The King’s Quair

20/09/21 21:10

The King’s Quair was only open for a year or two. I wish now that I’d taken a photo to remember it by. Its bare timber floor, walls of matchboard and raw plaster lined with shelves, plus a table in the middle of the floor loaded with cheap books. Towards the rear of the shop, beside the bookseller’s desk was a large trapdoor. Through it he periodically disappeared down a flight of steep stairs into the basement.

In case you hadn’t guessed, the Quair was a secondhand bookshop in King Street in Aberdeen. King Street, with the Brig of Don at the top end, cheap student flats near Pittodrie in the middle, and social clubs, cleaning supplies store and tobacco blenders towards the Castlegait end, close to its knuckle with Union Street.

The bookshop was presumably named after the poem written by King James I about his dream vision – but I never discovered whether the owner was a medievalist, or an antiquarian who just happened to run a secondhand bookshop on a run-down street in Aberdeen. In 2005 it was still feasible, just, to make a living by selling old books from a physical shop, but a few years later Amazon shut down that possibility and Bezos replaced charity shops as the enemy of second hand book dealers.

The King’s Quair disappeared a year or two later. Next door is now a Halal food store, with a Turkish barber and a Thai massage parlour further along, and a Polish shop one street across. King Street is multi-cultural but heading downmarket, and who knows what goes on in the flats above the massage parlour.

The Quair wasn’t alone. I don’t ever recall going into the Old Clock Repair Shop, which was diagonally opposite across King Street – despite its name it was another bookshop, but may not have been open on Saturday mornings when I parked in the Safeway car park on the site of Hendersons’ crane works. Further out of town was the Old Aberdeen Bookshop, and during my lunchtime walks through the week I sometimes spotted its owner mooching around the Union Street charity shops. That was evidently how he bought his stock.

Down the narrow gulch of the Adelphi, just off Union Street, were some shelves of “roast beef” titles in an antiques store, and nearby were the knackered ex-shops on Marischal Street, an off-the-main-drag street which you felt would be ideal for a tired second-hand bookshop, yet no-one seemed to take up the invitation. It would be grand if you wanted a quiet life, sitting alone in a bookshop all day with nothing to do but read – or perhaps you could become as grumpy as Bernard Black used to be in the Black Books television series.

The philosopher John Locke didn’t think much of book dealers. “Books seem to me to be pestilent things, and infect all the trade in them with something perverse and brutal. Printers, binders, sellers and other that make a trade and gain out of them have universally so odd a turn and corruption of mind that they have a way of dealing peculiar to themselves, and not confirmed to the good of society and that general fairness which cements mankind.”

There’s a good chance Locke got ripped off in the type of antiquarian bookshop I've got in mind, where the proprietor looks like Peter Cushing. You enter the shabby storefront through a creaky door and catch a whiff of the interior – dusty, archaic and funereal. Whatever your poison is – antique toys, stamps, coins, duck decoys, flint tools, ethnographica, enamel advertising signs or books about the Jacobites and Covenanters – fustiness is a given. And as this is in Aberdeen it likely has a magnificent, century-old “fooshtieness”.

However, the purpose of this piece is to celebrate what we missed during 2020 and 2021, rather than lament what’s gone wrong with the High Street, or whether things will return to the way they were prior to Covid. Hopefully we’re browsing and rummaging as a means to pick up reading material, and just like when I was a kid and had a birthday, I have a book token to spend. :-)

There is a serious side to the decline of architectural bookselling. There are few specialist shops in Britain selling architecture titles nowadays. Triangle was one, in a space sub-let from the AA in Bedford Square in London. Leslie Fraser had a decent selection in the Perth Bookshop; I believe he’d once been architecture correspondent on The Scotsman. Janette Ray is another, with a bijou little shop in the centre of York. But things change.

In the early 1990’s, at the start of the Great Acceleration, it was predicted that we’d see the End of the Book. Printed matter would join vinyl records in the dustbin of history.  At that point, we had CD-ROM’s and it was assumed that you’d fit thousands of books onto a disk, just as you can fit an hour’s music onto a disk.  As it turns out, we don’t enjoy reading large amounts of text from a screen – whether a tiny smartphone screen, a Kindle or the huge smart TV’s which takes up an entire wall in some people’s living rooms.
Nevertheless, although the physical book had been with us for four centuries, space was increasingly an issue.  In 1945 Fremont Rider predicted that library capacity would need to double every 16 years or so, due to the number of books being published each year.  Rider was an American librarian with a penchant for spiritualism and was a proponent of “One World Government” – a favourite topic of conspiracy theorists everywhere, including those suspicious of the Bilderberg Group, the Illuminati, the Knights Templar and so forth.
His suggested solution was to use microfilm, so that each page could be reduced to the size of a postage stamp then enlarged again and printed out on demand.  That happened to a certain extent with newspaper archives and public records, and even now I can hear the accelerating zoom of the Bell & Howell machines in the Central Library, followed by the fluttering noise when they reach the end of the spool of film.  But Rider couldn’t have foreseen that microfilm would be overtaken by the CD-ROM, then the internet.
When searching the API (Architectural Periodicals Index) and the Avery Index (its American equivalent) whilst writing my architectural school dissertation, we had to borrow the appropriate CR-ROM each time – that was much faster than searching microfilm or even worse, a card index.  But the internet made all of those obsolete.

For a time, there was a parallel stream to bookshops. Until the 2000’s, many architecture booksellers sold by catalogue, such as Inch’s Books from York or Richard Sidwell at Monmouth House Books in the Welsh marches. Now every bookshop struggles in the face of Amazon, yet nothing beats visiting a physical store. For example, GT Coventry, at the eastern end of the long High Street in Kirkcaldy was a strange and unique blend of tobacconist and bookseller. When I drove down to have a poke around redundant buildings left behind by the linoleum industry, I always stopped for a chat with McLean Dorward.

Leakey’s in Inverness (above, courtesy Idavoll) is arguably Scotland's largest secondhand bookshop with 100,000 books … the nave of the old Gaelic Kirk is filled with shelves and a wood-fired stove. It’s a Scots version of Barter Books in Alnwick, but with fewer tourists and more accurately calibrated prices. If you’re through in Glasgow, Caledonia Books on the Great Western Road in Glasgow is a local institution with a cavernous store and one of the biggest general stocks in Scotland. By contrast, the nearby Voltaire & Rousseau is madly disorganised.

To end on a recommendation, the Book Room in Melrose is a small country town bookshop of the sort there used to be all over Scotland. There are fewer of them nowadays, but this one has the bonus that it’s within striking distance of several Peter Womersley buildings… an ideal constituent of a weekend jaunt with Modernist concrete sightseeing and lunch in a country pub, if you like that kind of thing. But post-Covid, it’s always worth checking that shops are still in business, and open when you plan to visit.

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