Following on from my recent secondhand bookshop binge in Glasgow, here are my wanderings in Edinburgh. Both these cities attract a lot of international as well as British visitors. What I would say to anyone visiting from overseas is that you might consider foregoing a tourist attraction or two and browse some secondhand books instead.
Anyone interested in Scottish literature and history will, of course, be abundantly well-catered for. But fitting in a browse or two is surely something to experience that your fellow countrypersons are unlikely to be able to retell when they get back home.
The first thing to say is that my wanderings here started from Waverley Station along South Bridge. According to Google maps, this runs under the train lines – news to me! The clue that it doesn’t is in the ‘Bridge’ part to South Bridge. Anyway, you need to head up to the Royal Mile and southwards towards the Meadows, go past Cowgate, and then on the left hand side of the road (still South Bridge) is Southside Books. Don’t be put off by the tatty exterior. It’s clean enough inside, if a bit cramped for manouvering past other customers. The stock has a mix of recent and long-in-the-tooth copies. It’s a good visit for anyone on a course due to the high proportion of academic titles. The shop also sells new stock at ‘discount’ prices. I found the number of these that were unmarked for price a bit confusing. Was this an invitation to barter? Do you get given their best guess? Not an issue on the day because I didn’t find anything I wanted on this occasion, so continuing along in the same direction …
The road becomes Nicholson Street. Oh, I should add that if you need to stop for a coffee or a bite to eat, then you’ll find a lot of cafes nearby. Southside, the name of this area as well as the bookshop, is a bit grungy – being near the Uni, I suppose that makes it ‘shabby chic’ – and the cultural diversity goes up, so the eateries are varied. Eating here isn’t as expensive as down towards Princes Street and the New Town.
The next secondhand bookshop of note is Oxfam, again on the left, and after five minutes’ walk. Again there’s an academic influence on the stock, but less so than Southside. There’s more for general appeal as well as the sort of titles that were reviewed in the broadsheets a couple of years ago, or appeared on Radio 4 with the author getting interviewed by a journo from the cappuccino intelligentsia. All this is immaculately arranged, as you’d expect at Oxfam. What’s remarkable about this store is the way that the stands get the maximum shelf-space from this small premises. They are reminiscent of those villi and micro-villi that maximise the internal surface area of intestines to absorb the maximum nutrients from meals. Slightly medical analogy there. But it’s true. What’s also interesting is the way that customers find a way to keep out of each other’s way while browsing. This takes a couple of visits to get the hang of. It’s a sort of civil dance that’s pleasant to both learn and observe. I’m glad to say that my last visit yielded a copy of what became my book of 2014, while on this occasion, I got a beautiful hardbound copy of … well, I’m excited! It’ll make an appearance here sometime.
Two or three minutes’ walk further along Nicholson Street, this time over the road on your right, is Barnardo’s. The few obstacles to the windows make this charity bookshop light and airy. It’s well stocked on classic literature and what chain stores would call ‘smart thinking’. For its size, there’s good representation of the sciences too. What I’ve found about the place is that I go in, have no problems with being decisive, buy something, and then go. Maybe this is because I keep finding the kind of books here that I wouldn’t have bought at full price but couldn’t help but want to read, so half-priceish is a done deal. Dead friendly volunteers here.
My final stop was Tills, just around the corner from Barnardo’s in Hope Park Crescent. I shan’t describe the route. Just look it up on Google maps and you’ll see it’s just near the Meadows. The place is popular during the Festival, and does a good trade in fiction. The shop is notable for having a higher than usual representation of contemporary serious fiction in its stock. I recall getting my copy of The Plot Against America here.
Behind the main room there’s a small room out back for non-fiction. I find the stock here a bit outdated and obscure for some humanities subjects, but it appears to have good coverage of theatre and military history (this is Edinburgh, I suppose). What I hadn’t noticed until recently is that this room has a working wrought-iron fireplace. Welcoming, as well as practical for keeping the stock dry.
Another quirk is the profusion of shrink-wrapped magazines, journals, comics and posters hanging up around the place. These give the shop a yesteryear feel that goes with the architecture. In fact, just being in the shop is part of the appeal, even if you don’t buy anything. Bit of a trek if you’re not committed though. Best to try it out when you’ve got plenty of time and then see how you find it. And don’t be shy about asking about anything. The staff know their stock and its usual throughput.
Once you’ve got your bag of spoils, you’ll find you’re spoilt for choice for which pub to inspect them in. The Festival city has more pubs per head of population than pretty much anywhere in the world. Careful there!