GLASGOW, SCOTLAND — “Are you Santa?,” the elderly customer asks with a hint of genuine curiosity.
Barry Young, the 61-year-old owner of Young’s Interesting Books in Glasgow’s emerging hipster-centric Shawlands neighbourhood, certainly shares some traits with Saint Nicholas. Bearded and jolly, with a twinkle in the eye when discussing his great grotto of books, Young, who runs the shop alongside his wife Noelle, could be the reincarnation of the non-fictional fourth-century Christian saint for all I know.
The suited and booted bookseller admits that he isn’t at liberty to say whether he is indeed Santa Claus, before handing over a well-thumbed first edition copy of Seamus Heaney’s North – a 1975 collection of poems which confront the Troubles in Ireland, where Young lived and worked prior to setting up shop in Glasgow’s Southside thirteen years ago – to the older gentleman who is giddier than a child on Christmas morning.
The man is eager to explain that the book has to be saved for his own Christmas, having spent no less than fifty pounds on one of Heaney’s finest works.
Young tells me that “he’s obviously just been out and mugged someone, he’s come back, and he’s got the money”. I laugh, but the man’s jittery handling of the cash leaves me slightly curious.
When the customer finally bids farewell to the shop, insulting my hairstyle on his way to the door (which Young, to my dismay, agrees on), the journalist-cum-bookshop owner turns to me. “The other thing you get is eccentrics”, he whispers in his grizzly half-Irish-half-Glasgow accent.
Throughout my journey to three of Glasgow’s independent bookshops, eccentricity is everywhere. The proprietors are also eccentrics, demonstrating such deep knowledge of their books which is almost stifling. They are masters, specialists and leaders of their trade. They help people unearth the all-elusive book that they’ve been craving.
“There’s some wonderful tales sometimes of how people find books that mean something to them,” Young says. “It sounds cliched and trite but it’s wonderful when they find a good home.”
The current home for the hundreds, if not thousands, of books in Young’s collection before they fall into the hands of passers-by and regulars is Skirving Street, just off Kilmarnock Road in Shawlands. The neighbourhood was recently named one of the world’s ‘coolest’ in a global travel guide, and to the owner’s delight, Young’s Interesting Books attracts a diverse clientele of both tote bag-using nonconformists and conventional book-loving pensioners.
As people explore this treasure trove of second-hand literary, I’m seated on a folding chair in a corner of the compact, well-tended bookshop, which as the name suggests is literally the brainchild of the owner’s own reading taste. Aided by Young’s insight, it is now that I realise much of the allure of reading is locating a dim, bookshelf-insulated corner to settle down with a good book, much alike my present setting.
It is this meticulous layout and mellow environment which my interviewee attributes to his wife. After all, the second essential component of reading is influence: a person who contributes to your literary decision-making, by recommendation or otherwise. As the son of a librarian, I know it all too well.
Noelle, called away on book group duty at the time of my visit, does “everything else” apart from buying their stock, as her husband puts it.
“She reads more than I do which is saying something,” Young reveals. “But we have different tastes – she went on at me for a long time that we never sell anything that’s just a good read.”
The couple are hidden gems of the independent bookshop business, just like their vast range of books – each of which have an “intrinsic value in themselves” says Young. These qualities are severely lacking from the coarse cardboard packaging of an Amazon parcel.
A fifty-one-minute walk or one-stop train journey away from 18 Skirving Street is The Gallery Bookshop in Glasgow’s Merchant City district.
Locked up, shutters down and lights off, I stake out inside a nearby coffee shop, waiting with mocha in hand for my target to appear and open the door to his literary sanctuary on Glassford Street. After my half hour lull of caffeine-fuelled daydreaming, The Gallery opens for the day with its ‘director’ Michael McCann present and accounted for at his surprisingly uncluttered, upmarket desk.
McCann, 40, is the archetypal bookworm. He’s quick to confess his love for those neat stacks of off-white book paper, finely bound together and encased by grand coated covers. Undoubtedly, he bores through them with greater care than the insect.
His bibliophilism has also been formed by the guidance of a loved one: his mother. “I’ve always been a big reader, ever since I was a child,” McCann begins. “I got my first library card when I was like five. My mum would take me to the library every couple of days and I’d get books.”
