The Bookseller’s Dozen #1

We’re proud to introduce a new monthly feature of Scottish independent bookshops.

Looking Glass Books is a new bookshop in Edinburgh, which opened in May 2012. The shop is bright and airy, with floor to ceiling windows all the way down one side of the shop, and at both ends. Perfectly furnished to sit with friends for a coffee and a chat (their coffee is delicious) or to curl up and have a read of what you are browsing – their sofas are delightfully comfortable. The owner, Gillian Robertson, has stocked the bookshop with a good mix of fiction and non-fiction, and a superb children’s section, all of which has the effect of feeling carefully curated. One added feature which we love for obvious reasons is a Featured Publisher case, which pays great attention to Scotland’s plethora of indy publishers.

A photo of Looking Glass Books

Bookshop: Looking Glass Books

Owner: Gillian Robertson

Location: Edinburgh

Open Since: May 2013

How did you get into bookselling?

I got into bookselling by opening a bookshop! My professional life before was in law – human rights law in healthcare and medical ethics. I have an LLB [Bachelor of Laws] and an LLM [Master of Laws] but credit a lifetime of being a voracious reader as my preparation for bookselling. I used to hide in cupboards to read as a child & lived in the library – it was books and reading that opened the world to me and led me to travel; I spent 13 years traveling and living in the Middle East, Far East and Australia. On my return I was dismayed to see how few Independents of the type I’ve enjoyed in so many countries around the world there were in my native Edinburgh – so I decided to open one. It was a long slog to find premises and secure finance but I got there and opened in May 2012.  I think reading is the best route into bookselling – you must be genuinely passionate about books and reading and enjoy sharing that with people.

What sort of books do you sell?

We sell an eclectic mix of fiction, non-fiction, poetry & children’s literature. We have a very diverse and interesting customer base – and our stock has to reflect that! We always try to give prominence in the shop displays to smaller independent publishers and feature debut authors, local writers and translated fiction alongside the big titles and classics. We sell some great literary gifts too – particularly popular is the Out of Print range that we added late last year.

Photo of Looking Glass BooksWhat is popular at the moment?

In non fiction Boel Westin’s biography of Tove Jansson is very popular at the minute as is Deborah Levy’s Things I Don’t Want To Know. James Wood’s The Fun Stuff and Other Essays is selling well too.  In fiction George Saunders Tenth of December (just out in paperback) and The Goldfinch never stay on the shelves for very long. I’m gratified to see A Girl Is A Half Formed Thing get a boost from the recent Folio Prize shortlisting – it’s exceptional and original and it’s great to see it reaching a wider audience than it has to date.

What is your favourite book in the shop?

That’s too difficult – many of my favourite books are on the shelves in the shop! One of my all time favourites is Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. We’ve a very lovely edition of it in the shop – one I don’t own myself. I’ve been coveting it for ages so might treat myself to (another!) copy. I’ve been waiting expectantly for the NYRB edition of Autobiography of a Corpse by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky to come in too – it’s finally here! So that’s what I’m reading next – as soon as I finish The First True Lie by Marina Mander, which came highly recommended to me and is, so far, living up to expectation.

A photo of Looking Glass Books What makes an indy bookshop better than an online or chain retailer?

Where to start! Someone visiting our shop will get advice from friendly book-loving staff who know the stock well – that beats computer-generated recommendations based on purchase history any day. Instead of an incomprehensibly large stock that you could never take in in an afternoon’s perusal, we have a lovingly selected smaller collection of books, making it easier for browsers to stumble across something new they might not have heard of or might not have considered reading before. I think that’s really where Indys are important. The internet and huge chains may offer a large choice but it’s a mistake to assume this widens reading. I think the reverse is often true – the explosion of choice can overwhelm and many readers stick to the authors they have previously read or the current ‘big titles’. With the internet’s ‘if you like that, you’ll like this’ algorythms, reading choices narrow and it’s easy to get stuck in a reading rut. I hear time and again from customers that they have started reading short stories again or poetry after stumbling upon something in the shop that caught their eye.  The serendipitous find!

With the internet’s ‘if you like that, you’ll like this’ algorithms, reading choices narrow and it’s easy to get stuck in a reading rut.

There is no question in my mind that creative and enthusiastic Independent bookshops can and do hold a special place in their customers hearts. As testament to that we have been the venue of choice for special occasions for some of our most regular, loyal customers and hosted Birthday, Christening & Wedding parties. I don’t think that happens with very many shops! We are more than just a place to buy books and we host author events, launches and book groups regularly which brings together a community of like-minded people who want to share in that.

The ethical benefits of shopping locally are staggering, too. I think we’re all fairly well versed in those and I’m sure I don’t need to repeat them. Do I?

What would you like from the next year?

The shop is into its second year now and we look forward to continuing to grow and build on a great start. We’re in a bit of a hidden location so every week people are still coming in and discovering the shop for the first time. The good news is that when they do most return. Our events calendar is jam-packed and we’re hoping to continue to grow that. We’re really getting an idea of the type of events we know our customers enjoy which is great, too. We have a couple of exciting new bookselling initiatives that we’ll be launching very soon, but we don’t have all of the details down yet, so you’ll have to stay tuned!

What else goes on in the bookshop?

We run a café with coffee, tea, cake, and soup, which makes for a bustling atmosphere every day of the week, filling the shop with anything from a catch-up between friends, to student learning groups, to business meetings. That space also makes the shop ideal for events – we’ve even had a couple of music gigs in the shop, and couple of months back we hosted our first wedding reception. One recurring favourite is our weekly children’s storytime, when local theatre company The Drama Mill comes along and acts out a story with the kids’ help, which has the little ones charging about the shops as pirates, caterpillars, peaches, and more, while parents sit back with a coffee or browse the books.

A photo of Looking Glass BooksDo you have any interesting events coming up?

We have loads of great events coming up with quite a few launches booked in for March and April. A poetry slam on International Women’s Day is sure to bring in quite a crowd, too. We are hosting a launch party for the brilliant Istanbul Review in March and are very excited that Elif Shafak will be coming to the shop to sign and read. We recently started the shop’s own bookclub. We decided to tie it in with the #readwomen2104 campaign and the response has been overwhelming – we have a lot people signed up and can’t wait to get started with that.

You can find the bookshop at 36 Simpson Loan, Edinburgh, EH3 9GG. They are open from 8:30am till late every day of the week, and go you certainly should. Find them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter for more news about what they do.

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