Edinburgh is a city that exudes culture. So does the quotidian behaviour of its inhabitants.
The Scottish capital – a Unesco World Heritage Site – can boast the highest percentage of highly qualified professionals in the UK. The University of Edinburgh has scored among the world’s 15 best universities for many years in a row. The city plays host to the biggest arts festival in the world every summer, and admission to the city’s museums is free.
No wonder then that such a city enjoys a large readership. Apart from all the usual bookstore chains (Waterstone’s, Blackwell’s, etc.) Edinburgh has an important number of small, independent, second-hand bookshops. Most of them are located in the Old Town, strewn around the University buildings. Westport alone, a small street close to the Edinburgh College of Art, has six such bookstores and a small bindery to boot.
On one of our walks down Westport, we found a small bookshop sporting a sign on the door welcoming students (or other interested parties) to help themselves to free books inside. We decided to take a closer look and ask the owner how he came to have such a generous approach to his trade.
The owner, a certain Gordon J. Thompson, a translator himself, decided in 1991 to open up a small bookshop that would carry new releases of non-English titles only. Very soon, he figured out that his shop space was too small to compete with larger bookshops. So he decided to switch to second-hand titles, but always in foreign languages. It was easy for him to find such books: Edinburgh has quite the number of foreign inhabitants. In his bookstore, one can find anything from French, Spanish, and German literature, to Scandinavian and Easter European languages, even books written in East Asian languages and Hindi.
After 27 years of running his business, Gordon started thinking about retiring. His deadline for closing shop was May 27th, the date his license as a bookseller expired. “I know I could renew it very easily, but I took it as a sign that it was time for me to retire. I decided to give away the books, for free, when I realised that my options were limited: I could either throw them away – which I couldn’t even bare to think about – or to have a recycling company come collect and destroy them, for a pretty sum. So I decided to give them away to students, or whomever else was interested. For the past six weeks, the experiment has proven quite successful. The first week was pretty quiet, but since then the bookstore has seen its best days ever! In the meantime, the other second-hand bookshops up and down the street, with whom we were always on the best of terms, have offered to take in any remainders. So I know, at least, that the books will not come to waste.”