When his focus shifted from libraries to bookshops, the part-time photographer’s teenage rebelliousness began. Hours, days, nights spent reading – it was an addiction to books, not booze. And at the heart of his wild adolescence was Glasgow’s cluster of independent bookshops, which McCann has “always been drawn to”.
Walls lined with around 700 books, both new and used, The Gallery is McCann’s solo project to bring more “wee independent bookshops” to the city and opened in April. It’s his reaction to what he perceives as a reversal in human behaviour.
“There is something nice about having a place that you can just go and browse the books, pick them up and flick through them and handle them,” he says, as we sit on plush velvet armchairs in the bookshop. It’s essentially a soundproof hideaway from the chaos of a weekday morning in Glasgow city centre, furnished with hanging plants and photography prints.
The Gallery is a stark reminder of the escapism and tranquillity of an independent bookshop. It’s an ambience that Jeff Bezos can’t buy.
“It is hard, don’t get me wrong,” McCann continues. “We’re always going to be fighting Amazon.”
The A-word had eluded me thus far, fearing the triggering of PTSD in my interviewees after the growth of Amazon coincided with Glasgow’s bookshop industry halving in size since the days of McCann’s youth. But the bookseller is bold and has been rewarded for “just winging it” in the six months since opening.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is a fan, calling The Gallery a “beautiful bookshop” in a Twitter post. Her visit, which came with a “two-minute warning” from a plain clothed police officer, quadrupled the shop’s takings the following day.
The correlation between celebrity and independent bookselling is an unlikely, but not uncommon, trick of the trade. But beyond Sturgeon’s support, McCann’s little slice of literary bliss, wedged into the same doorway as a post office, is driving Glasgow’s modern-day indie bookshop revival.
Cooper Hay swivels on his desk chair as he ponders nigh on forty years of trading antiquarian books, peering up at the hustle and bustle of Bath Street above his basement-level shop window. The 71-year-old leans back, creaking the chair in an otherwise silent bookshop – which has a floor space smaller than the average front room.
“I remember discovering I was in a Louis Vuitton guide to Glasgow, mentioning the bookshop,” he says. He proceeds to recall visits from Johnny Cash, Robert Plant, one of the Kemp brothers and “quite a few” politicians and minor royals. What kind of independent bookshop have I walked into?
Cooper Hay Rare Books, established in 1985, has the layout of a private study, tucked underneath some of Glasgow city centre’s swankiest apartments. Specialising in first edition, antique books, the quaint shop is a portal to a time when books and records were treasure, and the instant scent of Hay’s stock, much of which dates back to the eighteenth century, is the key to unlocking this literary time capsule.
Hay smiles while recalling the A-listers who have stumbled upon his little den of history at 185a Bath Street. I’m only his second visitor of the day, and perhaps all week, but this bookshop – red carpet, dark green walls and all – has seen everything.
After being informed of the intricacies of book binding and fore-edge paintings, I’m hanging on the antiquarian bookseller’s every word. “I had quite a few interesting foreign visitors at that time,” Hay says, “including a chap who was quite a compulsive book buyer.” Not just any chap, though.
“He turned out to be sort of the right-hand man to Silvio Berlusconi,” he tells me. “It turned out he spent quite a few years in jail afterwards, but he’s back out now and he’s still mad in buying.”
I’m quickly reassured there is no connection between Cooper Hay Rare Books and the rise of right-wing governments in Italy. Hay’s dog, Lola, barks in agreement from behind a door to the shop’s stock room. This bookshop is unlike any other in Glasgow, swapping the classic bookshop cat for a lively Labrador pup and selling books at prices into the thousands.
By his own admission, Hay has had to adapt to the circumstances of antiquarian bookselling in the 21st century. The white-haired, white-bearded man isn’t your typical Instagram influencer, but has used the platform to his advantage and probably sells his products quicker than Molly Mae.
Hay stops mid-sentence. “How many followers have we got now Hamish?,” he shouts to his son, who is on dog duty in the back room. The answer is almost one thousand.
Hamish hopes to open a second Cooper Hay Rare Books outlet in Edinburgh and is likely to maintain his father’s antiquarian book business, given “the market is great” as Hay tells me.
Glasgow’s independent bookshops are thriving once again. You just need to follow the alleyways, staircases, lanes, paths or courtyards to piece together their secrets. They do exist, unlike Barry Young’s secret Santa identity.