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Glasgow’s Voltaire & Rousseau

During Independent Booksellers Week in the UK this year, I blogged about an American woman I traveled with in the far east, who told me that she felt at home in towns whose bookshops stocked Noam Chomsky.

When I fret over the troubling numbers of indy booksellers who are going out of business, I am troubled by the loss of community identity when these places vanish, as much as by the loss of livelihood. The stack of books on the tables of Waterstones or Barnes and Noble tell me little about the town I’m in, and while I feel more at home in Waterstones than in other juggernauts like Tesco or Ikea, a big bookstore doesn’t give me a sense of place.

Like the woman I traveled with, I navigate by books, and I want to know where I am. So I’ll tell you about the indy bookshop that rooted me to the city that became my second home.

I was 21, living in an unheated flat in the Southside of Glasgow, earning less money in a week than the average politician claims for lunch. I’d been in the city for about six months, but I did not yet feel at home in Scotland. I was beginning to long for the plain intelligence of Atlantic Canada, the first home I’d abandoned.

I was wandering around the west end of Glasgow on a rainy day, which isn’t an uncommon sort of weather. We have the kind of rain that lingers even after it stops. It gets into everything, especially if you live in an unheated flat made of crumbling sandstone, with a bad boyfriend who’s always stealing the duvet and opening the damn windows for a cigarette. The rain will penetrate your winter coat, seep into your boots and give you a cough that lasts all winter. And yet, people will stand at a bus stop with a soggy cigarette in one hand and a wet paperback in the other, grim but absorbed, fingers turning purple.

One dark winter afternoon on Otago Lane, a small road that lurches over the River Kelvin, I went into Voltaire and Rousseau. It’s a landmark in the city, but I didn’t know it yet. I knew, however, that I would be there for a while. The entryway was filled with piles of £1 paperbacks, the indy booksellers slush pile, pushed against the walls to create a pathway to the main room. That’s where I found a spotty Mordecai Richler hardcover propped on a stack of CanLit in a vague kind of display. It wasn’t just the CanLit; it was the notion that a display doesn’t need to be pretty to be effective. It tipped over when I touched it, upsetting a cat who was sleeping on a stack of medical journals. The cat relocated to a yellow velvet chair and I replaced the books; as the years went on, I’d learn that avalanches were common in Voltaire and Rousseau. So were peculiarities like CanLit stacked next to medical journals and distinctive cat hair between pages.

It isn’t a place to find what you’re looking for. There are more organized indy booksellers nearby, the excellent Thistle Books & Alba Music, and Caledonia books. Those are the places I went for specifics. I went to Voltaire and Rousseau for the books I didn’t know I wanted. It’s a place to linger, to inhale, to be surprised by books you’ve never heard of or by authors and titles you thought you’d forgotten. I arrived in Glasgow in 2001, not long after Scottish devolution, and the books that gave me insight into the complex political identity of my adopted country were often sourced here, accidentally.

I was wet and cold. There was a hole in my new tights. I was used to dressing for a deadly Canadian winter, but I didn’t have the knack of dressing for insidious Scottish damp. Nobody does, as it happens. A treacherous-looking electric heater in the corner belted heat at the customers. The edges of books curled and steam rose from wool scarves. A heap of umbrellas wilted next the wooden desk which separated the solemn bookseller from everyone but the cat, who had the run of the place.

(I would find out years later that the cat, featured in guide books to the city, was only a visitor. The owner told me that he had no idea who the cat’s family was. It arrived every morning and left every evening.)

Edwin Morgan was everywhere. So were Liz Lochhead and James Kelman, sandwiched inside stacks of their international colleagues, novelists and poets and polemicists, historians, philosophers. I picked up a copy of Eddie Morgan’s Collected Translations after a woman in a grey duffle coat and scarlet scarf sifted through his pages, smiling, then left him balanced on a pile of terrible romance novels. I read for a long time, standing in my torn tights and wet boots, then spent a precious £3 and took him to a coffee shop. I stayed all evening and went home shivering on a late train.

That dark afternoon in Voltaire and Rousseau altered my perception of Glasgow. It would take me some time to build a good life in the city, but I did, because I knew where I was and I knew I wanted to know the place. More than that, I suspected the place might want to know me. Eddie Morgan’s language that I heard echoed around me, the grace of the freezing fingers that handled his books, the woman who smiled while she read, showing the smoker’s lines around her red-lipsticked mouth, and the piles of books that meant there would be no quick exit. Glaswegians, I understood over time, are lovers of books and are scornful of product placement, soundbites and the status quo. Nothing made that so clear to me as Voltaire and Rousseau.

Miriam Vaswani is a writer whose work has appeared in international publications including Gutter, Valve Journal, Retort and Newfound. She is a Pushcart nominee and fiction editor at Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine. She blogs at Little Bones and tweets as @miriamvaswani. 

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