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A Collector of Penguins

During my travels in Scotland, I made it a mission of mine to explore the many old bookstores that hold such treasures as as an old orange D.H. Lawrence novel published by Penguin, or a two hundred-year-old leather bound books on rhetoric and public speaking. Sadly I didn’t have the time to find any used bookstores in Edinburgh, but Glasgow made up for that loss.

The first used bookstore I went to in Glasgow was Caledonia Books, it was centrally located, and had a beautiful window display. The room was small, maybe 25 feet wide by 15 long, and as you entered the shop the walls to each side had shelves brimming with books.

Each wall held a shelf with well organised copies, and at the base of each shelf was a stack of books, waiting to be moved to the shelves; in the far back right of the room, there was an antique wooden desk, beside which two men and one woman sat in a small circle, discussing various authors and philosophers to another store patron.

On the left was a flight of stairs that led down into another small room: you couldn’t see an inch of wall in the lower room, just book bindings. The staircase had stacks of books neatly sitting on the side of each step. I searched around for old Penguins and quickly found around eight books.

The lady who checked me out spoke well, with subtle precision in her articulation, and was excited to talk about my choices, inquisitive toward my purpose with the old Penguins. When I told her why I had only bought old Penguins she told me that she had known a man who had a library full of old penguins. She said one case of Penguins was all orange, and the next all blue, and then green. The man had a massive collection, and had colourcoded his bookshelves base on themes theme.

The second book store was Voltaire and Rosseau, it was quite overflowing. I had to manoeuvre around towering stacks of books that failed to make the shelves. The store name reminded me of the poem ‘Mock on, Mock on, Voltaire, Rosseau’ by Blake – I wonder if that was the inspiration. It was hard to find books though, and it was growing late, so I moved on to Thistle bookshop.

Thistle was my favourite. It was down a cobbled ally, under a bridge that hung between two buildings, in an unlit parking lot, and settled next to the river Clyde. I didn’t see anyone else there, and I had to look around for the shop. The sign had apparently fallen off and it seemed the attempts to put it back up had ended in vain.

Upon entering the store two men, late in their years, looked up, and watched me expectantly. I awkwardly took in the surroundings of the store before moving inside. It was well lit, a subtle orange glow, and very well organised. The front section was full of old records.

The silence was then broken by the man nearest me, politely asking if he could help in any way. I said I was looking for old Penguins, and he quickly re-directed me to the other man, farther back in the store, as he was in charge of the records. I moved farther into the store and told the man in the back what I was looking for. He cheerfully came out from behind his desk, and pointing down a row of shelves, said that he had a good collection, in good condition, at the end.

It probably held 50 or 60 books and was colour coded, separating biographies, nonfiction, and fiction. I sat down and started flipping through the pages. I chose about eight books, most of which were published in the late thirties to mid forties, and moved back to the desk behind which sat the other man. He then told me to wait one second, and he rummaged through his desk, and removed a small plastic bag holding a blue book. He removed the old Penguin and handed it to me. The book was in a see-through plastic cover to protect it from wear, but it was still in relatively good condition. It is a very special Penguin, and so I bought it for ten quid.

We started talking about our favourite writers, my study, Scotland, and Penguins: and the man told me that once he had a visitor who came into the store and went through all the Penguins but didn’t choose any of them.

The old man asked the visitor what he was after, and he said that he was after the first 60 books Penguin ever published, and that he had 57 of them, and was trying to find the final three. At the end of the conversation the man gave me one of the Penguin books for free, and I left with a gentle thank you.

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