectable act of men, and their plump and jolly visages show how well they fatten on the fields of literature. Literature, which to other men is the food of the mind, to them is the food of the body, and apparently a very thriving sort of food too. But let the public be on their guard with these literary accoucheurs, and beware of finding them a rival to the fame of Edmund Curl.  His is a fame that will never die. He is gibbeted to immortality in the full blazon of his literary infamy.

But it is not my present purpose to compose a satire on the booksellers of this city; I only intend to remind them of the duty they owe the public, in consequence of its patronage. Notwithstanding the number of booksellers’ shops that meet us by twos and threes, in almost every street, the delay in procuring London publications of merit is altogether astonishing. Every literary man in this city who does not communicate directly with a London bookseller, must have experienced the inconvenience resulting from this neglect. After calling a dozen times at the booksellers, his first answer is generally as good as his last. ‘The parcel which contains it, is on its way;’ and thus, the length of the journey chills the spirit of inquiry, damps curiosity, and extinguishes the ardour which ought to animate a literary man. Could any person, a priori, have thought it possible, that lately, all my inquiries after a copy of Kirwan’s Geological Essays would have been ineffectual. I first called at a very elegant shop in the Parliament Close, and asked for Kirwan’s Geological Essays. There was only a little boy behind the counter, and while he retired to examine his shelves, I was accosted by a very civil intelligent gentleman, who informed me the book was not in the shop; but who appeared very willing to enter into a discussion of its philosophic principles, in which I could only regret my inability to join him. While I lingered, we were joined by the other gentleman of the shop, who had not hitherto perceived me, having been assiduous in his attention of half a dozen young ladies.

I immediately left this seat of the Muses, and next proceeded to a shop on the right hand side of the Square. The gentleman who, I presume, was the Major Domo here, was standing in the middle of the shop, and superintending the packing of a large bale. He went round it and round it repeatedly, without appearing to see me; and when at last he came forward, and I asked for my book, he stood silent for some time, then looking askance, but not to me, abruptly answered, ‘We hav’nt the book!’ – stepped back to his packing business and I packed myself off, afraid that I had popped into a Temple of Silence instead of a Temple of Science.

My next attempt to procure the volume, was at a conspicuous shop near the Cross. Behind the counter I found a handsome little boy. When I inquired for my book, his eyes flashed eagerness to furnish it; he looked over the shelf appropriated to such books, and brought down Kirwan’s Mineralogy, two volumes. By this time a good looking little gentleman advanced from the back apartment, half bowing, with his hands in his breeches pockets, Turning to Mr. –, who was coming down the interior staircase, I informed him of the object of my research. ‘O! Kirwan! the very best author we have on Mineralogy. When he was in Scotland, I had the honour of introducing him to Dr. Black, and was highly entertained with their conversation. We really, Sir, have no author who describes things, as they are in the specimens, so well as Mr. Kirwan. No Mineralogist should be without Mr. Kirwan’s books. Boy, show the gentleman Mr. Kirwan!’ It is not the Mineralogy but the Geological Essays I want. ‘I really believe we have not got it; Mr. – has neglected to send it down, but we shall certainly have it soon.’

I proceeded down the street to another shop, and asked for the same book; ‘Sir,’ said the gentleman behind the counter, with the most complacent civility, ‘I have not the book, but I’ll commission it for you; I am just sending off an order for London, and in ten or twelve days you shall have it.’ I mentioned the inconvenience of the delay. ‘Sir,’ he said, ‘I sent over the whole town for it yesterday; it is not to be had, but I’ll commission it for you.’ Then taking up a book from the counter, ‘Have you seen this, sir; this is by a gentleman of your profession.’ ‘I have seen it.’ ‘But here is on which you cannot have seen, though you must have heard of it. Much is expected, and it will answer expectation; it only arrived last night. There is not another copy in town.’ The entrance of another gentleman gave me time to read the title-page; when the facetious gentleman again accosted me, ‘They have a queer set of folks, these Border gentry; Lady Harden’s Clear Spurs, and the Laird’s Hay Stack, is the finest story I ever read. Shall I send you a sight of the book. We are all becoming Scotish again, sir; Scotish poems, Scotish history, Scotish antiquities – everything is Scotish, sir; we may overhaul the Union itself, some of these days: and there is Scots Magazine, sir; the title ought to have been Scotish, as a great antiquary….’

But my inquiries did not terminate here. Two gentlemen, I found, had been in possession of the book; but one of them had exchanged it for Manson’s sermons, which he had again exchanged it for ‘The Dance of Death’; and the second had sent his copy to Denmark, to be deposited in the King’s library. I was therefore necessitated to forego my book, and derive very little consolation from being presented, instead of it, with various articles, Icelandic literature, which I was carefully assured had been duplicates in the King of Denmark’s library. If Scotish literature was too deep for me, Icelandic literature was still deeper. My researches, however, if they did not enable me to proceed in my investigations of a theory of the earth, furnish me with a notable practical specimen of the characteristic manners of our booksellers here; and as I have set down nought in malice, I hope they will be flattered with this view of their general portraits, and I doubt not but they will readily recognise themselves.

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