The Secret Life of Edinburgh’s Bookshops

27 Mar


Edinburgh, blog, Scotland, books

Armchair Books Interior (Boon Low – FlickrCC)

Edinburgh is full of interesting parallel worlds. One of the most interesting is the city’s collection of second-hand and antiquarian bookshops. Whether dotted around side streets, cosied up beneath a row of townhouses or couched defiantly beside a Waterstones or a Blackwells, you can stumble across one of these little gems almost anywhere in Edinburgh. But early risers beware: life in this world usually begins at around 11 o’clock, and often on a Tuesday.

Edinburgh, books, Scotland, travel, best bookshops

Armchair Books (Katherine – FlickrCC)

Avid bookworms might usefully begin their search for a bargain in the West Port, also known as ‘Edinburgh’s Soho’, a narrow street just up from the Grassmarket. The West Port boasts an impressive six bookshops and a bookbinder should you ever need to smarten up that ageing first edition of Shakespeare hidden away in your attic. Browsing these shops reveals that each has its own distinctive character, not to mention a diverse selection of books both ancient and modern. Definitely worth a look is Armchair Books; two narrow, charmingly ramshackle shops side by side.  Before entering be sure to have a quick glance at some of the quirky messages that staff have left on the window: ‘If this shop is locked & you would like to get in just ask next door. If, however, you are too cowardly to ask, then slink away, defeated by life once again’. This shop has a great collection of general fiction in some lovely hardback editions and the staff are always pleasant. As a go-getting student I once picked up a very nice (and very large) three volume copy of Proust’s A la Recherché du Temps Perdu here for an incredibly reasonable price. Perhaps I’ll get round to reading it all one day.

Edinburgh, books, bookshop, Scotland

Edinburgh Books Interior (Laddir Laddir – FlickrCC)

Across the West Port from Armchair Books sits Edinburgh Books, reputedly the largest second-hand bookshop in Edinburgh. This shop has a large collection of Scottish titles (including some great modern first editions) and has been a landmark for booklovers for almost twenty years. While browsing through military history books, theology books, antiquarian titles and all sorts of other things here you will undoubtedly come across ‘Clarence’, the head of a gigantic water buffalo that rests quietly on the top shelf overlooking the front room. You sense that the people who work here must have a real sense of humour.

As one might expect there are a number of popular second-hand and independent bookshops situated near The University of Edinburgh. Till’s Bookshop, tucked away at the east end of the Meadows, was established in 1986 and has since then become an institution for generations of students. The Edinburgh University Student Survival Guide states resolutely that Till’s is ‘possibly the best second hand bookshop in the world. Words can’t describe the wonders kept in this beautiful shop.’ Till’s is very well organised and has a section for just about everything from popular music to personal development. Science fiction fans will revel in the shop’s large collection of fantasy titles. Till’s is open seven days a week and on cold days the coal fireplace in the back of the shop makes the place all warm and cosy.

Edinburgh, books, bookshop, Scotland,

Tills Bookshop (James Morrison – FlickrCC)

Southside Books on South Bridge is another independent bookshop popular with the student population. A few doors down from Blackwells, this shop’s stockpile of used textbooks and non fiction has tempted in many a scholar in the throws of penury.  One can find more general fiction here too in a variety of genres. Southside Books has that sense of organised clutter that any good second hand bookshop should aspire to. You never know quite what crinkly tome you’re going to stumble upon next.

Heading in the direction of Leith Walk and the New Town you can find yet more offbeat little shops to sate those literary urges. McNaughtan’s Bookshop on Haddington Place was established in 1957 and as such has a pedigree unrivalled by other Scottish businesses of its kind. Founded by a former major in the British army and his wife McNaughtan’s quickly achieved an enviable reputation for an interesting and varied stock at reasonable prices. This shop has much antiquarian material of Scottish interest for the collector and also its own art gallery. I would certainly recommend a visit. But keep your eyes peeled; McNaughtan’s is tucked just below street level and is quite easy to wander past without noticing!

Bookshops, books, Edinburgh, Scotland

Edinburgh (CleftClips – FlickrCC)

Going via Broughton Street towards Stockbridge you might come across Broughton Street Bookshop. This shop, which used to be called Broughton Books, was recently reopened and further adds to the bohemian feel of this area. It is well organised with plenty of fiction in good and not so good condition – but a little fraying at the edges gives a book a bit of character. Broughton Street Books is run by a young man called Brian Rafferty who suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome and a percentage of the profits are donated to the National Autistic Society.

If your bags are not full of books by now you might want to end your trail in Stockbridge where along with second-hand bookshops there are a host of charity shops with great (and often very cheap) selections. Second Edition on Howard Place is a nice little place to browse on a Saturday afternoon after a stroll down the Water of Leith. It has a great selection of Edinburgh related material and also a good quality general stock. Nearby Raeburn Place is Edinburgh’s charity bookshop hub with Oxfam, Shelter and the St John Association Charity Bookshop all catering for local readers. The latter of these is probably the one really worth visiting if looking for rare and antiquarian titles.  All proceeds from this shop go to help a number of good causes in Scotland and elsewhere such as holiday and residential accommodation for disabled, elderly or infirm people.

So what are you waiting for? This list is by no means exhaustive (honorable mentions go to Elvis Shakespeare on Leith Walk and Deadhead Comics on Candlemaker Row). Your own trail could well lead you to discovering other literary treasure troves. Go and have a peep into this intriguing side of the city, you’ll not be disappointed.

Edinburgh, books, bookshop, Scotland

Old Town Books Sign (Raphael Chekroun – FlickrCC)

8 Responses to “The Secret Life of Edinburgh’s Bookshops”

  1. anlena March 29, 2012 at 11:52 pm #

    I have been wanting to go to Edinburgh for a while now but this just convinced it definitely has to be my next destination.I’m afraid I’ll have to book a ticket for the books too. Also, I’m impressed you bought Proust, I can’t even bear the thought of it.

    • @alipeoples March 30, 2012 at 8:44 am #

      Well, the edition was very nice so I thought it would be a good investment ( it cost me £60!) but you’re right it’s pretty formidable. There is definitely a blog in there though: ‘My Yearlong Struggle with Proust’!

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