CUSTOMER: Do you have any signed Ian Rankin?
CAT, behind the till: Sorry, he hasn’t been in to sign for a while, I think we’ve run out.
CUSTOMER: Oh, that’s such a shame, I’m such a huge fan.
CAT: Well… if you’ve got time to wait for a bit, we can drop him a text and see if he’s around?
Five minutes later, in wanders IAN RANKIN, signing pen in hand, ready for his selfie.
I’m not sure this works every time a customer walks into the Edinburgh Bookshop demanding signed Ian Rankin books – I imagine being an internationally acclaimed crime writer probably means you’re often quite busy – but as an example of the level of service and degree of dedication you can expect from the lovely folk that work there (and in similar bookshops across the world), it’s perfect.
This September, I spent a week working in the Bruntsfield-based bookshop as part of a bookseller exchange, which saw Keira from the Edinburgh Bookshop spend a week with us in Bloomsbury earlier this summer. I think the concept of a bookseller exchange is something we’ve entirely made up, but nonetheless, it’s a good one: seeing how other independent shops work and getting to know more of our indie comrades is valuable, encouraging, and, to be honest, just plain fun.
The Edinburgh Bookshop is a perfect example of a brilliant community bookshop. Most of the people who walked through the door were greeted as regulars, and a good number of them greeted by name: it’s a shop that knows what its community wants, and provides it so well that locals return week after week. In the week I was there, I ordered obscure books for customers that were ready for them to collect the next day; witnessed a rowdy Thursday morning storytime full of parents and children who come back every week; and saw the shop packed to the rafters with excited fans for a lunchtime signing with Oliver Jeffers and Sam Winston in honour of their new picture book, A Child of Books. I don’t think I’ve ever met more enthusiastic sellers of children’s books, and it’s definitely rubbed off on me – I’ve returned with renewed enthusiasm for our small but beautiful children’s section. (And don’t tell the others, but I’m eyeing up shelf space in neighbouring sections in order to meet my expansionist ambitions.)
I learned that the problems of small bookshops are the same everywhere: most obviously, that of space, and its habit of being filled up as soon as you’ve found a little bit more. At the Edinburgh Bookshop, they made the decision to expand upwards, which had the happy side effect of requiring the purchase of a proper library ladder, the kind that runs along rails in the shelf and goes all the way up to the ceiling. Visiting authors are invited to sign the ladder: it serves as a record both of who’s been there, and of how brave they were – I climbed to the very top and it’s not for the faint-hearted, but competitive authors still vie to see who can sign the highest. Brave soul Pierce Brown, author of the Red Rising sci-fi trilogy, was so enthusiastic about the whole business he climbed right to the top and signed the ceiling, thus ending the competition.
Thanks to Marie, Keira, Cat, Jack and Olivia for letting me don an Edinburgh Bookshop pinny and for a fascinating and fun week of work-that-didn’t-feel-like-work. A happy National Bookshop Day to everyone there, and to all our bookselling comrades from Bloomsbury to Bruntsfield and beyond.