World bookshopper: #8 Voltaire & Rousseau, Glasgow

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

A weekend in Wigtown

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I wrote my last post on a train bound for Scotland, where I was due to appear at the Wigtown Book Festival last Saturday. Little did I know the treat I had in store.

More than almost anywhere else I’ve ever been, Wigtown lives and breathes stories. There’s a good reason for that: since being designated Scotland’s National Book Town in 1998, it has undergone extraordinary regeneration. More than 20 book-related businesses (including numerous bookshops, as you can see from the photo above) operate there – no small matter for a place with a population of only around 1,000 people, and a powerful testament to what books can do.

The annual Wigtown Book Festival is a big part of this success story. And because of this, many local people throw themselves into making it work, from putting authors up and driving them to and from the station, to ushering at events. The result is that the extravaganza has a cosy, community feel, while attracting some of literature’s biggest names.

I first realised this on the drive from Dumfries station when I found myself sitting next to Caine prize-winner and three-times Orange prize-longlisted Sudanese-Scottish author Leila Aboulela, whose novel Minaret is one of the books on my list for Sudan. The journey took an hour (yes, Wigtown really is remote), but we barely noticed the time because we found so much to talk about, comparing notes on our various writing projects and the books we’d read.

Owing to the timing of my event the next day, I was lucky to have two nights in Wigtown. I resolved to make the most of them by going to as many events as possible. The first of these took place that evening: a shadow Man Booker Prize judging event, featuring an expert panel chaired by critic Stuart Kelly, who was one of the real-life judges in 2013.

None of the six books on the shortlist escaped unscathed as the panel laid into them, although it’s fair to say that Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life came in for a particular bashing. In the end, by a narrow margin, Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island was voted the Wigtown favourite to win. It will be interesting to see how this compares to the announcement of the winner on Tuesday.

The next morning I went to hear young Scottish author Kirstin Innes talk about her novel, Fishnet, which came out of research she did into the sex industry. Then it was off to the McNeillie tent, where Leila Aboulela was talking about her new book, The Kindness of Enemies. Set partly in present-day Scotland and partly in the Caucasus mountains during the Crimean War, the novel explores the concept of jihad and the problems that come with moving across borders. It was, Aboulela said, partly motivated by her desire to ‘put Muslim culture in English literature’.

Afterwards, I queued up to have my copy signed and Aboulela kindly agreed to a photograph, as you can see below – a lovely memento of our discussion.

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Following a sumptuous lunch in the Writers’ Retreat above The Bookshop on North Main Street – the owner generously turns his private living room over to the authors visiting the festival each year – I got invited by writer and explorer Robert Twigger to participate in his ‘The Message Board’ project. This involved the authors speaking at the festival writing a message on a blackboard and being photographed with it.

He’d already garnered an intriguing selection, from ‘Educate all the world’s children’ by Debi Gliori to ‘The dream shall never die’ from former Scottish first minister Alex Salmond, as well as more quirky offerings, such as ‘A pig looks you right in the eye’ from Canadian novelist Patrick de Witt. You can see my contribution below.

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No sooner had I put the chalkboard down then it was off to hear Patrick de Witt speak about his new book, Undermajordomo Minor. I’d not come across de Witt’s writing before, but his droll style and the dark humour of the extract he read quickly won me over, and I’m keen to read him.

Following my event, which took the form of a lively discussion with BBC arts producer Serena Field, I repaired to the Writers’ Retreat once more. Further discussions with authors, critics and editors followed, and the evening ended with a spin around the dance floor at the festival ceilidh.

The next morning yielded another car journey full of fascinating conversation, as Clandestine Cake Club founder and cookbook writer Lynn Hill, author Gregory Norminton, agent and writer Andrew Lownie, and I all piled in with local volunteer Jim for the ride to Dumfries.

Once back on the London train, I tried to get to work on an article I had to write, but I found myself distracted. I was already wondering how soon I could make my way back to Wigtown…

Black-and-white photograph by Robert Twigger