Mallaig, a fishing village that has survived the decline of the herring industry, is nestled into the hill around the sea on the western edge of Scotland. You can reach it by train ---either a resurrected steam train or a regular train through some breathtaking scenery. We drove from Ft. William and enjoyed the same scenery as the train riders and a CD given to us by one of Morris's new friends.
I liked the eclectic mix of people in Mallaig: "walkers, yachties, trampers, et cet." as the billboard implies. There were also visitors there from Scandinavia and England and other parts of Europe. Most folks there were hiking or
yachting or biking, so it had a healthy outdoorsy feel to it, but it also had a great little book store.
I am not a book snob, but the quasi books in the hospital gift shops left me cold. They were glossy-covered, air bulked pages that seem to me to have the same relationship to books as Twinkies have to food. (For British readers: Twinkies are vaguely akin to a cream-filled sponge except that it is not really cream nor really a sponge).
So, real books are an important part of what makes a proper book store, but you also need to have people there who like books and the ideas in them and the people who read them and write them. The large chain bookstores of my old neighborhood in Indiana could manage some of the ingredients but never all of them, so I often went to the bookstore and got a good coffee and conversation but left empty handed because in all the sea of books they did not have any real books.
This scrufty converted shed or former vehicle had the makings of a real book store first for the books, of course. On my first visit, I had found a new book by Alexander McCall Smith, part of the Canongate series on myths. I had read Margaret Atwood's retelling of the Ulysses story, so this was a double treat--a favorite author and an in
triguing project. Smith was retelling a Celtic myth--Dream Angus. It was such a great read that I had finished it in a day and had come back to see what other treasures the store held. As I dawdled in a corner looking for short stories and finding other things--unfamiliar names and titles among the more usual collections of essays and biographies and guides for the walkers, I overheard a man checking out with a book that had been his second choice. "Is this a good one?" he asked the store manager. "Well," the manager replied, "for what it's worth, Americans like it." "Yeah, for what it's worth," the man replied.
Like most ex pats, I do not actively seek out fellow countrymen. Frankly, sometimes I am embarrassed at the things Americans say or do. Sometimes I just prefer to melt into the crowd when I hear American accents, but for some reason this time I did neither of those. From the back of the book store--not even stopping to feel awkwardly self conscious of speaking loudly or directly, I said "Some of us actually like literature." I emerged from the shadows to discover that the bookstore manager, the customer, and his son were all blushing. "And we actually do read." The customer pulled his book out of the bag as if in a peace offering, "So what do you think of this, then?" He revealed Alexander Mcall Smith's now very famous Ladies No.1 Detective Agency.
"Brilliant, " I said. "My daughter bought the first two for me, but later volumes were published first over here, so I made myself a hero by buying them here and taking them to the States for all my friends." He was smiling now but still seemed too embarrassed at having been caught out to join into a real conversation about books.
He and his son disappeared to catch their train. I put my own purchase (The Scots Quair
) down for the bookstore manager and noticed that he too was still blushing. I make a Monty Python reference, which I think translates well on both sides of the Atlantic, "Just like the Spanish inquisition, no one ever expects an American.."
"Well, I didn't say anything too bad about Americans," he seems really worried, but I am much too eager to talk about books to notice. I tell him about McCall Smith's other books--Dream Angus and the three humorous novels that I read while waiting for another in the series of the Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency and add that I never got quite interested enough to read his books on forensic medicine.
By this time he has recovered enough to talk a little bit about books, but it was not the kind of conversation in a book store that I would have hoped for.