Penguins in the Belfry
In 1988 my husband John started talking to Alasdair Steven about buying his book business. Alasdair was the memorable colporteur or bicycle-bookseller of Strathtay, by this time dug into the remains of haunted Ballechin House, which he had shored up with books to the extent he had to sleep in a caravan outside. (You had to take a friend on visits to Ballechin House so that one of you could discuss books with Alasdair leaving the other to browse his stock.)
Alasdair was happier being a tutor than transacting the sale of his beloved business. He never did quite retire, but he spawned or encouraged a number of fledglings that took wing. John’s book business was one of them and, by accident, mine was another. John started dealing in ‘better books’ in the barn beside our house, while I aimed for a more general bookshop. Alasdair enthusiastically contributed ‘shop stock’ in profusion.
The old filling station was available in Blair Atholl for a modest rent; I took over in late 1988 and we got busy with scrubbing brushes and paint pots. John loves building things and he does it well, so we had good solid bookshelves almost immediately. As we worked people came by to comment, or buy the odd book. One of them pointed to the sign with the words, ‘You can’t waste this opportunity! It has to be Atholl Browse.’
John was already working on the sign, which was going to read ‘Atholl Books’, and niftily changed ‘ooks’ to ‘rowse’. The Duke of Atholl snipped our ribbon on April Fool’s Day, 1989, and gently refused my offer of Atholl brose, expressing a preference for gin (and H.E. Bates).
I had started the shop with one rule: no textbooks. The second customer came up to me with a psychology text in hand and paid £3 for it. So much for rules.
That first spring I purchased 2000 arts and literature books from the Darlington public library – requiring three round trips in our lumbering Daihatsu. Nobody had mentioned to me that most customers don’t like old library books, no matter how interesting; at least 1500 have since wafted off to Rumania via the Blythswood Trust. I still find a few amongst the poetry on occasion.
In my ‘day job’ I’m a business consultant: I help large organisations manage and communicate with their people. While I was away at work, local people pitched in to run the bookshop. Sometimes it seemed as if Atholl Browse was being managed by extra-sensory perception. I’d no sooner murmur to myself, ‘The whodunnits are getting low’, than Jean would come in bearing a box of green Penguins.
Regular employees meant too much paperwork so I opted for ‘casual’ helpers. Having many different helpers had a randomising effect: notes were pinned around the shop mentioning a book someone wanted or the someone who wanted it (seldom both). Book finding was perhaps not our forte, but we created a pretty good leisure browse, with free coffee, direction finding, ancestor-hunting and local information.
When I inadvertently took in helpers from inimical tribes, nuances of village relationships sometimes emerged in gentle sniping but we gradually built up a team of stalwarts. One of these, Jimmy McBean had a speech impediment and a gammy leg, but that never held him back. He was the most helpful fellow and he had a really great spirit. He had been British Rail’s last employee in Blair Atholl – the porter who became station manager by default. Jimmy would bicycle over from the Atholl Arms (where he earned his keep by carrying baggage and stoking the splendid fireplaces), whistling tunelessly and carrying a few donuts. He’d sit in for anyone at a moment’s notice. One day I was pricing a box of thrillers and bodice rippers, marking them all at £1 and Jimmy said, ‘They ought to be £2.’
‘Which ones?’ I asked dubiously. He selected about twenty of the fattest, sexiest looking titles. I put them into a special box and by the end of the day they were all gone. A few years later Jimmy fell off his bike and had to move to the old folks home in Aberfeldy, where he faded rather quickly.
Atholl Browse’s other unsung hero was my husband John. He wafted from selling books to restoring them in his well-equipped bindery, knocking up an occasional designer binding when he had time. He conceived and built the charming ‘Left Bank’ bargain boxes outside the shop. The red and white striped awning was also his idea, as well as the flourish of potted petunias and pansies and the barrels of wee trees cunningly placed to cover where the petrol pumps used to be.
The shop’s reputation spread far and wide. On one visit home to California I was tickled pink to meet an artist who had apparently painted a picture on a visit to Blair Atholl. ‘It’s a very pretty castle,’ I hazarded. ‘Oh, not that,’ his wife said. ‘They had such a cute bookshop, that’s what he painted.’
In spring 2003 John and I had a serious discussion. The shop was about to be sold and it was still chock-a-block with myriad autumn ‘investments’- seventy Needlework, forty Fishing and sixty Railway books, all bought just before we closed for the winter. We agreed, ‘No more books!’ That’s when the fun began.
Wednesday 26 March: I visit a manse and come away with eight boxes of good Scottish stock.
Thursday 27 March: a man who had phoned months earlier comes in with seven boxes of books. I bought the lot.
Friday 28 March: take delivery of three boxes of Fishing and Crime I’d forgotten having bought at auction months before.
Sunday 30 March: five boxes of saleable leftovers from the scout jumble sale – I don’t have the heart to turn them away.
Monday 1 April: Appropriately for April Fools’ Day, we celebrate our anniversary by saying ‘Yes’ to seven boxes of great Railway books, and an hour later to two boxes of paperbacks.
Thursday 4 April: the minister and his wife, visited on 26 March arrive bearing six boxes of Penguins discovered in the belfry. We go out to lunch together to celebrate ‘definitely’ the last books through the door!
The numerically unchallenged will already have worked out that that’s thirty-eight boxes of ‘no more books’.
When John and Mary Herdman took over, I felt like a mother whose only child has just been accepted by a good university. The nest was empty, but I knew the shop couldn’t be in better hands. With more time on my hands, I’ve had fun redistributing my energies: writing more, sewing more, seeing friends. I’m still publishing local and family history as ‘Atholl Publications and selling books – on the internet – as ‘Atholl Fine Books’. That reminds me. I must go and have a look at a few books someone has for sale . . .
The picture of Atholl Browse shown above was presented to Nancy Cameron in California by the artist Fred Edwards.
Copyright Nancy Foy Cameron 2005.