Whether intentionally or not, it seems that wherever I travel to I will stumble upon a bookshop of some kind, be it a quaint second-hand bookshop or a more modern, conventional store filled with signed copies of pristine novels just waiting for their spines to be cracked. An English-speaking bookshop, or at least a bookshop with an English-speaking section, can be found in almost every country in Europe if you look hard enough, as I always do. Once, in the Tuscan hilltop town of Barga, known widely for its large Scottish population, I managed to stumble upon what appeared to be an English-speaking bookshop, crammed full of everything from classics to modern detective novels. When I tried to buy one of the books there however, I discovered that this wasn’t a shop at all but a sort of trading library where the Scottish residents of the town could go to trade books from home, maintaining their grasp of the English language and fuelling their love of literature. They, like me, wanted to take their love of literature with them, enjoying it wherever they are in the world.
Two of my favourite book shops, however, are in Scotland and are places that I like to re-visit whenever I get the chance. The first of these is in the booming town of St Andrews, hidden down a side street just off Market Gate, the main high street. Topping and Company seems like any other book store from the outside, painted in a bright and inviting blue colour, but almost immediately on entering the store it becomes clear that this was a place invented for book lovers, and is exactly how book stores should be. The shelves are stacked from floor to ceiling with every genre of book imaginable, beauty and the beast style ladders providing elegant access to the higher shelves. All the books are divided into sections that seem to encompass a world of their own and tempt visitors to sample before they buy with an array of comfortable reading spots to choose from, from cushioned armchairs to more studious stools and tables. At certain times of the day complimentary tea and coffee is on offer, served in large painted mugs, and there are frequent events, signings by authors and discussion groups. Rare, collectable and signed copies are a prominent feature of the independent store and are part of the reason that it is so popular among readers. And if there’s something that you can’t find just ask one of the friendly staff who would be more than happy to look it up for you.
The second of my epic Scottish bookshops is in Inverness and provides a very different experience to that of Topping and Company. Leakey’s Bookshop is a second-hand store crammed full of every book imaginable from modern second-hand Harry Potters to 200-year-old books about life in Edinburgh. There is even a selection of maps from all over the world, again dating back hundreds of years. The shop is separated into sections from fiction to children’s, music to theology and travel to cookery, meaning that there really is something for everyone in this remarkable find. It seems that this particular store has more books than it knows what to do with, however, with piles of books arranged in stacks and dotted all around the store. The shop owner sits working at her desk, surrounded and almost hidden by piles of books that cover nearly every surface. Located in what was once a Gaelic-speaking church, the architecture is to be admired, whilst the spiral staircases just add to the wonder and slightly haphazard nature of the entire experience.
The peaceful, quiet sanctuary of a book store feels like a connection to home that is always filled with the promise of new worlds and adventures just waiting to be discovered. Even in those stores where I may understand very little of what is contained between the pages of the many volumes towering on the shelves around me, I can hear them whispering down to me and drawing me to their pages just as they do anywhere else in the world.