October 16th witnessed a special event at the Centre for the History of the Book: a round table discussion including representatives from three different Edinburgh bookshops.
Chaired by Katherine Inglis, Chancellor’s Fellow, the initial participant to be introduced was Blackwell’s, the city’s biggest (academic) bookseller. Ann Landmann, the company’s Events Manager, kindly started off by introducing ‘her’ bookshop, highlighting the store’s 150 year history, during which it also served as the original premises of James Thin’s.
Marie Moser owns the smaller and independent Edinburgh Bookshop, which focuses on an “unusual, intelligent and topical selections of titles”. Being situated outside the city centre, this bookshop has succeeded in becoming an active part of the local community, for which it has been recognised with several awards.
Finally, Derek Walker from McNaughtan’s Bookshop and Gallery was introduced. Quite unlike the other two, his shop combines an antiquarian and collectors bookshop with a small art gallery.
Katherine started off by asking what types of skills aspiring booksellers should have. All three representatives agreed that booksellers need a well-rounded skill-set, which increasingly includes an aptitude for social media. However, as personal interaction very much remains at the heart of bookselling, people-skills remain indispensable. Although a love for books is required, everyone agreed that booksellers cannot be too precious about them, the primary goal still being to match the right book to the right customer (and make a profit in doing so). Most of a bookseller’s time is spent roaming through databases, compiling stock reports, organising spreadsheets, emailing customers, and locating new books to order in. As such, physically interacting with books forms only a small part of the daily tasks of a bookseller, explained Derek, dismissing the romantic notion of a scatter-brained bibliophile strolling through his bookshop in search of a comfy place to read books all day.
Edinburgh remains very special when it comes to bookselling. As Marie eloquently affirmed, “Scots have an emotional love for books”. Ann stressed the importance of having a wide variety of other, often highly specialised bookshops nearby. Derek added that this greatly benefitted customer service; when one’s own bookshop does not stock particular titles, there will always be others on hand that do. As such, customers need not leave a shop disappointedly.
The final, but perhaps most important question raised was the attitude of physical bookshops towards digital media. After expressing a general dislike for Amazon’s often questionable business practices, all panel members agreed that an online presence can serve a useful purpose in helping physical bookshops reach their customers. As Marie remarked, an ‘online’ presence does not compete with its associated physical bookshop, as these are simply different methods of getting books to customers. Derek concurred, adding that an online presence can aid customers in finding local bookshops. As such, online and physical bookshops can complement each other very well.
These days, bookshops are engaging with communities in many different and often very creative ways. In addition to building a solid relationship with the University of Edinburgh in supplying academic material, Blackwell’s runs monthly book quizzes, book groups, and numerous author events. McNaughtan’s creatively uses its gallery space to connect to a variety of audiences. Finally, the Edinburgh Bookshop has chosen to turn its limited amount of space into a strength by liaising with other local shops. In a nutshell, the three bookshops represented at this event were all very different in appearance and approach, which in itself may be a testament to the adaptability of bookshops and bookselling in our increasingly digital age.
Report by Laura Keizer, MSc student in Book History and Material Culture at the University of Edinburgh.