Our rich heritage of independent bookshops (and booksellers)

12th March, 2020

4 min read

Our rich heritage of independent bookshops (and booksellers)

Our rich heritage of independent bookshops (and booksellers)

Written by:

Troubador Publishing

Jack P Harland, author of the Highland Journal books celebrates local bookshops

I have always loved bookshops and whenever one I have known has had to close it’s been a blow that I’ve felt painfully. There is something magical about all those books on the shelves with their worlds, real and imagined, waiting to be discovered and I have often dreamed that one day my book will be sitting there with them.

Turning dreams into reality, however, inevitably involves hard work. The hard work is not just in the writing, editing and proofing of the book but also in making sure that it gets onto those shelves. Although my first book was a few weeks from publication date I put some AI sheets and posters in my rucksack on a trip to Assynt. The first bookshop I visited was in the thriving Ceilidh Place, Ullapool. This lovely old building with its complex of accommodation, restaurant, café bar and concert venue has a well-stocked bookshop which is open until the last evening diners have gone home. At the counter, I met Alexandra, the manager and gave my pitch. She listened quietly while sizing me up then asked, “Is it any good?” “Of course!” I replied. “Then I’ll order some.” She then surprised me by asking if I would like to launch my book at a ‘meet the author’ event and I quickly said yes before she could change her mind. I have become friends with Alexandra and look forward to our coffee and chat whenever I’m up there.

This Wester Ross fishing village is blessed with two bookshops, the Ullapool Bookshop is an old, white-painted building just back from the harbour, its walls impregnated with many decades of sea salt. I talked to Katharine, explaining that a purchase of the SMC guide to the Munros in her shop had set off a chain of events leading to my book. Without hesitation, she said she’d stock it and took a glossy poster for the shop door. My next visit was to Achin’s, the UK’s most remote bookshop, perched on a steep rocky hill above the River Kirkaig and set amongst truly stunning scenery. There I met Alex, a man who takes no prisoners and who bluntly explained why he was wary of taking self-published books. I am not easily put off and told him that my book had none of the flaws he had outlined and I had every confidence that it would do well. He went quiet as he made me tea and then said that he’d order a few copies and see how they sold. I’ve been back twice since then and am getting to know Alex quite well, he’s certainly taught me a lot about the book business.

Back home again, I reasoned that I would have to decide on geographical limits (I could manage Scotland and the far north of England) for my visits and started to plan some road trips. An old stone-built watermill in Aberfeldy has been beautifully converted to contain a bookshop. I met Sally there, signed copies of my books and enjoyed lunch in the cosy café as the staff put up their Christmas decorations. The shelves were bursting with books and they were in piles on every available surface at The Bookmark, Grantown-on-Spey, where Marjory has become a great support. She passed a copy of my first book to Chris Townsend, the well-known mountaineer and award-winning author and he wrote a great review. This year she is putting me in touch with community organisations looking for speakers and I’ll be most happy to oblige.

The Main Street Trading Company in St Boswells is full of character, its old buildings standing around a little courtyard and the perfect place to go if you are looking for something tasty from its delicatessen, a coffee or, of course, a book. The bookshop is full of light and has two little caves for children to hide in with a favourite volume. Despite meeting her last year I asked Vivian if I could speak to Vivian but she forgave me. I signed her stock of books and then enjoyed tea and cake with a friend in the homely café.

Steve Baskerville-Muscutt, has become another person I love to visit. He is proprietor of Fred’s Ambleside Bookshop, with a frontage usually found only on the nostalgic pictures that used to decorate chocolate boxes and a quaint interior absolutely packed with tempting things. While I was enjoying family holidays in the little white cottage on the cover of my first book he was in a similar cottage with his family just along the coast of Coigach. Like me, he has fallen in love with this spectacular part of our country and he understands the passion in my books for its landscapes and wildlife. It was a surprise to find my books in the old-fashioned window of Sam Read’s Bookshop in the Lakeland village of Grasmere.

Dr Will Smith, a bookseller based there also discovered that Elaine, the proprietor, had ordered copies. Getting in touch, he used my experience of working with Troubador as a case study in his widely-circulated publication, ‘What is happening with self-publishing in Scotland today?’ So thank you Elaine and thank you Will. I’ve run out of space to list them all (45 to date) but must mention the Whitby Bookshop, a Georgian building near the harbour with a rickety spiral stair and bags of charm. I’m often in the town and always pop in to have a chat with the manager, Fiona.

So next time you want to buy a book don’t go on-line if you value the wonderful bookshops (and booksellers) we have in the UK and want them to continue as part of our rich cultural heritage.

Blog by Jack P Harland, author of the Highland Journal books.