A bookshop for a town

A TOWN isn’t a town without a bookstore. So the author, Neil Gaiman, is attributed as having said.

Scotland boasts dozens, if not hundreds, of bookstores – including Rare Birds Books and Golden Hare Books, both in Edinburgh’s Stockbridge district; The Mainstreet Trading Company in St Boswells, near Melrose; and Calton Books, which describes itself as ‘Glasgow’s independent, radical bookshop’.

Several of them of course are part of the well-known Waterstones chain (here) – Aviemore, Ayr, East Kilbride, Edinburgh x 4, Elgin, Dumfries, Dundee, Dunfermline, Falkirk, Glasgow x 7, Inverness, Kirkcaldy, Livingston, Oban, Perth, St Andrews and Stirling.

In addition, there also exists a plethora of second-hand bookshops, including dedicated charity shops (such as Oxfam) and those offering a comprehensive mail order service, such as Hanselled Books in Burntisland, Fife, the world-renowned The Bookshop located in the country’s self-styled ‘book town’ of Wigtown, in Dumfries and Galloway, and Leakey’s in Inverness, said to be the largest secondhand bookshop in Scotland

Of the Scots towns that boast a Waterstones outlet, one of the smallest is Oban, with a population – at the last count – of just under 9,000.

Oban, of course, serves a wider population, not least those of the Inner Hebridean isles (indeed, the Oban Waterstones is just a couple of hundred yards from the ferry terminal). And the town of Aviemore – population of just over 3,000 – is also a popular visitor destination.

So it’s not strictly true that a figure of either 9,000 or even 3,000 can be considered the critical mass justifying the establishment of a bookshop. 

But to what extent is it possible to design a small town that is just about big enough for a bookshop? 

The now-closed Linton Books in the Scottish Borders village of West Linton (population 1,700, at the last count) stands testimony that not every bookshop is guaranteed to be a success – irrespective of whether the local population can be described as bibliophiles. Linton Books might have closed due to the retirement of its owner, but it certainly has not been resurrected or replaced.

That said, Stromness, on the Orkney Islands, has a population of about 2,200, but Stromness Books and Prints seems to be managing just fine – perhaps helped by the fact that the town is a popular tourist destination and by a ferry terminal. And The Mainstreet Trading Company is located in a village with a population of just 1,470. 

So, size alone can never be considered the only determining factor.

The trick might lie in the diversity of the offering. Not only does The Mainstreet Trading Company have books neatly stacked on its trim, white shelves, but it is also a cafe and a regular venue for a stunning roster of speaker events (their faces bear down on customers in the cafe from a pinboard crammed with photographs). 

There is a deli attached, and a home and kitchenware shop too. In total, The Mainstreet Trading Company adds up to being a visitor destination.

It is the very embodiment of the mantra: build it and they will come.

Meanwhile, Rare Bird Books, in Edinburgh’s Stockbridge, is the product of a transition usually done in the opposite direction. While many bricks and mortar bookshops have subsequently gone on to provide an online sales service, Rare Birds has done it the other way around.

It started life as an online book club (which it still is), using a subscription model which sees books mailed out on a monthly basis. 

Specialising in books by women authors, the physical bookshop provides the opportunity to not only chat face-to-face with staff but also to host in-person events.

Rare Birds Books has the space to be a multi-faceted operation. 

In the town of Melrose (population: 2,500 or so), only a few miles from The Mainstreet Trading Company, there’s a newly-opened bookshop that is tiny, by comparison. Tiny and utterly charming, The Reading Room is only big enough to stock about a 1,000 books.

Of course, Melrose, the town, is itself a popular visitor destination. And it is also the base of the annual Borders Book Festival. 

Clearly, a degree of expert curation is required.

“We work with local authors and stock books of local interest that may not achieve shelf space in a large chain store,” says co-owner, Tania Helm.

“We also have a loyal local customer base who like the personalised service and appreciate the human touch rather than buying a book with a click.”

To begin with a quote. And to end on one too. This quote is attributed to the poet and short story writer, Jen Campbell: “Bookshops are dreams built of wood and paper. They are time travel and escape and knowledge and power. They are, simply put, the best of places.”

In other words, every town should probably have one.

Mike Wilson is a member of the Place Design Scotland team

Pictured: Rare Birds Books, Edinburgh, Picture credit: Place Design Scotland

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