Home > Reviews > Review – 18 Bookshops by Anne Scott (Sandstone Press)

Review – 18 Bookshops by Anne Scott (Sandstone Press)

Quirky, original, wonderful writing;  a celebration of 18 bookshops in the life of the author; half of them set in Scotland with the rest in London (5), Oxford (1) Ireland (2) and New York (1). However, this is a storybook, not a travelogue. Nor is it a bookshop guide, as I thought at first.  I bought 18 Bookshops supposing it to be a book about shops. I was wrong. Instead this is an adventure story – about all that is excellent in making good literature available and of its potential for massively widening our horizons.

The book is beautifully descriptive, and at times deeply insightful about what is of value in literature and bookselling. It also pays homage to that very good office of ‘Bookseller’ in hushed tones.

18 Bookshops - Anne Scott

This volume is a pleasure to handle; a solid hardback beautifully produced and packaged, with orange and black leaves and end-covers, and a black and orange typeface. There are no page numbers but surprisingly it’s easy to find your way around the chapters. I do hope numbers are not added to any reprint as it would so spoil this delicious little book. Here are 18 short chapters to read and savour; it’s very difficult to read this book in a hurry. It’s a book clearly forged in Scotland with a Scottish slant and a Celtic view; and all the better for it.

If you love bookshops, you’ll love this book. It captures the essence and atmosphere of a good bookshop perfectly. We need to guard such treasure before it soon becomes a thing only of its past. You’ll have to buy the book to see which shops are selected and if you know any of them? However, be aware that several of them are from as far back as the 1500’s and many are long gone. Each chapter evokes the wonder and power of literature as seen through the eyes of owners and customers of these very diverse shops. Spanning many centuries and winsomely written, it has real emotional appeal to all lovers of physical books and physical bookshops. In an age of simply clicking a mouse to purchase a book, we need to be reminded of this pleasure.

Chapter 7 contains the delightful story of Robert Louis Stevenson, then aged 5, entering James Smith’s bookshop. Stevenson in his later memoir tells of the transforming effect that this Edinburgh bookshop had on his imagination; ‘the place smelt of Bibles and it was wonderfully dark’. In Chapter 9, another Edinburgh bookshop, the Grail Bookshop is the subject. Anne Scott writes, ‘This bookshop gave me more than just books’. Bookshops do that to you. The chapter evoked strong memories for me of a rather different bookshop, owned by the Church of Scotland and also in George Street where I too spent much of my time. Both these shops are now closed; ‘defeated chiefly by rising rents in George Street’.

Scott writes of ‘a Bookman’ in Chapter 10, not ‘bookseller’. Note that subtle distinction; good book people don’t just sell books. I like that description. I think I’d like to be known as such. She writes of one volume, ‘No-one closes this book unchanged for it releases dreams’.  In Chapter 11, the doorway to an Oxford bookshop is described thus; ‘The entry loudly and harmoniously belled’.  There seems a wistfulness and a longing running throughout the book.

I enjoyed Chapter 12 with its history of bookselling in London (and of Paternoster Row in particular) interwoven into the story of Thomas Davies, a Scot, an actor, a bookseller and quite a character it would seem. Davies was a friend and contemporary of both Dr Samuel Johnson and James Boswell. Johnson’s father had been a bookseller in Lichfield. His son had ‘seen the suffering caused by failing custom, broken orders, lost money, and the fickleness of the trade’. Quite an apt narrative for the book trade! An English Heritage blue plaque is now assigned to Tom Davies bookshop near Covent Garden.

Chapter 14 comes with a good description of a good bookseller: ‘Here is an owner who reads her visitors and leases out time to those who need it, who want it in this place’. For me, Chapter 15 is THE chapter in the book. It’s called ‘Leaving’. I read it twice – it’s beautiful, haunting and sad; a love story involving the author and a bookshop overlooking Waverley Station in Edinburgh. This is very personal writing indeed, with hidden depths in its language, hinting at a monochrome past but now a life transformed by all that’s best in British literature.

Chapter 17 on Kenny’s Bookshop, Galway contains a description of the perfect bookshop, ‘to sit somewhere out of the way and look: to read and buy, and read and leave, and return’.  This shop has now moved online. Anne Scott comments, ‘I send for books, pay in silence online: but the book comes in and is real then, though from whom and by whose hand, I can never know’.

The final chapter covers an occult bookshop in London. For me, this is the poorest of the chapters and sad to end such a delightful book on such an unsatisfactory note.

18 Bookshops is as much about good literature as it is about bookshops; the subversive impact of a well-written book on the mind and the imagination down through the ages. It contains the manifesto of why I personally have been involved with books all these years.

I think I must write my own ‘18 Bookshops’ before it’s too late. It’s not quite the same to describe 18 websites! If I did, I’d have to include a far-too-short visit to Maria Brothers in Shimla, Northern India – a musty, dusty shop full of old volumes and maps left over from when the British left India, where stock crumbled in your hand as you explored but which was a treasure house of old books in which to browse. I still vividly recall this shop as I write.

That’s what all bookshops can and should do – I commend 18 Bookshops to you as a celebration.

Maria Brothers, Shimla, India

Inside Maria Brothers, Shimla

Final note – I do find it offensive – given the subject matter – that this book is advertised by Anne Scott’s publishers as available via Amazon of all places!

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