In the age of fast food, digital downloads and instant gratification, the real allure of bookshops is the space to slow down.
I was the kind of child that runs hands along railings. I delighted in the feeling of the rungs under my fingers, and the ringing sound I could make with nothing but my own body. Years later and I mostly restrain myself from playing the railings, but still find my hands taking on a mind of their own when in bookshops; I simply cannot pass a shelf or a display table without tracing the tips of my fingers over spines.
I am certain the urge behind both movements is the same. The childish desire to turn playground railings into a giant xylophone and the itch I feel when walking into a bookshop: both stem from a joy at the possibilities before me, and a frustration that, while other worlds are at my fingertips, most of the time they remain stubbornly at arm’s length. I do not think there will ever be a day when I won’t wish that I could absorb everything a book has to offer by just pressing my palms to its cover page.
But that, of course, would defeat the point. While this super power may satisfy my insatiable inner child, who wants to run through bookshops, consuming everything in sight at great speed, the last thing I want bookshops to become is glorified loading bays. In the age of fast food, digital downloads and instant gratification, the real allure of bookshops is the space to slow down. When the gluttonous kid inside me has calmed down (usually under the weight of a crushing stack of “maybe” books), it is not uncommon to lose hours tucked away in a nook somewhere. I can only describe the yank back to reality as a kind of decompression sickness; surfacing too quickly leaves you blinking and dizzy from immersion.
Entering a bookshop, rifling the shelves, and settling down between pages for however long is an act of trust; where you choose to lose yourself for a little while speaks volumes.
One of the things I love about bookshops is how much they reveal about the people that enter them. Does your heart beat a little faster when you see piles of books, delicately balanced in impossible structures? Or is your ideal library a haven of clean lines, neat shelves and light floorboards? Entering a bookshop, rifling the shelves, and settling down between pages for however long is an act of trust; where you choose to lose yourself for a little while speaks volumes. So, with that in mind, take this list of my personal favourites as you will.
Blackwells – Oxford
This was my first proper bookshop: the one I waited for hours outside to get my hands on the latest copy of Harry Potter; the one I bought school books in; the one I searched to find my Dad’s book. For me, the Norrington Room, which stretches underground like a rabbit warren, linking the two halves of this bookshop (which in proper Oxford fashion are separated by a sixteenth-century pub), was an ordinary feature. It was only when I left the city that I realised this place was pretty special.
Golden Hare – Edinburgh
This bookshop is a haven, full stop. I first stumbled in as an undergraduate, when it was still nestled into Edinburgh’s Grassmarket. When it hopped to Stockbridge I suffered separation anxiety, wondering if the lovely space could really be reborn somewhere else. I needn’t have worried; the shop has bloomed at its current location. The booksellers are bookworms (honestly, their recommendations are second to none), the regular reading groups and author talks the shop hosts are cosy, intimate affairs, and the shop’s displays are works of art in themselves.
Lighthouse – Edinburgh
The fear that struck Edinburgh book lovers when Word Power Books was put up for sale was intense. There aren’t that many bookshops committed to radical, feminist, left-wing titles, and my goodness did we want to hang on to the ones we had! Luckily, Word Power’s new incarnation as Lighthouse has satisfied all my concerns. Teaming up with Golden Hare for Edinburgh’s Book Fringe and hosting events year-round, this is a bookshop which is heart and soul committed to challenging exclusivity, championing equality, and celebrating curiosity.
Voltaire and Rousseau Bookshop – Glasgow
This is one for the lovers of precarious piles. Tucked away in Otago Lane for over thirty years, this place defies gravity with its floor-to-ceiling stacks. It’s dishevelled, it’s disorganised, it’s utterly glorious. If you can pick your way through the maze of walkways in this tiny hobbit hole, you can unearth some incredible treasures. I picked up the entire works of Shakespeare here for less than five pounds.
Edinburgh Books – Edinburgh
Another one for the fans of rabbit warrens, and a true eccentric’s paradise. This one is worth a visit just for the sunglass-wearing pufferfish in the window, and the water buffalo head mounted on the wall. You will undoubtedly find yourself spending almost as much time studying the hand-drawn pictures and notes pinned to the walls as the books themselves. One note carries the invaluable advice on what to do if you surface only to find yourself locked in overnight (make yourself a cup of tea, grab a biscuit, and settle down with a good book while awaiting rescue, of course).
Eloise Hendy is a postgraduate student at The University of Edinburgh, studying Creative Writing and specialising in Poetry. She is the Designer for 50GS, a new digital literary journal of prose, poetry and innovative cross-genre texts, and helps edit From Arthur's Seat, a creative writing anthology.