Saturdays seem to be good days for window shoppers. Today we sold four books from the window and another is potentially on the point of departure.
The Folio Society edition of The Blue Fairy Book by Andrew Lang. made me realise how long it is since I clapped eyes on the full set of the original ‘coloured’ fairy books, which were published as follows: The Blue Fairy Book, 1889; The Red Fairy Book – 1890; The Green Fairy Book, 1892; The Yellow Fairy Book, 1894; The Pink Fairy Book, 1897; The Grey Fairy Book, 1900; The Violet Fairy Book, 1901; The Crimson Fairy Book, 1903; The Brown Fairy Book, 1904; The Orange Fairy Book, 1906; The Olive Fairy Book, 1907; The Lilac Fairy Book, 1910.
An academic from Durham, editor of a journal on Victorian music, lamented the fact that the ancient cathedral city does not have a single secondhand bookshop. This he put down to the lack of a “critical mass” of book buyers – then confessed to reading fiction exclusively on his handheld device, and older books free online (having noted the titles in shops such as Main Point). In tune with the bleakness of what he called the “real world” (a place I am often advised to visit), I produced An Incomplete History of the Art of Funerary Violin but he would not be tempted, though he perused it for while – memorising a few details for a Google search, I suspect.
Marginal notes attract a lot of interest. They were the specific quarry of a young art student bent on exploring the relationship between handwritten and printed text. This triggered a conversation about Fermat’s “Last Theorem”, referenced concisely in the margins of Arithmetica; 385 years passed before the theorem was solved, in 1995, by Andrew Wiles. Buzzing with ideas, she left the shop with a copy of Amir Aczel’s account of Wiles’ impassioned quest.
The proximity of Main Point Books to Edinburgh College of Art means that customers often have plans to transmute books into something else. The future destiny of a book never fails to fascinate me – and often it’s nothing so simple as being read.
Hamer Dodds is an “artist and sometime scientist with an inordinate fondness of SAFC and lagavulin” as he puts it @hamerdodds. I’m always intrigued by what takes his fancy, and why. For instance, he once leapt on a 1960s I-Spy Wild Flowers, which prompted a torrent of ideas. I particularly liked it when he likened the books at Main Point to spores disseminating unanticipated ideas, connections and trains of thought. Hamer has work displayed at inordinatefondness.com.
The desire to please customers can backfire. One woman told me she wanted 200 books – “to make into clocks”. Unlike those who shudder at the thought of destroying a book, I can’t ignore the practicalities of bookselling. In a slack market, space is at a premium. Things must move on, or they become stale. The books she wanted had to have an attractive cover design and be very cheap. Perhaps my decision was cuckoo, but I decided to go for it and filled five boxes with potential candidates. Weeks passed, hopeful sounding emails arrived, but it looks as if Orwell was spot-on about what happens when you set books aside. Even so, it would be premature to call time on the book trade just yet.
“Don’t let me buy anything,” some plead as they enter the shop. Or, “My flight luggage allowance is tiny.” Or, “I’ve got all my books on my ******.”
My stock reply – “No worries, did you know I’m planning to turn the bookshop into an ‘installation’ and charge entry at the door?” – is in danger of being taken seriously. I gather this has actually been done by a Dutch artist, multiplying the value of the stock by a factor of ten.
Prompting thoughts of homicide, at least once a month someone comes into Main Point Books, takes a deep breath and announces: “I just came in because I love the smell of old books.”
Wake up and smell the books?
Which brings George Orwell to mind. In The Road to Wigan Pier Orwell recounts his disgust at the smell of dossers’ socks, and in his ‘Bookshop Memories’ he mentions another nasal challenge: “the person smelling of old breadcrusts who comes every day, sometimes several times a day, and tries to sell you worthless books”. He also reports that: “Scarcely half the people who ordered books from us ever came back. It used to puzzle me at first. What made them do it? They would come in and demand some rare and expensive book, would make us promise over and over again to keep it for them, and then would vanish never to return.” He also has a mild gripe about bookshops being among “the few places where you can hang about for a long time without spending any money”, and the sometimes dubious clientele this attracts. But for my own part, I see browsing as one of the joys in life, what a good bookshop is about.
