As a stereotypical English Literature and Philosophy student, I love a good wander around a bookshop, or even many bookshops if I’m feeling self-indulgent and I’ve got some spare time on my hands. At least, I did before the whole, y’know, worldwide pandemic came and closed said bookshops. But the point of this new feature is to celebrate the independent bookshops of the world, as reduced as these have been of late by the encroaching monoliths of Waterstones and Amazon. So I thought I would begin by talking about one of my favourite bookshops in my home city of Glasgow, the rather intellectually named Voltaire and Rousseau, which is a seller of second-hand books and has become very popular among students.
Voltaire and Rousseau, abbreviated henceforth as V&R, is tucked away in the West End’s rather bourgeois pocket, on Otago Lane just off Gibson Street and a stone’s throw from University Avenue. You can buy a book and go sit in the cloisters of Glasgow University. I can recommend this, you feel tremendously accomplished in some way. V&R itself doesn’t immediately draw your attention – it has a wee sign (as seen in the image above) and that’s pretty much it. Local knowledge is probably your best bet for finding it, or just using Google Maps like a normal person. But it’s a treasure trove of books, and is definitely up there with the best Glasgow has to offer both aesthetically and purposefully.
So when you think “bookshop in the 21st century”, what do you think? Regimented shelves? Sections of books? Grey over maple shelves, the books piled up upon one another like tombstones tightly packed? The uniformity of the Penguin Classic, towering over every other publisher? Well, imagine the antithesis of that. Fittingly for a bookshop named after a relationship that was stormy at best – Voltaire and Rousseau were hardly best friends – the actual floor of the bookshop is covered, quite literally, in books. It is like a medieval library or a long-forgotten book-vacuum. All kinds of books are scattered about, without much reason or rhyme to the whole thing at all. If you want a book, you have to search the shelves, the piles on the floor that come up to your waist, and then the shelf behind this Babel of books. And even then there’s only a 50% chance you’ll actually find the book you’re looking for.
All this makes for a bookshop experience that is, above all, rather chaotic, but in a welcome way. You feel like you’re trawling through an archive somewhere – like there’s a purpose to even just your browsing about on a dour Tuesday afternoon. To experience V&R, unsurprisingly, you have to actually go to V&R, which is why you’re reading this and thinking ‘that doesn’t really sound that good’. The phenomenology of Voltaire and Rousseau is indescribable. The smell, the sensation, the whole experience of just standing there looking for a book, almost a needle-in-a-haystack-esque task in this vast array of literature, is in itself a rewarding and good way to spend an amount of your precious time. It’s certainly always a pleasant experience for me, so I could definitely recommend it to any tourist. It’s like an affectionate grandparent who comes in on Christmas, semi-drunk, and disheveled in the best way possible.
Voltaire and Rousseau, in the age of ‘clean’ books, the age of Instagrammable literature, the age of Waterstones and Amazon and homogeny, is a tiny nook in the world of books. But it’s our nook. It seems to be a revolt against the 21st century, a truly free, independent place where people can wander, lost in the midst of a grey midweek afternoon. This revolt does have its inconveniences – they don’t take card, only cash – but isn’t that a small price to pay for a place where you can find something as wonderfully obscure as the Trades Hall Records of Glasgow from 1607-1680 if you so wish?
It’s wonderfully chaotic, wonderfully free, wonderfully different. Its cosy charm is something that you simply cannot find ordering books off Amazon or wandering around a regimented, clean Waterstones. That’s not a slight against Waterstones – but there’s something very different indeed about walking around V&R. It’s this spirit that the best bookshops have, and it illustrates the danger in the creeping homogenisation of bookshops. A place like Voltaire and Rousseau might not have been unique or special 30 years ago, but it’s a hidden treasure now – and that’s why we should treasure it, and all bookshops like it.
Words by Gabriel Rutherford
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