By Athena Tan for Carpe ISLAND.
It’s a Saturday night in Edinburgh when we stroll in – four Asian girls into a bookstore tucked into Leith Street. The moon is still young, raising the night slowly, unwrapping its blanket of stars with each hour. Buses and trains were still running, and there was still time to travel to parties or restaurants.
When we got off the bus, four people followed us. It was pretty weird, given that the bookstore at Leith was one of the only places still open here; quietly, with its twinkling fairy lights. Coiuld we all be headed there?
The owner greeted the lot of us with a bob and a smile. The bookstore was filling up quickly. On a Saturday night.
But little did we know that Typewronger was the place to be tonight – a weekend night, or even a Friday – whether or not there was an event, or alcohol of that matter. It just felt right to be there if you wanted lively conversation, a comfortable ambience, and a little liquid-less courage to be yourself.
After all, “This is my living room“, Tom ‘T’, the owner of Typewronger says with a smile. “It’s where I do most of my living. And live is what my regulars and friends do too, when they drop by.”
I was so intrigued by this bookstore bustling on a Saturday night that I came back the next day, unannounced, hoping to catch a sliver of T’s time. I had to find out more. “You want to know why I started this bookstore, don’t you?” he says with a smile. I sheepishly smile and tuck a piece of hair behind my ears. “If you don’t mind, could you explain – explain what it’s like to run a bookstore on Leith Street?”
“It’s amazing”, he starts. Now from the beginning, “I previously worked for a bookshop in Paris called Shakespeare & Company for a few years. I learned so much there. When I came back (to Edinburgh), I wanted to start my own bookstore.” T had grown up in a household of hard news – like, literal hard news stories. “Both my parents were journalists. “They were interested in the news. So not a lot of fiction.
My dad would read a lot of non-fiction, my mom would devour all sorts of newspapers. It’s a different type of story. But y’know – that’s actually what led me to type on a typewriter, you know, with journalist parents.”
The popular bookstore is affectionately referred to as “That bookstore with typewriters on Leith” by locals in Edinburgh. Its name, ‘Typewronger’, is fitting because a typewriter frequents each shelf – fitting in as essentially as a bookend. “I used to fix them, y’know?” T divulges. “Back when I was working at Shakespeare and Company, I ran a side business of sorts called ‘Typewronger.com.’ People would email me – when I used to live in Paris – to come round and fix their typewriters.
“So I thought it’d be a good name for the shop.”
But Typewronger didn’t always occupy this store space. “I started renting telephone boxes every Sunday, and would cart all these books from my apartment to the little box. I’d set up – folding shelves of books, everywhere. And I’d set myself up in an armchair.
This was my shop in the street. I’d just start selling books to people like this. People would be walking by and ask ‘what’s this?’ And I would tell them that I just started a bookstore, and I didn’t have any money – and it was all my old books, second-hand actually.”
T would take the books from his studio across town, which he shared with other people, and bring them to this makeshift stall. “After about two weeks, I managed to get a wholesaler in the United Kingdom to give me an account. Didn’t have a business address or anything, the books were being delivered literally to that studio across the street.”
“But soon, people would come to me. They seemed to really want a new bookshop in this area. There wasn’t any bookstore company at all along this street, no R&R at all actually. So they would come to me and say ‘can you help me order this book, that book‘, and I would have it in for them next week.”
T has quite a bit of experience under his belt when it comes to running a bookstore. “I was working in a few different bookshops in a few different countries – at first I was in Paris, in Shakespeare and Company.” This is huge news for me, because I’m visiting the iconic establishment next week. “I met so many of my friends there – and then after my stint there I worked in a bookstore called Desperate Literature in Madrid, run by fellow former Shakespeare and Co employees Terry and Charlotte.”
After he learnt the ins and outs of the business there, he had thoughts of running his own. “All shops – including my own – they’re all very different shops I’ve worked in. At this point I’ve stolen bits and bobs of different shops: I’ve remixed!” T declares with a laugh.
With his long-time passion for the books, I wanted to know about how tasks like balancing the books, perhaps, would have changed how he viewed it. “My passion hasn’t died”, he remarks with a grin. “No, because I don’t get flustered by business; I do things my own sweet way.” As he says this, he bobs his head in greeting: a new customer has arrived, and they come bearing questions for a book recommendation. T pauses as she shares about what she’s studied, her degree, what she enjoys – and the two pluck out the same opinion on an author, before he redirects her to a book.
“I don’t think about any of that complicated stuff and do it in my own style. The people who come here – I’ve got very loyal customers, thankfully – they appreciate what this is, what this outfit is.” T reaches behind us to grab a new record of a shelf of vinyls next to the cashier, placing it in the player. As he changes the music of his store, creating an entirely different ambience, the last customers of the afternoon stream out. He adjusts the strap of his overalls with a satisfied grin.
“This place is like my home. That area, with the arm chairs – that’s like my living room. It’s where I do most of my living, ain’t it?
This is it. My home.”
Keep up with Typewronger here, on Leith Street.