Bookshop Spotlight: Thistle Books Glasgow

© Megan Hogarth

Drumroll please…

The first entry in our Bookshop Spotlight series is the West End treasure trove that is Thistle Books! Located (hidden) on a small lane just off Otago Street, Thistle Books is owned and run by Robert Dibble and is packed to the rafters with literary delights, an impressive selection of sheet music and a well-stocked history section with a particularly Scottish flavour.

Discovered only recently after a jaunt to the nearby Tchai Ovna, I was charmed by the shop’s cosy atmosphere and excellent variety. It eschews the sort of Black Books-esque disarray and mania that most second-hand bookshops seem to thrive on – indeed, though bursting at the seams, there’s (joy) actual floor space and some semblance of order. Which appeals to strange folk like myself, who consider a Saturday spent hoovering a very satisfying day indeed.

© Megan Hogarth
© Megan Hogarth

I had a chat with Robert about the shop, its origins and future – his answers, though pragmatic, capture his passion for books and bookselling:

Tell us a little about Thistle Books.

I was a teacher for 30 years. I enjoyed teaching very much, but I didn’t fancy continuing to retirement age – teaching needs a lot of energy, [it’s] not an old man’s job. I’ve always been a reader, and latterly had become a bit of a collector – mainly Scottish writers – so the idea of running a second-hand bookshop seemed a good idea. When I was offered an early retirement package it seemed like a good opportunity, [and] although it was clearly a bit of a gamble, my wife agreed it was worth taking.

The premises are far from ideal. The shop is in a courtyard, below a cafe, with only a small sign to direct customers down the lane into the courtyard. But it was relatively cheap to rent, and I didn’t want to risk too much in case it was a flop. I opened in January 1998 and am still operating.

The challenges are getting more customers. The biggest reward is when you turn up a book someone’s been looking for for years!

The bricks and mortar bookshop is increasingly under threat from online giants such as Amazon. What do you think the future holds for book lovers and book sellers?

I’m afraid I’m rather pessimistic about the future for real bookshops. I certainly couldn’t make a living from the bookshop, it just tops up my state and school pensions. Being near the University, my best months are at the start of the new term. But not nearly as good as they were ten years ago. Most students don’t think of looking for a second-hand bookshop – they automatically go online – even although after postage costs I’m probably cheaper.
What would you consider the greatest ‘treasure’ that has come through your bookshop door? Do you still have it in stock?
Being in the West End of Glasgow, I get a visit now and then from Alasdair Gray, James Kelman and Bernard MacLaverty.They are quite happy to sign any copies of their books I have, and so I’ve usually got some in stock.
Owning a second-hand bookshop must require a certain degree of diplomacy (in terms of what you buy and what you reject from customers). Do you have any hard and fast rules for the ‘type’ of books you sell? Or do you shy from the idea of being an arbiter for taste?
Buying books is no problem – selling enough is. At the moment my stock is bigger and better than it ever was. I’m so short of space that I no longer make house calls. People bring in books all the time but I can only buy things which I think will be in demand. People understand when I can’t buy their books – they just need to look around the shop.
I have a varied stock, but the emphasis is on the arts side – literature, philosophy, history – especially Scottish. Things I know a little about [on the other hand] – no science, legal or medical textbooks or computing books.
Finally, other than your own shop, are there any bookshops in Scotland you would recommend to a friend?
Caledonia Books on Great Western Road, Glasgow.

2 thoughts on “Bookshop Spotlight: Thistle Books Glasgow

  1. Oh Robert, you MUST improve the signage to let people know you are there. Every time I am in Scotland I go to Otago Street to CC Music, often more than once, and I have never spotted your sign. How I wish I had.

    Ron McMillan

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