EDINBURGH's position as Unesco City of Literature has been undermined because leading independent bookseller Ottakar's is being forced to close down its flagship store in the capital as developers seek to transform the site into a magnet for high-fashion retailers.

An Ottakar's spokesman confirmed the George Street store, located a couple of blocks from the Charlotte Square site of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, will close at the end of May with the loss of 26 jobs. A further 10 jobs are to go with the closure of the Brodies coffee shop, located on the floor above Ottakar's.

James Boyle, chairman of Edinburgh's Unesco City of Literature, said: "It is a tremendous loss. The Ottakar's policy of devolving responsibility for the buying and promotion of Scottish books has been a first-class policy. We will miss that terribly.

"The shop itself is in a central position, is a bit of a local institution and is arguably Edinburgh's leading bookshop."

Edinburgh won its prestigious title of Unesco (UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) City of Literature in 2004.

Ottakar's spokesman Jon Howells confirmed the closure plans. He said: "It will close at the end of May. It is very very sad. But it's not our decision; the lease expires in June. We are looking at alternative sites in Edinburgh city centre, but nothing has turned up."

Staff at Ottakar's, including Scottish operations manager Duncan Furness, still hope the building's landlord can be persuaded to allow Ottakar's to sign a new lease once a proposed redevelopment is completed next spring, and that the Ottakar's shop can trade from temporary premises in the interim.

However, this seems unlikely given that the 7500-square-foot retail unit's owner, Unilever Superannuation Fund, has appointed Glasgow-based surveyors CWM to target high-fashion retailers and leisure operators to occupy the premises once an extensive redevelopment is complete in February 2007.

Ewan Mackay, a chartered surveyor at CWM, said there was "a lot of interest", adding that George Street was poised to become Edinburgh's "leading fashion pitch". The fate of other retailers on the site, which include the Rangers store and clothes shops Coast and Karen Millen, has yet to be determined.

Gavin Wallace, head of literature at the Scottish Arts Council, described the closure as "sad news for the literary life of Edinburgh and Scotland".

Ottakar's, which acquired the George Street store, among others, from the receivers when the James Thin bookstore chain closed down, has played a key part in reinvigorating Edinburgh's book trade, promoting Scottish authors and organising book signings with prominent Scottish and international authors.

Edinburgh-based author Laura Hird said the closure would lead to Scottish authors being "compartmentalised".

"Ottakar's have uniquely Scottish events and tours, whereas Waterstone's prefer celebrity authors. It's a great loss because we seem to be losing a lot of independent bookshops. Waterstone's just seem to want to have stuff on their shelves where a lot of money has already gone into advertising."

Ottakar's will retain some 15 branches across Scotland in Glasgow's Buchanan Galleries, Aberdeen, Dundee, Inverness, Aviemore, St Andrews, Oban, Elgin, Kirkaldy, Falkirk, East Kilbride, Newton Mearns, Ayr and Dumfries.

Several of these were also formerly James Thin branches. The George Street branch had traded for many years as the Edinburgh Book Shop before being acquired by James Thin in the 1990s.

A bid by the parent company of Waterstone's, HMV Group, to take over Ottakar's is being assessed by the Competition Commission. The regulatory body is weighing up whether such a deal would weaken competition in UK bookselling.



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