Book review: 18 Bookshops

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AS ANNE Scott explains in the opening paragraphs, this book, her first at the age of 70-something, has been a long time in the writing.

Its genesis dates back to when she was a child, and spotted an empty orange-box outside a grocery store. “Shelves!” she exclaims. And so it was that the first books she owned smelt all their lives of tangerines.

Such vignettes help sustain the book, but it is more than just a personal journey. It is a work of research, one built to last. Its 20,000 words are beautifully constructed, and not one seems out of place.

Bookshops, like the merchandise they stock, have their own narratives. Scott is not content simply to scour the shelves. She delves into the past. Scott glimpses William Shakespeare researching a recent ship wreck in The Parrot, an influential 17th century bookstore in St Paul’s Churchyard in London, before he “dreams the dream” that is The Tempest. On Iona, in the Old Printing Press Bookshop, she channels the pilgrim scribes who once wrote, “candled and quilled, to keep a light alive”.

There are gateways on every shelf. Books provide her with inspiration and succour. They fill the time and nourish the spirit. They expand horizons and cross continents. “Dreams and quests have no national borders,” Scott notes. Mark Twain is alive in Europe. The Cat in the Hat is just as likely to thrill a child in Mexico.

She finds a book, long sought, in Oxford and is introduced to a new writer in New York having placed herself in the hands of the shop assistant. Seek and ye shall find. But there must be places in which to seek. Scott, who has lectured on English for many years in the west coast of Scotland, is a devotee of the printed word.

For this reason she is also a committed patron of bookshops, from Irvine to New York, from Callander to Carraroe. They inform, shape and plot her life. Yet it must be recognised that the book-buying experience has altered somewhat in recent times. There will be some who purchase this very tome on Amazon. Its title, 18 Bookshops, can also be viewed as a threat. The fear is that there might only be this many left in a few years’ time.

Scott writes of the “fickleness of the trade” even in the time of Samuel Johnson, whose father was a bookseller in Lichfield. Books are hardy, resourceful items, so, too are bookshops, popping up and then disappearing again, often inhabiting the strangest places, such as a former railway station in Blair Atholl or an old Gaelic church in Inverness.

There are hints of Scott’s own life, but only hints. Her only son Michael is now better known as Mike Scott of the Waterboys. He has himself recently produced a work framed by literature. An Appointment With WB Yeats, for which Scott set 14 works by the Irish poet to music, has received rave reviews.

The singer-songwriter makes fleeting appearances. He’s the schoolboy drinking milkshakes after a post-school visit to Bauermeister’s bookshop on Edinburgh’s George IV Bridge; he’s the ten-year-old buying records and music magazines in London while his mother discovers Portuguese poets, obscure philosophers and African novelists in a Camden bookstore, where “the mind reading next to mine inhabits a separate earth”.

It is possible that even the author’s talented son, whose own backpages includes the towering The Whole Of The Moon, has written no finer love-song.


Anne Scott

Sandstone Press, £11.99