An Homage to the Independent Bookshops of my Student Years

Topping and Company Booksellers, photographed by Jessica Armstrong.

Topping and Company Booksellers, photographed by Jessica Armstrong.

When we at the Attic head out into the world, we head to its bookshops. Bookshops of the World is our series documenting our favorite bookshops, not just in our hometowns but around the world. In this unofficial sixth edition, Jessica Armstrong pays tribute to the two bookshops in St. Andrews and looks at the importance they played through her years at university.

It will come as no surprise that in the past four years of my English Literature degree, I have spent a huge amount of time in bookshops. While some of the books, authors, time periods, and genres I’ve encountered as a result no longer retain any space in my memory, a favourite discovery that does is the realisation that George Eliot first met George Henry Lewes in a foreign bookshop on London's Burlington Arcade. Yet, to understand the basis of that appreciation, it is necessary to go back to the very beginning of my university days.

Four years ago, I was in the throes of waiting to hear back from the universities to which I'd applied. I'd been rejected from my first choice for English Literature (which was probably a good thing, considering that it merited the top spot because of a Harry Potter module they offered). I had been insistent that I would not, in a million years, be attending St. Andrews (too many posh accents and red-trouser-clad men there for me, thank you very much), but I ended up being far too overwhelmed by Edinburgh's endlessness and bustling centre to even contemplate spending four years there.

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I will never forget my first visit to St. Andrews. The weather – as I would come to learn would be typical – was not in our favour. Yet, with our damp raincoats clinging to our backs, my Mum and I were taken on an ad-hoc tour around the university buildings, with me stopping every couple of paces to snap a photograph. Despite the rain (and yet, perhaps even because of it), the greyest of days showed the three streets to be something special. While I had been told that I would have classes overlooking the sea, seeing really is believing. And the more I heard about the town's history, the more I wanted to be a part of its future.

However, what surpassed all of the red gowns, the castle and the cathedral, and the remedial potato and leek soup from the Students' Union café for me was Topping and Company Booksellers. Here, a gold-plated door handle gave way to my idea of heaven; not only were the walls bricked with titles, they stretched so close to the ceiling that wooden ladders were on hand to help you reach, in the probable event that you might need them. Unsurprisingly, my eyes grew bigger than saucers. As my fingers traced a table laden with books which had been signed by some of my favourite authors, a friendly question interrupted my dazed euphoria – 'Would you like a cup of tea?'

As my fingers traced a table laden with books which had been signed by some of my favourite authors, a friendly question interrupted my dazed euphoria – ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’

As the logistics of train timetables don't empathise nearly enough with the eternity required to peruse bookshelves, a cup of tea was not sipped that day. Yet, in the last four years, Topping's has become a landmark on the map of my University life. It was there that I had the honour of meeting two of my favourite bakers, listening to their stories by the warmth of wood-burning stove. It was there that I've shared plenty of cups of tea with friends celebrating essay submissions or the fleeting freedom of Sunday afternoons. It was there that I brought my academic daughter who was attired as Belle, on the morning of the University's traditional foam fight, to take photographs. No questions were asked - rather, the response was simply nodding, an unspoken understanding between booklovers.

For me, Topping has always retained a certain aspect akin to a Narnia-esque wardrobe. Not only does its selection of books possess the possibility of bringing you to fictional worlds beyond your imagination, but it also brings those worlds to you. The bookshop is visited by authors, politicians, and scholars alike each year, making their words, ideas, and opinions accessible by offering generous concessions on tickets to students and those keen enough to reserve their spaces early. Like all bookshops, it offers knowledge, imagination, and understanding - but it prioritises doing so with unwavering familiarity, friendliness and expertise (a bookshop with a secondary Instagram dedicated to celebrating its canine visitors – need I say any more?).

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I discovered my other independent bookshop haven, Bouquiniste, a little bit later on. Situated down an alley on a cobbled street nearly adjacent to not only my classes, but also to the library, my visits tended to be proportional to when I needed to procrastinate or was tired of reading critically. As a second-hand bookshop specialising in antiquarian titles, its beauty, for me, lies in its sheer unpredictability of titles. With a supply of titles influenced by the tastes of readers before you, your freedom to choose is rooted and driven, not by current commercial trends in fiction, but rather by a diversity of readers, preferences, and genres.

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Earlier this spring for example, I discovered the literary marvel who is Elizabeth Strout – but I also left with a copy of Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the British Isles and Thomas Hardy's The Well-Beloved. While its expertise in genre varies from that of Topping, the two share a common, unrelenting interest in stories.

A few years ago, Tyler Cowen predicted the demise of the independent bookshop. Addressing what he saw as excessive 'lamentations for the rapidly disappearing independent booksellers'. He saw them as merely 'cool-hangouts where the staff knows something about literature, the owners select each title with care, and bearded patrons sit at crowded coffee tables, talking about Jack Kerouac or the latest translation of Tolstoy'. However, it has been by being contrarily devoid of so-called bearded patrons that Bouquiniste has encouraged me to expand my own literary horizons. Somehow, the fact that all of the editions of what I would consider to be difficult texts have been owned – and, presumably, read – by others before me, made the decision to attempt Foucault, for example, a lot less daunting.

Yet, beyond the stories they sell, both of these independent bookshops should be championed because of the stories they tell. In a manner akin to how a barista might remember your order, booksellers have recollected the books I've bought before – but also the books they've given to others. While Bouquiniste has taken on a special resonance for me, my frequent conversations with the owner have made me aware of the others who have made the same pilgrimage – including the future king of England in his own student days.   

In a world which is becoming increasingly starved of genuine human interaction, it is unsurprising that more and more people are surrendering their e-readers in favour of spending a few hours contemplatively browsing tangible shelves before deciding on their next read. While Amazon might be more convenient, the beauty of independent bookselling lies in its persevering authenticity. Independent bookshops comprehend that the act of bookselling is far more an art than it is a commercial service, and it is for this reason that two of them of them have had such an impact on my university experience. Considering the fact that I've spent four years in and out of a library, an English department, and a plethora of book festivals, my appreciation of the independent bookseller surely testifies to its enduring necessity. While I don't think I've met the equivalent of what Lewes was to Eliot on my visits thus far, the independent bookshops in this three-street town have allowed me to encounter people and places – fictional and completely real – beyond my imagination.

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Jessica Armstrong is a final year English Literature undergraduate at the University of St Andrews, Scotland. When she’s not on the silent floor of the library, it is likely that Jessica can be found getting audibly excited about the miraculous beverage that is a London Fog, scones, or student-run arts festivals elsewhere among the town’s three streets.