Nicholas Royle’s passion for collecting white-spined Picador titles from the 1970s-1990s led him on a tour of UK book and charity shops. White Spines: Confessions of a Book Collector describes his adventures. In this extract, he rummages through some of Scotland’s most iconic independent stores

On Sunday 26 May 2019, I leave home at 4pm to drive to Wigtown, where I’ll spend the night, en route to Moniack Mhor. A week among friends awaits, although I’m not fully prepared for the bits that are work. But, first, Wigtown. Scotland’s book town. I book into my B&B and go in the Craft for a local ale, which isn’t Belgian, but isn’t bad. After half an hour I realise I’ve been sitting under a sign that says, Jock’s Weekly Special. I leave. A man stares at me from a window. It starts to rain. There’s an empty shop for sale. It is, strangely, very tempting. The last time I was here was with the England Writers football team, one of whose number was saying he’d have to get me into Granta, which, naturally, never happened. I met James Delingpole in somebody’s kitchen. Politically suspect, even a decade ago.

HeraldScotland:

On Monday morning I enjoy a full Scottish breakfast in Craigmount Guesthouse before heading to the bookshops. First stop The Bookshop. If I owned a bookshop I wouldn’t call it “The” something, because then no-one knows whether to uppercase the definite article when writing about it. Upper-casing it looks ugly, but lower-casing it you worry someone might take offence. I guess you could do whatever you liked and leave it up to the subs or the editor or whoever you’re writing it for. But what if you’re writing it for someone who will have less interest in that kind of thing than you do? And you feel you have to get it right.

I wonder if this is why shop-owner Shaun Bythell is a bit Dylan-Moran-in-Black-Books – by his own admission, in the first entry in his memoir, The Diary of a Bookseller (Profile), which I buy in The Bookshop, feeling I should, but also because I want to read it. I’m listening to him talking to some students about his book while I’m rooting through his paperback shelves. He’s sending mixed messages about it. Perhaps, like me, he feels awkward talking about his work, one to one, or, in this case, one to two or three. I think there are three of them, and one of them is studying something I had no idea you could study. I’ve forgotten what it was now, but it was something kind of practical, more practical than creative writing. Anyway, they buy one, and I buy one, and I also buy three Kurt Vonnegut paperbacks in Panther – Welcome to the Monkey House, God Bless You, Mr Rosewater and Mothernight. I will read the first diary entry of The Diary of a Bookseller that night in bed at Moniack Mhor. I will note it definitely strikes a somewhat grumpy tone at the same time as making me snort with laughter and I will see it runs to 310 pages, which will strike me as far too long for this kind of thing. I would have thought 246 pages is the optimum.

I’m worrying about whether it’s The Bookshop or the Bookshop when really I should be worrying about whether it’s Bookshop or Book Shop. The sign and the book suggest two words, the website one word, so who knows?

HeraldScotland: Ian and Joyce Cochrane, owners of the Old Bank Bookshop, Wigtown, photographed by Nicholas RoyleIan and Joyce Cochrane, owners of the Old Bank Bookshop, Wigtown, photographed by Nicholas Royle

I like the Old Bank Bookshop immediately, partly because the owners, Joyce and Ian Cochrane, are so friendly. The shelves I’m looking at are for dead authors, Joyce explains. But I can see books by Jonathan Coe, Emma Donoghue, Esther Freud, DM Thomas and others, none of them dead, as I’m writing these words. I end up being invited into the office for a photo. I ask for one in return. I buy only one book, John Haskell’s Out of My Skin, which is new and a US edition. No UK publisher has acquired it, as far as I know, which is a shame as I loved American Purgatorio. I’ll read Out of My Skin walking around Manchester parks during the first national lockdown in 2020.

The prose has the same relaxed gait as American Purgatorio. In fact, it’s even more relaxed. It strolls along like Larry David doing a walk-and-talk. But it’s about another actor-comedian. The narrator, having moved from New York to LA, meets a Steve Martin impersonator and likes what he sees so much that he starts impersonating Steve Martin himself. It’s very good on what it’s like to have the sense of inhabiting someone else’s skin. The narrator tries to have a relationship with a woman called Jane, but Steve, or being Steve, or more to the point not being Steve, gets in the way.

I enter Well Read Books and the enjoyable company of retired judge turned second-hand bookseller Ruth Anderson QC, who kindly drags loads of Virago Modern Classics out of the back room for me to inspect. We have a good conversation. I leave with a Penguin, Jean Rhys’s After Leaving Mr Mackenzie.

The Open Book, sadly, is closed.

**

With its exposed spiral staircase, mezzanine floor and balconies, Leakey’s, on Church Street, Inverness, achieves the remarkable feat of making the majority of its stock on at least three levels visible to the visitor from almost any location inside the premises. There’s a woodburning stove in the middle of the ground floor and a large counter where you will find owner Charles Leakey busy making sales and graciously accepting compliments on his extraordinarily beautiful bookshop.

It was in Leakey’s that I discovered that Tom Adams’ covers for Fontana’s Agatha Christie series were sometimes replaced, with new Tom Adams covers. That came as a surprise, the idea that someone decided the master’s work could be improved on, if only by the master. There’s no doubt, though, that the Ordeal By Innocence cover with the birds is better than the one with the snake and that the spider cover for Appointment With Death is a vast improvement on the one with the syringe. As for Passenger to Frankfurt, the one with the bubbles or the one with the spider? It’s a difficult one to call.

Saturday 1 June 2019

Priory Books, Pitlochry. Bookseller and well-dressed man in mustard jumbo cords. Well-dressed man [buying map of Edinburgh]: I’m actually on my way to Loch Ness. I’m a collector. Can you tell? Bookseller [smiles].

Favourite bookshop in Edinburgh? That’s easy. Armchair Books on West Port. On 7 June 2017, I find two Picadors – Brenda Maddox’s George’s Ghosts and Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano – plus William Burroughs’ The Place of Dead Roads in Paladin with an inclusion, a scrap of paper with sums on one side and an eight-digit number on the other, probably a bank account. The man in the shop says, of the Lowry, “F***. This is a great book. Heavy going, but great.” He talks about it having the best description of anything he can remember reading anywhere. “The sound of a Mexican town being like the noise made by a thirsty man in the desert.” I ask him why the prices are not round numbers, but figures like £3.80 or £4.20. He says: “I don’t know, man. Above my pay grade.”

Extracted from White Spines: Confessions of a Book Collector by Nicholas Royle, published by Salt, £9.99

HeraldScotland: