For our March Bookshop of the Month, we’re taking advantage of the very beginning of the spring weather with a trip to Edinburgh’s seaside to visit The Portobello Bookshop. Bookshop Manager Alice answers our questions about the shop and recommends us some new books, as well as her favourite local cafés and pubs to settle down and read in.

Tell us the story of your shop.

We’re an indie bookshop based in Edinburgh’s seaside community of Portobello, open since July 2019. The premises previously housed a fishing tackle shop for thirty years, and prior to that it was an old co-operative (a nice story here is that a local whose grandparents used to work – and met – at the co-op in the 1920s once got in touch to send us an old photograph from that time featuring the shop front and the co-op’s employees. It was amazing to see the shop almost a hundred years ago!).

When renovations took place in early 2019, the aim was to create a warm, modern, open space that’s welcoming and a pleasure to spend time browsing books in, and which allows us to host events. It was during the renovations that we discovered some of the shop’s amazing features, such as the columns around our counter and the cornices, which were all hidden behind plasterboard.

We’re a general bookshop; our stock tends to be mostly new titles, and a range of fiction and non-fiction, from experimental translated fiction to more commercial fantasy, from bestselling nature writing to radical literary essays. We want to offer customers what we feel is an original and diverse selection of books across most genres, and we’re a group of passionate booksellers who put a lot of love and time into curating our stock, arranging book displays and recommending our favourite books.

Having opened in July 2019, while our first couple of years were very different from what we’d anticipated, we’re glad to have made it through a global pandemic thanks to the support of our local customers and supporters from further away. The team has even grown, from five booksellers when we opened to a team of twelve now! In the past two years, we have expanded our reach, building a new, intuitive website featuring millions of titles and focusing on our events programme. In the shop’s lifetime so far, we’ve had the opportunity to host events with the likes of Zadie Smith, Barbara Kingsolver, Douglas Stuart, Ali Smith, Max Porter, Teju Cole – and so, so many more! We host a mix of intimate and large-scale events and love this variety: we want to support homegrown talent as well as host international authors.

What are the booksellers reading at the moment?

One of the joys of working in bookselling is sharing our favourite reads, not only with regular customers and visitors to the shop, but with the rest of the team. Though our reading tastes are varied as a team, they do intersect, and I love knowing what my colleagues are reading and are interested in. Having just finished reading The End of Eddy by Edouard Louis, I am about to dive into 1970s Barcelona with The Time of Cherries by Montserrat Roig (translated from the Catalan by Julia Sanches). Our bookshop supervisor Selena is currently reading – and loving – The Parisian by Isabella Hammad, while our senior buyer Molly is enjoying Mary Jean Chan’s poetry collection Bright Fear. Ness, our returns coordinator, is tackling Anna Karenina, and our senior bookseller Marc is halfway through Australian novelist Gerald Murnane’s latest book, Inland.

What’s your favourite thing about your shop?

There is a special time, on a bright day, when the sun floods into the shop and I am reminded of just how beautiful the space is and how lucky I am to work here, by the sea, alongside wonderful people. It’s easy to become task-driven, so these reminders to take some time to appreciate the small things are sometimes needed.

Which Faber book is the most popular in your shop?

Both Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver and Shy by Max Porter have flown off the shelves, and continue to do so, since they were published. We are fortunate to have hosted events with both authors last year and have incredible memories from them – we even hosted Barbara Kingsolver’s first ever Edinburgh book talk!

We can’t not mention Claire Keegan when highlighting Faber bestsellers: Small Things Like These, Foster, Antarctica, and her latest novella, So Late in the Day, all sell on a daily basis. Other popular authors include Michael Pedersen (who was raised in Portobello!), Andrew O’Hagan, Kae Tempest and Gary Younge. Faber’s new edition of Wendy Cope’s The Orange and Other Poems, which is beautiful and covetable, was a Christmas bestseller and continues to do well.

Which other local independent business would you love visitors to discover?

We’re part of a vibrant high street, so the answer is: many! Our next-door neighbours are the wonderful Tanifiki Café. They opened a couple of years ago, and we can’t wish for a better neighbour – it’s the perfect place to visit after a browse in the bookshop and settle down with a new book and coffee. They are passionate about their products, working with Rwandan producers, and roast their coffee onsite.

We also recommend our friends over at GoGo Beets who specialise in vegetarian, vegan and gluten free food, and wonderful fresh pasta-makers Aemilia. If you’re visiting us to attend an event in the bookshop, we suggest heading to The Portobello Tap afterwards for a burger and a pint, or wandering over to Smith & Gertrude for cheese and wine.

We love our dear friends at greengrocers Root Down and our local florist The Wild Flower Shop. Whether it’s fruit and veg or flower arrangements you’re after, both have an excellent selection of products. Last but not least, where would we be without our next-door neighbour and bicycle shop and repair BG Cycles? On top of being the best in the business, they are so kind and generous and have come to the rescue so many times when we have needed help fixing things (because, in true bookseller fashion, we are not very good at DIY).

Which book do you wish everyone had read?

That’s a difficult question! I read The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry as a child, and then again, years later as a young adult. It is perfect for all ages, so enchanting, funny, peppered with Saint-Exupéry’s beautiful watercolour illustrations, and the message of kindness and care at its core is of course timeless.

Do you have a favourite type of customer?

We have many different favourite types of customers and love the diversity of visitors we welcome every day: from our regulars that we see multiple times a week, to the visits from tourists from faraway places who may have heard about the bookshop online and are visiting us in person for the first (and perhaps only) time. We value the relationships we’ve built with some of our customers and especially enjoy being able to recommend or discuss a book that we love – and to receive recommendations from our customers, too! We also enjoy the waltz of deliveries and our extremely brief – though daily and always enjoyable – interactions with our postie and couriers. Finally, we have a soft spot for our dog visitors!

What would people find surprising about being a bookseller?

I think people may find surprising the amount of work that it involves! Bookselling tends to be romanticised, and there may be a perception that booksellers spend their days reading behind the counter with a cup of tea, behind piles of books waiting to be shelved. Tea and coffee are in abundant supply – that part is true – but there isn’t time for reading during the work day. Like for every other business, we as indie booksellers need to be creative and adaptable in order to thrive.

You can visit The Portobello Bookshop in person at 46 Portobello High Street, Edinburgh, EH15 1DA, or order from them online at
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