Scotland Bookstores

I’m not sure if it’s the age of the buildings, the friendliness of the people, or the clear view of nature you get from every direction, but Scotland has a magic to it. A quiet soulfulness hums between pub noise, street bagpipes and the old-as-hell buildings still standing. It sort of feels like walking through history that has somehow stayed and contributed to a very present energy. I think Scotland’s still got it, basically. Mountains, poetry, cathedrals, whiskey and reading weather- it’s got plenty.

I have not visited every bookshop in Scotland, maybe one day- who knows? But the ones that I loved best yet are here for you to check out. All of them are second-hand books.

1. Armchair Books, Edinburgh

The first time I visited, there was a man sitting at the till, boxed in by shelves of books, and grunting at the few customers that were already there. There was no big hello or ‘welcome in’ and I liked that (I worked for Lush for a few years and consequently gained an automatic trust of stores that don’t give too much of a shit).

Narrow corridors lined floor to ceiling with books, books, books. Yes, I thought. I wanted to move in. I shuffled past people, my back against walls of books, avoiding eye contact and mumbling apologies, past the LOTR shelves – there were a few – back, back, old carpets overlapping, tilted ground, creaky steps, another corner each time I turned around.

And suddenly there was a wall full of antiques, just pretty to look at. I don’t know that I could ever justify buying a 100-whatever-year old book of myths or fairy tales for £20, £90, £200- whatever the ask is, though when you open one and see old illustrations and feel the paper it does always feel like some kind of magic is real. I feel like time has gone back to a neatly imagined medieval castle where I spend my days in nature and Merlin tutors me- or something.

It was a small maze, the collection is all over the place but there is some order by way of genre. And the range is extensive. The books are fairly priced, though what we all wish for is far-too-cheap, just for that extra sense of achievement. I got War and Peace volumes 1 & 2 for £2 once! Have I read it? No. Am I still feeling proud of myself? Yes.

I picked up a Jean Rhys and one antique. It was £15, forgive me. Myths and Legends of Greece and Rome (which seems like a problematic title). I am allowed to be happy, life is short.

When I asked the grumpy man if there were any jobs going (I was genuinely considering packing up for this bookshop), he explained he didn’t own the place, just worked there, and then, eyeing the books in my hand meaningfully, reminded me to put the stuff away at the end, ‘You know where you picked it up, you know where to put it back.’

Who was this man? I wanted to be him. At one point, a few more people entered and I heard an off-stage ‘fucking hell, there’s a lot of people here now.’ Magic.

2. Leakey’s Bookshop, Inverness

It was a bloody cold day, this visit, which made it a little harder to enjoy this place- It is huge. Gigantic. Scotland’s largest second-hand bookstore. The heating does not travel so well in a place so large. It has two levels and on the ground floor there is a fire. An actual wood-burning fire guarded by a grate. It was odd, it felt sort of like seeing a pet at a butcher shop. You may feel concerned about a fire in a building with wooden everything and paper everywhere, but as I say, it was a cold day and I was trying to get the blood back in my fingers.

The books have lived in an old (1700’s) Gaelic church for over 20 years now, and there are a few columns of stained glass windows that stretch along the walls and flood in some light. Book stacks barricade around the till area and sprawl across the floor where they couldn’t fit into the packed shelving. The ground floor is bordered with book alcoves filled top to bottom and you could easily spend a few hours in just one of them. It also has artwork: old paintings/ posters/ sketches- some for a small price.

Spiraling staircases like something out of a Harry Potter film take you up to the top floor and to the safety of seating areas: armchairs, couches, looking just as worn as the books around them. Tired and overwhelmed, I was grateful to try them all out. I give them each five stars. This place has the effect of a museum: half-way through, you realise you are tired and hungry and need a nap, and actually no- you just need to go back home now.

I did enjoy it. I think I was just too overwhelmed. I found Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji and I did not buy it. I still feel regret. Not the cheapest of places, this one, but I am sure there’s a bargain to be hunted and it’s impressive enough to warrant a visit for sure.

P.S if you’re here, also take yourself over to Coyote Coffee, a sweet little family owned place perfect for those with a sweet tooth.

3. Voltaire and Rousseau, Glasgow

From what I’ve read and heard of Rousseau, he sounds like an idiot misogynist and Voltaire, though I haven’t read his work, was a pro-slavery all around racist… A pretty sign marred by the names of two overrated white men: its not the first time. There are statues, street names, altered curriculums, all in honour of men just like these. I still went in, of course.

The sign hides in plain site, I walked past it, walked all the way back to try another street before realising I had it right. Otago Lane! Stepping through the door you are instantly surrounded by books.

The shop won me over; it’s haphazard composition made me feel like I had stumbled upon a treasure. It’s really tiny, right next to a stunning little tea shop (Tchai Ovna, truly wonderful music, tea and food), and it has piles of books bearing piles of books.

My phone was dead so I don’t have a picture of my own to show. This is from Tripadvisor, courtesy of Graham1986, titled his idea of heaven. I don’t blame Graham because it was amazing to be in a book fort, but also it was a fresh organisational hell.

I was more of an observer than confident browser, though I did find some little gems! I felt more certain of my choices having gingerly played a dangerous game to free them. I still wonder what was on the actual shelves.

Stashed away in Otago Lane is a room full of books and kind shop keepers who will offer helpful directions and chat with you. Go see it if you can: you never know what you’ll find and the chaos is somehow a part of it.

4. 23 Enigma, Glasgow

If you enjoy spiritual, holistic, occult, astronomy, psychology….Mind Body Spirit books, go. If you don’t, still go. This store welcomes you with gentle incense, interesting titles you are sure not to have seen around and some really charming stuff. It claims itself to be a small museum of paganism in Glasgow- sharing history and continuing some traditions.

My friend gifted me my first tarot set from here, she purchased a book on some Welsh history, I picked myself up a copy of Star names and their meanings and a guide to being a green witch.

It’s right on the high street, a perfect stop on a day out. It’s pretty, full of light with a relaxed energy, a real mood lifter.

6. All Charity Shops Everywhere, Specifically in Scotland

I got more than a few books and clothes and bits and bobs in those charity shops. Scottish charity shopping is my favourite kind of shopping. I picked up a signed copy of Neil Gaiman’s Ocean at the End of the Lane for £1.25 while on a charity shop crawl in Edinburgh. A few doors down I grabbed a shirt and skirt for £8 and ended on a high at the Black Medicine Coffee Co, where hot chocolate directly converts to pure joy. That was a good day.

I hope you enjoy your visits to these places if you find your way there. I am always open to bookshop recommendations as well so feel free to reach out with any!

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