Stromness is a seaport, a town shaped by the sea. We’re right on the waterfront, but you can’t see the sea from the shop. We’re in the smaller of the two main towns on Orkney, with a population of around 1800. We’re too small for anything like a Marks and Spencers or MacDonalds, but we have a reasonably good range of independent shops. Far fewer than twenty years ago, of course, before people started buying online, but we’re generally well provided for. It costs so much and takes so long to get to the nearest city, people have to stay on the island.
The bookshop was opened in 1970 by Charles Senior, who was a poet, but it only sold second-hand books back then. A few years later a friend of his, John Broom, who was the librarian here at Stromness, took it over and started selling the little blue non-fiction Pelican books. Tam MacPhail started working for him in about 1976 and began ordering maps as well as books, which is where I think the “prints” in the name of shop comes from. Tam took over the shop and it acquired its current name, although the sign over the door still says J. L Broom. I’ve been selling books here for 18 years, and took over from Tam two years ago, although he still calls in from time to time. The shop is still very much Tam – you can feel his personality the minute you walk through the door. Everyone locally calls it “Tam’s Bookshop”.
We don’t have a typical customer. The local population is a huge mix of locals and people who have ended up here, people like me. My mother was born in Orkney, but I grew up in Edinburgh and only came back when my own daughter was born – a long holiday, it was supposed to be, but I never left. In our short summer tourist season, usually from May to September, the population swells, it might even double at times. We sell a lot of books to our summer visitors. Tourists tend to stumble across us – they’re not expecting to find a bookshop down this narrow, hilly, cobbled street. There’s no pavement – it was designed for horses and carts. Generally speaking, if the door is open, people tend to call in, and we stay open ’til late on our long summer nights.
The shop is the size of an average living room, but you’d be amazed how many books we fit in here. We have thousands of titles. We make the most of the space we have, but it means we have to work hard to be a really good bookshop and think carefully about the choices we make. We don’t just stock the obvious books, the Amazon bestsellers. Over summer we have to stay stocked with maps, walking guides and pictorial guides to the islands, as well as all the literature written about Orkney and by Orcadians. For a small place, we have a lot of poets and writers. Our poetry section is really strong, because there seems to be a love of poetry on the island, and we have a lot of books about nature and birds. We have an extensive archaeology section too, as it’s a huge draw for visitors. There are so many well-preserved archaeological sites here- Neolithic standing stones and villages like Skara Brae, and Iron Age, Bronze Age, and Viking sites. They’re currently excavating a new site, the Ness of Brodgar, which seems to be a ceremonial site, possibly a Neolithic temple, and there’s a lot of excitement about that.
Our bestsellers are books by George MacKay Brown, an Orcadian poet and writer, but very well known in Scotland as well. He spent almost his entire life in Orkney. As well as his own books, there are a lot of books written about him – his own autobiography (For the Islands I Sing) and two biographies, as well as two memoirs that cover his writing. We also sell a lot of books about the Arctic explorer John Rae, who came from Orkney. He located the final portion of the Northwest Passage, and reported the fate of the Franklin Expedition. We also sell a lot of Scandinavian writers – people here have a great affinity with the North. We’re closer to Norway than London, in lots of different ways.
This year Amy Liptrot’s book The Outrun has been really important to us. We’ve sold hundreds of copies. It’s a book about her recovery from alcoholism and addiction in Orkney. We can’t really host events in the shop – as well as being really small we don’t have a toilet or even running water – but Amy has been brilliant at signing copies of her book for us to sell here.
We don’t have a website. We’re not online. We don’t do events, or wine. We don’t have a coffee machine – as there’s no running water in the shop that’s impossible – although there’s a tiny child-sized chair in the shop that’s quite comfy and people are welcome to sit and browse. We sell books by making good choices, and by word of mouth. In the summer months, I always try to leave the door open, so that people can see I’m open, and I want to have a chalk board outside.
Unlike a lot of other bookshops, we don’t face horrendous rents and rates and I’m the only person who really works here at the moment, but the winter months are so bleak and so quiet a whole week might go by without selling any books at all. In the winter, it’s dark here by 3 o’clock. We’re cosy and inviting, but we rely on the busy summer months to get through the winter. Over winter, a lot of our customers are older people, who remember bookshops and haven’t grown up with the habit of buying online, but as time goes by there are going to be fewer people who’ve grown up with that same affinity with books. But I’m also seeing a new generation of young people who are becoming enthusiastic about books and bookshops – the children’s book market is healthy and growing, for example – and who value beautiful books. They’re our future.
We spoke to Sheena, who runs Stomness Books and Prints.
Graham Place, Stromness, Scotland
The photographs of Stromness Books and Prints are by Rebecca Marr.