Our flat rental for Edinburgh's literary festival happens to be smack in the middle of the city's loveliest bookshop haunts: Peter Bell Books, Edinburgh Books, Andrew Pringle Booksellers, and, directly downstairs from us, Armchair Books. At Armchair there are idiosyncratic handmade signs everywhere. On the front door: 'Please don't piss in the doorway as it gets inside and makes the shop stink'. Inside, cantankerous handwritten rebuttals form bits of a diatribe which, if you connect the notecards tacked all over the shelves, goes something like this: Due to continual interference of the council, this shop may have to shut down at any second - if it does, you will be deemed a guest here for private purposes. Dangerous stepladders everywhere - do not step on them by order of the council. The stepladders are for decoration only. This floor must not be heated at any time. Beware of dangerous stacks of books. Beware of light bulbs...
On one book, placed at eye level, is a note that reads, "This is my favourite book."
This book happens to be my own favourite book. I ask the young man sitting at the end of the warren of shelves, "Did you write the note that says this is your favourite book?"
Edinburgh has been like that, for me. Things seem so sensible, so utterly right, from the flavours of ordinary food (somehow no longer ordinary but heavenly - have North American agricultural practices made everything there comparatively tasteless, or has the endless drizzle and low-pressure atmosphere changed my perception of food, the way rainy days bring out intense colours in twigs and leaves and stones?) to this, my favourite book, also being the favourite of this Scottish madman?
At Edinburgh Books across the road things are no less mad. I go in there and it looks less like a bookshop than someone's book-lined living room filled with armchairs in which men in tweedy jackets and gardening caps study old magazines under the horns of a massive water-buffalo and among the paws of a magnificent reclining dog. A cheerful woman perched at a tiny cabinet seems to be doing work of an indeterminate nature, and a couple of old men check out some magnificent rugby goals on someone's laptop among the stacks of Victorian Scottish travelogues. While outside, there are more umbrellas than I have ever before seen, bashed and brandished and shining like mad nylon blossoms, in the wet air that still smells of smoke and malt vinegar and sheep fat and malt and hops.
I found the food infinitely tastier over there. My guess is it's a mixture of both agricultural practices in the UK (they seem to have stricter guidelines on what can and cannot go into one's food - how civilized!) and the rain. Oh for bright red Scottish strawberries that break in the mouth like song.
Two years ago I was poking around in Armchair Books with a friend and came upon a collection of fifty or so postcards -- they were all addressed to one couple, and had been sent to them, from various friends, and various places in the world, over the course of about twenty-five years. The latter postcards were addressed to the woman only, and from hints in one or two cards I gathered that she'd become a widow. I wish now that I'd bought the lot -- I did not, as I didn't have the money at the time, and this now stands as one of my strongest Edinburgh regrets. Imagine the stories one might have been able to tell from those postcards alone.
Though I'm sure someone else found them, eventually, and I suspect they would have loved them as much as I. Those bookshops tend to draw those of us with wandering hearts and infinite imaginations. :)