“HOW was tai chi?” It’s not necessarily the first thing you expect to hear in a bookstore, but it’s how Marie Moser greets a customer who walks through the door. Not only does she greet him by name, but the two strike up a conversation about the traditional Chinese game. mahjong. “She always comes here after tai chi. It’s not always to buy a book,” Moser adds.
As Independent Bookstore Week is well and truly launched, it is interesting to learn that these oases of texts and titles are not just about the written word.
Moser is the owner of The Edinburgh Bookshop – winner of Scottish Bookshop of the Year four times in the past 10 years – located in the city’s Bruntsfield. It is run by a team of five people and is described by its owner as a “crazy community bookshop”.
She notes how her team has a watchful eye on anyone having a bad day. “People can also come because they can’t close the lid,” she adds.
Similarly, “being a queer bookseller is probably 20% bookseller and 80% advice. Well, maybe 10% of that is like being a travel consultant,” says Fionn Duffy-Scott, owner of LGBTQ+ bookstore Category Is with their partner Charlotte. It is located right next to Queen’s Park station in South Glasgow and was founded in 2018 to establish a queer reading space in the area. Unlike the Edinburgh team, it is managed solely by its owners.
It’s interesting how Moser and Duffy-Scott spent time talking about things that had nothing to do with literature. “The community is big here and it’s a specifically queer space, so a lot of the events have nothing to do with the books.”
On the contrary, the Covid-19 pandemic has only heightened the store’s sense of community. “It didn’t ‘hurt’ us if that makes sense,” Moser says, while Duffy-Scott simply says they “dealt with it.”
The Edinburgh bookshop made many deliveries which, although their owner admits they weren’t particularly economical or eco-friendly, were worth it for the service they were able to provide.
She singles out the Scottish Government for their praise in this regard. “Miss Sturgeon is a massive reader and is very supportive. We were incredibly lucky during the second lockdown as the Scottish Government accepted bookshops as a vital part of the community.
The Booksellers Association argued that they were the equivalent of garden centers in the summer. Category Is managed to come up with a creative solution to help the environment – the books were delivered via skateboard to customers who lived nearby.
This emphasis on welcoming everyone is particularly important for young people. Moser is interrupted by an excited child running to grab the stuffed Gruffalo sitting next to her. “There is no Gruffalo. Everyone knows that,” the young boy said with a smile. “That’s why I do my job. There was another little boy walking past the window during Covid in a different disguise each day.
She goes so far as to say that what she does isn’t so much a job as a hobby and anyone who knew her when she was 18 wouldn’t be surprised that she now runs a bookstore.
On Friday morning in the Is category, a school group had visited with their local library who had successfully secured funding for each person to choose a book not only for themselves, but also for the library. “Some mornings it will be children coming in and other days it will be people in their 80s,” Duffy-Scott says.
No store wastes a lot of space. Unsurprisingly, both are stacked with books as high as they can get. The Edinburgh bookshop even has one of those old-fashioned ladders that slides neatly along the shelves.
Even then, however, how do they decide what to sell? “You can’t just store what you love. Sometimes you have an idea for something, but you don’t realize how right you’ll be,” says Moser.
Last year she picked up a book about how Norwegians piled wood and it surprised her more than most. “Don’t get me wrong, it was a beautiful book and I thought we’d sell about 20 copies for dads at Christmas. It was one of the biggest books of the year – we sold about 120 of them.”
Life is not without its challenges, however, and since its founding, Category Is has been subject to homophobic and transphobic abuse. “Homophobia isn’t the most important thing I think about when it comes to the store, but we’re dealing with it. People have always gotten mad at us for existing,” Duffy-Scott says. They pause for a bit and then laugh a bit when they remember that they are dealing with transphobic messages by putting erotic stickers on the door. “We found power in finding our own way to deal with abuse.”
Moser wonders how the cost of living crisis will affect bookstores. “People will spend the same amount of money on a coffee and a muffin at Starbucks as on a book, but I guess people don’t think that way.”
She notes that other big companies buy and sell books in bulk for a little less, which independent bookstores just don’t. “One year we paid more taxes than Amazon.”
One thing that doesn’t worry her are the e-readers, which she says “have settled where they’re going to settle.” There is one book they did good for the world, though. “Everyone read Fifty Shades Of Gray on it because you could read it and pretend you were reading Dostoyevsky,” she smiles.
Walking through these shops and gazing at the shelves, each filled with worlds waiting to be devoured in a few sittings, it reminds you of the satisfaction and beauty of browsing independent shops like these. They are, as Moser puts it, a “safe space”. She gets up to choose her favorite book which has red pages and is bordered with a floral design on the side. “You can tell the person doing this had an absolute ball. Watch how vinyl has made a comeback. I think it has a lot to do with seeing what an album looks like.
Despite these challenges, independent bookstores are a unique industry in that most people seem to wish each other good luck.
“It’s an amazing community. There is a real non-competitiveness and a desire for everyone to do well. Nobody is here to be a billionaire,” says Moser.
Duffy-Scott shares this view: “There’s a friendliness that you don’t get in other trades. We may not store a book, but I will know where it is and send people there.
Whatever you’re looking for, be sure to visit stores like these during Independent Bookstore Week, which runs until Saturday. It may not be all about the books, but that doesn’t make it easy to leave without one.