The name of the store in Inverness, Scotland, UK was Leakey’s Bookshop. As soon as I walked in the door I knew I would be there a while.
I’ve been in a lot of used bookstores in my day. I’m drawn magnetically to the classic science fiction, the history books written from a decades-old perspective, the oddly typeset math books that tell how to compute a square root by hand, the irrational categories and the idiosyncratic selection. Small used bookstores can only afford to stock popular books. But big ones don’t just sell books, they sell serendipity.
The first think you notice at Leakey’s is the smell. Old paper in hardbacks and pulp paperbacks, each contributing to a powerful fragrance, rich and resonant. The smell took me back to all the other used bookstores of my youth. Nostalgia is powerful. You can’t get it from ebooks.
Leakey’s is in a former church. And it feels like a place of worship. The classic science fiction is the first category on your left as soon as you walk in. Nearly all of my favorite science fiction writers are dead. But their books are still there on the shelves at Leakey’s.
The whole ground floor at Leakey’s is filled with bookshelves. Walk up a spiral staircase and you can see all the books on the second level — and look down on the presence of human knowledge surrounding you.
It was very quiet in the bookstore. Like a library. Or a church. I think people knew they were in a place of reverence.
I browed about 100 books. I bought a few. I don’t need more books, but I surround myself with them for inspiration. I bought a book about imaginary monsters. It was sitting on top of a pile of other books under a cloth cover. It hadn’t been priced yet. It wasn’t in mint condition. A little girl had written her name in the front and filled in her impressions of the monsters in the spaces the book had set aside for such observations. Now I have a book on monsters and a connection with a little girl I’ve never met.
The view from the top floor of Leakey’s — and the smell — will stay with me long after this trip. The Scottish Highlands are filled with spectacular views. Our Airbnb looks out over a broad firth and the views change with the weather, which is often. I’ve climbed the steps of a ruined castle and looked out over Loch Ness and imagined Scots taking in the same view 500 years ago. The view from Leakey’s seems to fit in among those experiences.
It made me think of all the other used book shrines I’d visited over 64 years. Places where you never knew what books you’d stumble on, with what histories, and what you could learn from authors you never knew about and would never find in a web search. If they took the time to write, isn’t it worth considering what they said?
I remember . . .
Book Swap, in a basement store in State College, Pennsylvania where I went to university.
Avenue Victor Hugo bookshop on Newbury Street in Boston, which I haunted for decades, since located to Lee, New Hampshire.
Book Den East, in a barn in Martha’s Vineyard.
Livraria Cultura in a former movie theater in São Paulo, Brazil.
The places were eclectic. The architecture was unforgettable. The books were revelations. The discoveries were odd and unrepeatable.
But the smell, the smell was always the same, and will always take me back.