I was up in Scotland a few weeks ago as a guest speaker at a Gliterary Lunch, alongside Laura Barnett, author of The Versions of Us. If you haven’t heard of Gliterary Lunches – and particularly if you’re a bookloving professional woman in the UK with female clients to entertain – you might want to check them out. It was certainly one of the most fun and interesting events I’ve been involved with.
As Glasgow’s Grand Central Hotel is rather a long way from my flat, I decided to travel up the night before. This left me an hour or so to play with on the morning of the event. And what better way to fill the time than with a jaunt to one of the city’s many intriguing bookshops?
After a bit of research online, I plumped for Voltaire & Rousseau, described as an ‘established secondhand store selling academic books, fiction, literary criticism and rare editions’. And while many Glaswegians made their way to work through a beautifully sunny morning, I betook myself to Kelvinbridge to see what I could find…
When I first arrive in Otago Lane, I worry that I must have taken a wrong turning. The place does not look terribly promising: a cobbled back street flanked by rather battered buildings, on most of which, the shutters seem to be pulled down. A small sign reading ‘Voltaire and Rousseau’ is the only thing that stops me from turning round and retracing my steps.
On reaching the entrance, I find that the shop is in fact open. The door stands ajar, sporting a notice that informs me that all the books in the first room cost a pound a piece or less.
This might sound like a steal for bibliophiles, but, stepping over the threshold, I quickly realise that if the shop sells all these books, it will make a lot of money. The room is packed with stock. Not only are the shelves heaving – titles wedged in to fill almost all available space – but books are heaped up waist-high on the floor, leaving only a narrow walkway. It is as though a tidal wave of reading matter has swept through the building, silting every nook and cranny up with stories.
There are paperbacks with creased spines and hardbacks from decades past. The obscure and the literary jostle with the mass market. Forgotten Edwardian novels rub shoulders with the likes of Sebastian Faulks and Stephen King; Anthony Trollope makes small talk with Agatha Christie and Henning Mankell.
Indeed, the room is so full of books that there is space for very little else, beyond a ladder to help intrepid customers reach those titles teetering on the top shelves, a coat stand, part of a table and a couple of cardboard boxes that must have got caught up in the book tsunami, and a few pro-independence posters tacked up here and there. ‘Scotland. The only country in the world that found oil and got poorer. VOTE YES‘, reads one.
Wandering through, I find that the shop’s main room is similarly stuffed to the gunnels. A man nods hello to me from a counter heaped with books (I presume there is a till hiding in there somewhere). I look around the space and it dawns on me that the hour I have is not even going to be enough to scratch the surface.
Still, I forge on. As I wander between the stacks, glancing up, down and sideways, it becomes apparent that there is a degree of order here. At some stage, the shelves have been divided into sections, with yellowing handwritten signs explaining what each of them is supposed to contain. There is the ‘Classic literature’ bookcase, which boasts an impressive array of secondhand hardbacks, and an area devoted to Greek and Roman greats. You can find shelves dedicated to ‘Cookery’, ‘Irish history’, the ‘American civil war’ and even musical scores – I narrowly avoid kicking a Christmas Oratorio on my way past.
Over time, however, as subsequent waves of books have washed in, the categories have been challenged and in some cases compromised, presumably as the need for spaced trumped the desire for order. I wonder with a chuckle what Dante, Copernicus, Newton and Einstein would make of finding themselves in what seems to be the ‘Crime fiction’ section, as they do here. Perhaps the owners of Voltaire & Rousseau know something I don’t.
Although anglophone literature dominates, there are translations swirled through the mix for those with the patience to look for them. As in many secondhand bookshops, which often reflect the reading habits of previous book buyers, the crime section has one of the strongest offerings, with the usual Scandi suspects well-represented. You’ll find foreign visitors in the literary fiction section too – I spy a Lampedusa and an Anne Frank, along with Deireadh An Fhoghair (or The End of Autumn, as someone has helpfully written on its cover in black biro), a Gaelic-language title by Tormod Caimbeul.
Inspired by the proud Scottish-nationalist bent of the owners, I decide to see if the store has any books by Gaelic writers that I can read in English. The man at the counter advises me to look for Fiona Macleod. After a few minutes of scouring the Scottish literature section, I find two battered hardbacks bearing the name, a secret pseudonym of the Glaswegian writer William Sharp.
As I queue up to pay, the phone rings. The man behind the counter roots it out from under a heap of books and conducts a lengthy conversation, during which he arranges to go and inspect the library at a house that is being emptied somewhere in the city.
Soon, it seems, there will be another wave of titles pouring into Voltaire & Rousseau.