There was a Mr Carrigan who taught the science class, from Towerbank and St John’s pupils, but one day in an extra mural little session he gave us his opinions about Donald Renton. Donald was a very well-known Communist activist in those and later days in Portobello where his family lived. Mr Carrigan said he was surprised that Donald, who had been a pupil of his and showed good promise in school at Towerbank, had become a troublesome agitator and a person we should not get involved with.
Well of course many of us were influenced against Renton and his comrades by remarks like that so that one day at Wood’s Park football ground some of the boys from Pipe Street met other boys from Mitchell’s Buildings and we were hostile to each other in any case, like different gangs. This day our mutual antagonisms only expressed themselves in argument, and I said to Charlie Renton, one of Donald’s younger brothers: Your brother’s a bloody agitating upstart. “Is that so?” said Charlie “Well who the hell do you think got you lot your school dinners?”
Well that stopped me in my stride, but I didn’t really know anything about who got us school dinners. However, I found out through my parents, that what Charlie said was true. Not just Donald, of course, but the local Communists and Labour activists who had campaigned and agitated for the Local Authority to provide school dinners to the families of the unemployed.
My dad later fought in the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. He left the Communist Party in 1956 at the time of the Hungarian Revolution (when the contrarian MacDiarmid decided to join) and went on to became an Edinburgh councillor for Craigmillar ward. In the 60s, when filling in his Census form, I remember him entering under Occupation: Revolutionary Communist; and under Religion: Militant Atheist.
Thanks to the internet, everyone now believes they have a handle on book values, equating the top prices being sought to actual values. Sometimes they actually are. Often it’s just someone flying a kite. And as anyone who has bought a book online knows, one seller’s “good condition” is another’s “falling apart”. So I have to rein in my kneejerk scepticism when people tell me they have a valuable, rare “vintage” book. Very often these turn out to be tattered copies of the works of Robert Burns, but with family associations which might really interest young family member, so best not sold.
Scotland’s Bard always makes me think of John Cairney, whose one-man show was such a success that he’ll be forever known as “The Man Who Was Burns”. When he appeared in December as the guest of the Conservatoire in Glasgow, the swash-buckling shirt he wore in role as Burns was not in evidence. He cut a superbly elegant figure and soon had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand as he recounted scenes from his life. WInning two seats at the theatre was his first introduction to the stagr. All he could think about was, “How do I get there from here?”
The first student through the door of the RSAMD, he went on to a career on stage and in film. One of his funniest stories involved being fed whisky by Richard Burton on the set of Cleopatra. The event at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland was introduced by Stuart Harris-Logan (pictured above with John Cairney) who gave an outline of its archive which includes the Jimmy Logan Archive, the Nell Ballantyne Collection, musical instruments and manuscripts.
I am becoming inured to the plight of a secondhand bookseller in the Age of Kindle and believe that, like the Death of the Author, the Demise of the Bookshop remains pending. This optimism flies in the face of certain facts. Across the UK hundreds of bookshops have closed in the last decade. In 2014, for the first time in over twenty years, the PBFA Edinburgh Festival Book Fair did not take place.
No mobile phone for internet access, no instant comparison of prices, in not so far off days booksellers and collectors on the prowl had to build up a cache of “points”. (Who now knows by heart the precise selection of creatures on the endpapers of Jemima Puddleduck that show it’s a “first issue”?) The Scottish book trade has numbered many scholarly booksellers whose joy it was to delve into the history of printing and publishing, memorising the crucial details that distinguish collectable books. Such knowledge gives an edge at auction or on the hunt.
Not having the best memory for such things, and being prone to panicking when on the spot, I’ve had to depend on instinct. One of my bookshop “finds” was the very ordinary looking Histoires Extraordinaires (1856) by Edgar Allan Poe, translated by Charles Baudelaire. That was in McNaughtan’s Bookshop back when it was run by John ‘the Henty King’ McNaughtan and his wife Marjorie, an authority on early children’s book. Amazing booksellers though they were, this was one that got away.
As a bookseller I’ve made plenty of bloomers, but I try not to lose sleep over them. After all, you learn by your mistakes – though in this field, you might never get the chance again to apply the knowledge.