Rare tale of a thriving bookshop

Vanessa Robertson
Vanessa Robertson
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IT was the week that the Northern Rock crisis broke. The news was full of images of queues outside branches of the ailing building society, as customers desperately tried to withdraw their cash, while financial experts warned of doom and gloom ahead.

The news also sent a shudder through Vanessa Robertson. Not because the now 37-year-old mother of one was a Northern Rock investor but because she and husband Malcolm had just signed on the dotted line, committing themselves to a new business – a book shop.

“We completed the purchase on the day the run on the Northern Rock started.

“I had the radio on and I was listening to all of it and I just thought: ‘What have we done?’ And then I thought, ‘Oh, well, we’ve done it now.’”

This Saturday, The Edinburgh Bookshop celebrates its fourth birthday, having survived an 80 per cent rate hike from the council, a merger – at one point the Robertsons owned two shops in Bruntsfield, one specialising in children’s books – and predictions of the end of independent bookshops and even of books in paper form, swallowed up by Amazon and ebooks. Oh, and that financial crisis which turned into a full-blooded recession.

Now the Bruntsfield Place store has been described as “the kind of bookshop we’d all like to have in our neighbourhood” by the Guardian Directory of Independent Bookshops and has built up a loyal clientele, with authors Alexander McCall Smith, Maggie O’Farrell and Ian Rankin among its fans. In fact, the book shop can claim a world premiere when the crime novelist read the first chapter of his latest offering, The Impossible Dead, at a book swap event, only the day after the manuscript had been sent off to his publishers.

“It’s been tough but we are getting there,” says Vanessa. “I do still worry every month but then I think I’m just a worrier.”

But, then, for a small bookseller there is plenty to worry about these days. Internet giant Amazon and the supermarkets receive massive discounts from publishers, discounts they can pass on to customers in the form of cut-price books. Vanessa admits that chef Jamie Oliver’s latest book, Jamie’s Great Britain, is being sold at one supermarket cheaper than she can buy it wholesale. “We can’t get those kind of discounts,” she says. “But we concentrate on books that aren’t in supermarkets, that aren’t highly discounted.

“I think people realise there is a reason we are more expensive and a reason that Amazon is as cheap as chips. With Amazon you have to know what you want before you start. You won’t find that serendipitous book that’s going to change you life.

“Every book here has been hand-selected. I will spend half an hour on the floor with your five-year-old, finding books that he likes. I will find a book that your teenager will read. I will find a book to take as a present for your aunt.

“We have a trained children’s bookseller who has a background in speech and language therapy – we have kids who are dyslexic who having been coming here and after four years are really good readers.

“And I am very lucky where we are. We have a lot of people around here who read a lot and we have a lot of loyal customers.”

Originally from Worcester, Vanessa met her husband Malcolm when they were both students in Leeds. They returned to Malcolm’s native city where he worked as a physics lecturer at Edinburgh University and she as a publisher of obscure forgotten children’s literature before opening the bookshop. “I don’t know what the future holds. I would like to spend the next few years building up business but I would also like to go back into publishing,” she says.

And there is her PhD in housing policy to complete, put on hold due to the bookshop. “What I don’t know about 1950s council houses,” she laughs.

It’s a typically quirky left-field choice for a woman whose bookshop runs three reading groups, including one for children, holds charity events at no profit to the business, as well as book swaps, where customers spend an evening listening to guest authors and, er, swapping books. Rather than buying them.

“That’s not a great money-making operation,” Vanessa admits. “In fact, I don’t think it makes any money, we just cover our costs. But being a bookseller isn’t just about making money, it’s about spreading the love of books.”

* The Cat in the Hat will be at The Edinburgh Bookshop today with story times at 11am and 3pm, and a buy one, get one half price on children‘s books to mark the anniversary. An adult celebration is being held on Tuesday, November 15, from 6.30pm with live classical music, buck‘s fizz and mince pies. A literary afternoon tea with author Maggie O’Farrell will be held on November 20 in aid of the charity It’s Good To Give. The Edinburgh Bookshop, 219 Bruntsfield Place, 0131-447 1917, www.edinburghbookshop.com