What’s In Store?
In the Eighties and Nineties my work in Occupational Therapy involved frequent trips to Philadelphia and New Jersey. While there, I sometimes ran ‘Books Wanted’ ads in local newspapers which resulted in good house calls. I shipped books back to Scotland packed in banana boxes – the biggest lot, fifty-five boxes, weighed over two tons.
Back in Edinburgh, I used to go hunting for books with a friend of mine who was a keen book collector – it was our Saturday afternoon ritual. We sometimes talked about the possibility of starting a secondhand bookshop.
The following year, with bookselling still an unrealised dream, I was a founder of the Vigil for a Scottish Parliament, a group of people who maintained a round-the-clock vigil in a portacabin at the foot of the Calton Hill, which was then envisaged as the site of the parliament. After all-night stints I’d go to work at the Royal Infirmary stinking of smoke from the brazier, which became one of the tourist sights of Edinburgh. When the parliament became a reality the Vigil came to an end, but our portacabin can still be seen in the National Museum of Scotland. The Royal High School would have made such a great location for the parliament. You couldn’t ask for a more dramatic or beautiful site, beneath Calton Hill, overlooking the Old Town. Having said that, I have no problem about the expenditure on the new parliament building at Holyrood. Moralles was one of the great European architects and we were lucky to get him to design the building. The character of Edinburgh today has been achieved by similarly visionary and sometimes expensive architectural projects.
It was bookseller Margaret Jameson who first encouraged me to take a stand at a Richard Roberts Book Market. These were friendly and welcoming fairs that gave beginners a chance to test the water. When people are picking over your stall first thing in the morning you learn pretty quickly, not least by your mistakes.
By this time I’d had enough experience, however sporadic and peripheral, to knock any daft romance about bookselling out of my head. One day I was passing Buccleuch Place when I noticed that the shop on the corner was for sale. It used to be a kosher butcher and had been empty for years. A friend was looking for property to invest in: the upshot was that he bought it and I leased it from him. McFeely’s Bookstore opened on 1 June 1998. As usual, I was following my nose. In America I’d picked up a book called How to Run a Secondhand Bookstore. Usually I’d be sceptical about the value of this sort of guide, but this one was actually quite useful – for instance I liked the idea, commonplace in America, of giving customers credit on the books they bring you.
One of the fallacies about bookselling is that it’s hard to get stock. Books find you. But as the years go by you become more discriminating in what you buy as you get to know your customers’ wants and develop your character as a secondhand bookseller. The stock of the Bookstore has become increasingly oriented to the wants of our many university customers – I can never get enough Philosophy and, while most shops are chary of foreign language books, we sell them well – we are, after all, ‘in the Latin Quarter’ as Jim Haynes used to say about his legendary Paperback Bookshop in nearby Charles Street.
What comes in over the counter adds a bit of spice. One highspot was Mrs Loudon’s Flower Garden, with beautiful hand-coloured flower plates. Another was a triple-decker Oliver Twist. Though only the first volume was a first issue and the other two were from the second impression, it was exciting to handle them, exciting to check them out and get to know the issue points.
From the outset I had it in mind that once the bookshop was up and running I would develop the basement. In October 2001 – after two years of work and a fair amount of overspill disruption for the Bookstore – the Bookstore Cafe opened. It continues the book theme, with some books on sale and the walls decorated with framed ‘cover art’ – from lurid Fifties pulp crime to Victorian decorative boards. All the books I used were damaged in some way, so I salvaged their covers and, in a sense, gave them a new life.
Copyright Gerry McFeely 2005.