Secondhand Bookshops in Edinburgh

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.

Southside Books. It's perfectly OK inside. Go in.

Southside Books. It’s perfectly OK inside. Go in.

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.

Spotless and not a misplacement to be found.

Spotless and not a misplacement to be found.

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.

You may have to pick your moment to go in on busier days. Easily worth the walk up from the Royal Mile.

Oxfam Southside: you may have to pick your moment to go in on busier days. Easily worth the walk up from the Royal Mile.

Barnardo's Bookshop Edinburgh - click to enlarge.

Barnardo’s Bookshop Edinburgh – click to enlarge.

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.

Tills: a quaint bookshop further out towards the Meadows.

Tills: a quaint bookshop further out towards the Meadows.

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.

The Non-fiction back room.

The Non-fiction back room.

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!

Click to enlarge.

The main room in Tills. Click to enlarge.

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10 Responses to Secondhand Bookshops in Edinburgh

  1. Ste J says:

    shrink wrapped comics and magazines, are they also for sale as well? I like to dabble in some nostalgia from yesteryear although I admit to hoarding a load of them at home, mainly 80’s/90’s computer magazines, I lament not keeping my comics from when I was a nipper.

    I love bookshops that are just houses converted and you get to see all the fireplaces and the old furniture and such, it makes it feel like I am in somebody’s house which makes it more comfortable. I like your bookshop guides they will cost book lovers a lot of money though but that is never a bad thing.

    As long as there is enough left for a couple of pints though, it’s just not the same, perusing your books without imbibing.


    • Jeff says:

      Yeah, I assume Tills has those things for sale.
      There was once a secondhand bookshop in Alston that had Whizzer and Chips, Dandy, and Whoopee! and Buster annuals from the ’80s. I got excited and started looking for things I’d read. When I found them, I thought to myself ‘Did I REALLY read this?’ So you might be disappointed by those comics you read when you were a nipper – that’s all I’m sayin’.
      A lot of secondhand bookshops are either house conversions or commercial renovations with a housiness. They are rather wholesome. I shall endeavour to give more guides in future. I find myself clustering my visits for time and geography. There’s scant help on the web for this. Maybe I should mention pubs too in future?!


      • Ste J says:

        I remember all those comics apart from Whoopee! I think were I to see them I would just take a couple for nostalgias sake but not too many as room is really at a premium for me as it is I suspect for all readers.

        I think clustering visits is a good idea as it saves money as well as being time saving as well, these smaller bookshops tend not to do websites if the few i have checked up on randomly are anything to go by and often shops have shut and the information not updated which is a shame.

        I think mentioning a pub or perhaps café that is a little different or in an obscure location would be fun but please no soulless Wetherspoons pubs that blight our town centres.


  2. Lucy says:

    Where’s the pic of the villi!? At least they can’t be gluten intolerant, so that bookshop can eat as much bread as it likes.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Sarah says:

    Yesterday I went to one of my usual haunts for secondhand books and came away with nothing. It was probably just that I’d not left enough time between visits but I felt panicky. Reading your posts has saved the day as I can just trawl secondhand bookshops vicariously instead, whilst also feeling terribly cosmopolitan. You should really consider going on tour!


    • Jeff says:

      People in charity bookshops are used to seeing customers visit without purchases. I have read on a private bookshop’s blog a post that sounds rather aggrieved at non-purchasers. I was a bit surprised they would write it at all, regardless of its humour. Maybe some owners have frustrations when they can depend on that next purchase (this was a high-end, collector’s shop).
      Don’t know about a tour, but I have some more shops in Glasgow to blog about soon, including one that’s really funky. Stay tuned!


  4. Not sure if you’ve been there, but there’s a shop I forget the name of on the left hand side going down Leith Walk, near the top. Loads of old books, plenty second hand.


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