It is almost impossible to have a cuppa without wanting a wee biscuit. Almost as impossible as not reading the cereal box at breakfast. Even better is it to have a coffee, a piece of cake, and a nice book to read. A tried and tested formula for peace and contentment, and local bookshops are catching on to it.
Books & Beans, of course, has been doing it a long time. It is a port of call for anyone who loves a good cuppa, a good blether, and the chance to reach out for an interesting book. Cleverly arranged, elusive out-of-print items, helpful staff. Nice to get back now lockdown is fading.
For too long Aberdeen centre has been Ghost-town Central. Now things are coming back. Even so, one in seven retail outlets in the UK have been forced to close: many will never open again. Same for pubs and cafes. Chains will hold on, just, though Debenhams is an elegy in the making and we wait to hear news of John Lewis. Stores live together drawing folk into town; they die together, too, and we must see they don't.
Bon Accord has suffered mightily so we depend on good shops to draw us in. We can get our phone fixed, buy a cookie, get our nails sorted, go for a Pret, buy a Hays break in the sun. But what if we really want a bookie with our fine piece? Good news – Waterstones cafe is back in business. Not fully – soup and meals in the pipeline for the autumn, they say, but active with croissants and cakes, scones, almond slices and the rest of it. Teapot tea that infuses in the pot. Little milks that pour well, clean tables spaced out, and – if you don't bring your own – books within hailing distance.
But then, why should you bring your own? After all, you're in a bookshop – one of the best-stocked shops for books in the north-east. That move from Union Street some years back might have left a hole (hope they fill it some time), but whoever designed the Bon Accord shop knew their onions. The bright décor, clear signage, variety-in-depth of book stock, let alone the amazing selection of jigsaws (yes, they're coming back): they beckon too you as you sit drinking your coffee. Dive into any of your favourite genres – cookery, gardening, smart thinking, biography, recent hardback fiction, Scottish speciality – it could well be there. If not, they'll get it. Check their website before you go.
Even during these stressful times of lockdown, you can still get access to the books you want without turning online to Amazon or, for older out-of print items, AbeBooks. Or picking up a two-for-one bestseller at Tesco or Morrisons.
In Old Aberdeen, students and tutors have Blackwells with its course books. Smiths is back up to strength – top-sellers, fact books, kid's books, magazines. In Back Wynd, the Oxfam Bookshop is an Ali Baba's cave of treasures – Scottish crime, local publishing, vinyls, history, poetry, Moomin cards. They're online too, and remember what you like: the staff are treasures too. Books also at Oxfam near the public library and in Chapel Street. BHF and Barnardo's near the Music Hall. If you're already thinking of calling in…
And since you could be near the public library, their USP is 'books are free'! Cheapies, eat your heart out. Be patient for your Louise Pennys, Lee Childs, and Donna Leons. The reserve collections will astonish you. Maid in Vinyl and Plan 9 for folk who see life in the round and live in other meta-universes.
On your trip to town, before you pop into Caffé Nero or Costa, don't forget the Mercat Bookshop, run by VSA up by the Citadel – more crime, fiction galore, good for cheapies, fresh-stocked after lockdown. My Jessie Kessons and Stuart MacBrides came from there: my wallet wouldn't have had it any other way.
Even so, my recent visit to Waterstones gave me both the bookie and the fine piece. The bookie was already in the bag because the bus can be late. But that was forgotten when I saw Miriam Darlington's lovely paperback Owl Sense
(2018) and Jennifer Ackerman's thoughtful and informative The Genius of Birds
(2016) in their nature section. So I sat down with my coffee and a fine piece of Victoria sponge – they had got the blend of cream and jam just right – with two books to read. With new books, you want to read them straight away, so it was a two-handed job: cup in one hand, book in the other; fork in one hand, book in the other. A gentle clatter of cups and coffee machines in the background. Customers coming by and browsing. Staff restocking shelves. Just take your time. Like at home.
The Waterstone formula for this store – and for others throughout the UK – builds on his philosophy of getting business and scholarship in the right mix. Tim Waterstone speaks about his investment background in his memoir The Face Pressed Against a Window
(2019). Growing up in Crowborough, he spent hours browsing in a local well-stocked bookshop. It inspired his love of books but also his sense of business adventure.
Successful book-selling is an elusive mixture of both – sales figures per category, overheads and cost margins, market trends and local idiosyncrasies, topical fads and local competition. Book-wise and street-wise, staff are crucial too and Waterstones have them in spades. They are skilled at getting the most arcane book for you, as I found when I got help adding to my collection of Slightly Foxed editions.
The cafe is the icing on the cake. All of us know bad cafes, trashy books, bolshie staff. All of us know what it's been like to survive lockdown. You can buy any number of fine pieces at Asda, sarnies at Greggs, shortbread at Markies, and any number of books at Blackwells, Smiths, or the Oxfam Bookshop. But to get through the day without quite falling over, you need the fine piece too. Glad I know where to go.
Dr Stuart Hannabuss is an honorary chaplain at the University of Aberdeen and an accompanist at the North East Scotland Music School