With the death of Ainslie Thin, Scotland and Britain have lost one of their last links to a different, golden age of books and bookselling. It is a measure of the mark that James Thin Ltd made on Scotland that a number of years after the firm had ceased trading, the then Marketing Director of Blackwell’s, who had taken over Thin’s main shop in South Bridge, Edinburgh, admitted that any attempt to get a taxi driver to take him to Blackwell’s elicited a blank look, so he realised it was simply better to say: ‘Take me to Thin’s.’
Born and brought up in the Grange in Edinburgh and educated at Edinburgh Academy and Loretto, Ainslie took a degree in chemistry at Edinburgh University.
Having listened to a representative of ICI tell of his 25 years unsuccessfully trying to create the perfect bar of soap, Ainslie realised that such a career was not for him, and after training for some months at Blackwell’s in Oxford and Bristol he joined South Bridge in March 1958, working beside his redoubtable cousin, Mr Jimmy.
The two cousins complemented each other very well, but while Mr Jimmy’s first love was always South Bridge and books, particularly of an antiquarian bent, it was Ainslie who set about quietly modernising the business and building it into what became one of the biggest booksellers in Britain.
Thin’s was the first book chain to introduce computing into its operations and one of the first to engage in steady expansion, first throughout Scotland, always with an acute eye as to where best to position shops, and latterly south of the Border.
During all this, the cousins never lost sight of the company’s Scottish ethos. They supported Scottish books and publishing to the hilt, and in 1970 even began to publish under the banner of the Mercat Press.
Around them they built and inspired a remarkable team of people, loyal not simply to Ainslie and Jimmy but to the values they embodied of community, decency, integrity, loyalty and civic duty.
James Thin Ltd was not simply a bookshop but a deeply loved and integral part of Edinburgh and Scotland.
However, the collapse of the Net Book Agreement, the rise of online bookselling and the rapacious attack of venture capital-funded competition meant for Thin’s the loss of its independence.
For Ainslie, the fall into administration of the company to which he had devoted his life was a hard blow, and for a time he largely withdrew from public life whilst doing what he could to protect those who had worked with him over the years.
Those first weeks after administration saw sackfuls of mail arriving at South Bridge expressing shock at what had happened. Many letters enclosed money or offers of help. How many companies today can say that they could inspire such deep love?
During his time in the book trade, Ainslie was both a Director and Chairman of Book Tokens Ltd and was responsible for creating much of their modern form.
He was President of the Booksellers Association of Great Britain and Ireland and Director and Treasurer of the Edinburgh International Book Festival for 15 years, a Director of Book Trust in England and a member of the National Trust for Scotland Merchandising Committee.
These were roles he undertook with immense dedication, and whenever he took something on, he pursued it with great determination.
His family remember that in taking computers into the business he taught himself programming and was so immersed in it that they dyed their hair pink to see if he noticed. He didn’t!
In his spare time Ainslie was an enthusiastic reader and an equally enthusiastic golfer at Gullane and Luffness. Indeed, he was playing until September last year.
He wrote on the history of Thin’s and took evening classes in opera (his favourite being Verdi’s La Traviata).
Extensive and adventurous travel occupied his retirement, which also offered the chance to pursue keen interests in botany and wildlife, while his family, children and grandchildren were always central to his life.
For those still in the book trade he gave quiet and constant support and encouragement.
Ainslie’s legacy is in the values he both embodied and never ceased to practise. There is one word that occurs repeatedly when one thinks or speaks of him, and that is “gentleman”. For those of us who knew him, it was our privilege.
Ainslie is survived by his wife Eppie, his children Jackie, Hilary and Jamie, and grandchildren Holly, Ainslie, Oonagh, Anna, Steph and Sinead.
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