Be Guide to Yourself
How many bookshops make a guidebook? Secondhand bookshops that is. There are, or were, four fairly comprehensive guides to secondhand bookshops in Britain. The oldest established is Sheppard’s Guide to secondhand booksellers in Britain. It contains shops and private premises and is still going strong. Covering similar ground is the Skoob Guide, now into its seventh edition; Cole’s Guide is no longer produced. The most notorious, and most entertaining, of them all is driff’s Guide to Secondhand and Antiquarian Bookshops in Britain. The last I have seen is the 1992 – 93 edition. The first, in 1984, established driff’s reputation for frank (sometimes vitriolic) descriptions of bookshops and their owners. He coined a set of acronyms, from ETGOW (easy to get on with) and NSOC (not strong on condition) to FARTS (follows around recommending the stock) and WYLAH (watches you like a hawk). My own approach is to remember that, even if, like Touchstone’s Audrey, a shop is an ‘ill-favoured thing’, there is a certain fascination: each is unique, each is the bookseller’s own.
I decided what was needed was an easily revised guide to bookshops in Scotland. Solution: do it yourself. Should be easy enough, or so I thought. I have been to most of the bookshops in Scotland. I know their stock. What can be hard about writing short descriptions of bookshops? But, like every other activity, as soon as you start to do it yourself, your respect for previous attempts increases. Collating the information took longer than I expected, but I could have my own bit of fun. One of driff’s many abbreviations was ‘veggie rest’ (vegetarian restaurant). As an equivalent whimsy, I thought I might mention any half decent fish and chip shops I came across.
My guide is now in its third edition. I make a point of trying to visit all the shops I mention, and so a call last autumn from Books Abroad, in Rhynie, Aberdeenshire decided me: I would visit it and two other, recently opened, shops in the north east which I had not visited. And so a ‘grand tour’ was born.
The first shop of the day, Deeside Books carries a fairly general stock, with an emphasis on Scottish, military history, topography, fishing and local history. I found one book in my line (science and mathematics) and sold a few guides. As I left on the road to Rhynie, the fine weather broke and rain clouds appeared – in no way diminishing, in fact, almost enhancing the beauty of the empty, rolling landscape. Rhynie was as small a sleepy hollow as I had anticipated, surely far too small for a bookshop, let alone an industrial estate – but a sign incongruously pointed to Richmond Avenue Industrial Estate and there I found Books Abroad in Unit 1 (there doesn’t seem to be a Unit 2), offering secondhand books for sale, at ‘charity shop’ prices. A sorting area was piled with parcels waiting to go out – Books Abroad is a charity that last year sent over three thousand parcels for use in schools in impoverished areas overseas. I was able to fill a box with books I wanted to buy.
Feeling lucky, I travelled seventeen miles to Dufftown where the bookshop has interesting general secondhand stock with an emphasis on history and Scottish material – but nothing for me, as it turned out. Next stop was Aberlour. Conscious of time, I allowed myself no more than an appreciative glance at Telford’s beautiful bridge arching over the River Spey. Come to think of it, this journey could just as easily have been a tour of some of Scotland’s most historic bridges.
Speyside Books in Aberlour High Street had a good selection of books on angling, mountaineering, natural history and field sports, with an excellent Scottish section. The books were well organised and the owners, in driff parlance, are vetgow. I swapped some of my guides for a book about the Forth Bridge and left for my next destination.
A long drive down the Spey valley brought me to Newtonmore. In the Antique Shop at the south end of Main Street there is only one room of general secondhand stock, with a slight emphasis on art and antiques. The prices are very reasonable and I always seem to find something here.
Hastening on, it was 6p.m. before I reached the last shop of the day, Atholl Browse, in the office of a former filling station in Blair Atholl. I enjoyed looking around and found one book I wanted for my collection. As I was leaving I mentioned that I would probably stop in Pitlochry for fish and chips.
‘No need for that. We have a chippy here.’
Sure enough, half a mile down the road there was a board pointing down a lane which led to a spotlessly clean mobile chip van where I got the best fish and chips I had had for a long time (and friendly service). Definitely one for the guide.
So that was the day. A twelve hour drive through magnificent scenery. Three new shops visited, three revisited, one new chippy, a reasonable haul of books. What more can you ask?
Since this article was written, a fair number of Scottish bookshops have closed. Check before you go!
Copyright Eddie Fenwick 2002.