A few weeks ago I found myself watching, on TV, the 2010 John Landis-directed movie Burke and Hare. It’s the latest film to tell the story of the notorious murderers who, in the early 19th century, kept the Edinburgh Medical School supplied with cadavers for its dissection tables. The bodies Burke and Hare supplied, of course, were those of people to whom they’d given some assistance in dying. The film is pretty silly and shambolic, although it’s hard to dislike a movie whose cast includes Simon Pegg, Andy Serkis, Jessica Hynes, Tom Wilkinson, David Hayman, Bill Bailey, Reece Shearsmith, Michael Smiley, Jenny Agutter, Sir Christopher Lee, Paul Whitehouse, John Woodvine, Stephen Merchant and – yes! – Ronnie Corbett. What I found distracting about it, though, were the numerous references in the script to Burke and Hare’s base on the street of West Port, which stands south of Edinburgh Castle and west of Edinburgh’s Grassmarket. That’s because when I hear ‘West Port’ I don’t normally think of Burke and Hare. I think of books.
I have fond memories of wandering along West Port and browsing in the second-hand bookshops that seemingly infested the place. These sold everything from creased and dog-eared paperbacks to bespoke volumes that were worth a small fortune (a fortune by my impoverished standards, at least). Today my book collection is packed with items – from the back-catalogues of authors like J.G. Ballard, Anthony Burgess, Angela Carter, William Golding and Graham Greene – that can be traced to Armchair Books, or Main Point Books, or one of the other establishments huddling on the sides of this narrow and slightly winding street.
In recent years, however, West Port has seen redevelopment, including the building of a block containing a Sainsbury’s Local on the site of the much-missed live-music venue Cas Rock. Also, conventional bookshops have been struggling thanks to changed reading habits and to competition from Internet outfits like Amazon and the ever-growing number of charity shops. (Edinburgh’s Nicholson Street / Clerk Street now has shops run by Barnardo’s and Oxfam that are devoted to selling books alone.) So whenever I’ve visited West Port of late, I’ve had the impression that the bookselling scene there is not as healthy as it was and its bookshops have been slowly disappearing. Indeed, a few years ago, I read somewhere that Edinburgh Books (which was then West Port Books) had narrowly escaped being converted into a trendy café.
The other day when I was in Edinburgh, I thought I’d take my camera, have a stroll along West Port and do a count of the bookshops that are still in existence there. As it turned out, I found six shops that were open at the time, on West Port and on the adjoining Bread Street, which connects the neighbourhood with Lothian Road. These were Peter Bell Books, Armchair Books, Edinburgh Books, Main Point Books and Pulp Fiction, plus an antiques / curios shop with a selection of books down in its basement. Peter Bell Books and Armchair Books are currently half-hidden by a giant truss of scaffolding, so the photographs I took of them were less than stunning.
Armchair Books is, for me, the very heart of West Port. A guddle of boxes of super-cheap books on the pavement outside, its walls inside stacked to the ceiling with thousands, if not zillions, of tomes, it is actually two premises – number 72 mostly sells fiction, number 74 next door sells non-fiction. When I visited West Port the other day, I had no intention of purchasing anything. But eventually I couldn’t resist popping into Armchair Books, where I subsequently ended up buying Brian Aldiss’s Helliconia Spring, J.G. Ballard’s The Unlimited Dream Company and Anthony Burgess’s The Pianoplayers – such is the spell woven by this Aladdin’s-Cave-for-booklovers. It does seem a bit better organised these days, though. In times past, the supposed alphabetical arrangement of the books’ authors would lead you on a merry dance, back and forth and into all sorts of awkward nooks and crannies. Also, the cranky and entertaining notices that used to be stuck on the walls, in which the management expressed its disdain for health-and-safety inspectors – I assume at some point the council criticised the place, with its vertiginously high shelves, for exposing customers to possible death-by-book-avalanche – have apparently been taken down.
I like to think that West Port is more a state of mind than a geographical locality. Maybe it’s a state of mind that extends eastwards across the Grassmarket and up Victoria Street and Candlemaker Row, for several more bookshops are located there – making that neighbourhood a sort of ‘West Port East’. Up Victoria Street is the Old Town Bookshop, which sells a mixture of modern and antiquarian books, plus historical prints and maps, and which has been operating for 35 years. Lower down the same street is a more recent establishment called the Golden Hare, a rather arty-farty bookstore that also hosts – whoooh! – a ‘poetry-reading circle’. Meanwhile, as you head up Candlemaker Row, you’ll encounter Analogue Books, selling art and design volumes, the durable wee science fiction bookshop Transreal Fiction, and a law bookshop called Avizandum. (‘Avizandum’ is a Scots legal term that refers to the private period of consideration that a judge or court give to a case before pronouncing judgement.)
I should say that not everybody who heads towards West Port is necessarily a mild-mannered, cerebral booklover. Fittingly in a city that was once home to Robert Louis Stevenson, author of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, West Port also has a shady and disreputable side. It is known in some quarters as ‘the Pubic Triangle’ and can claim to have three lap-dancing bars. One of them is called, appropriately, the Burke and Hare. Also, there’s a sex shop called Eros on Bread Street close to Pulp Fiction. Evidence, then, that West Port offers gratification of the flesh as well as gratification of the mind.