Voltaire & Rousseau, Glasgow

Boris in Voltaire & Rousseau

Voltaire & Rousseau is everything that a great second-hand bookshop should be. Silent, dishevelled and rammed to the rafters with great books. It has been quietly sitting in Otago Lane for over 30 years, becoming a mecca for Glasgow's students and intellectuals. It's not a big place but every inch is chock full of something. What I love most about it is that there's no real sense of hierarchy. It gives the impression that no book is too unfashionable, too old or too shabby. New books mingle with old. Hardbacks and paperbacks come together, pamphlets are fair game. If the spine is broken or the dust jacket's ripped that's fine, no one stands on ceremony here. It feels like more a tribute to the printed word than a business.

As you enter there's an ante-room filled with the discards of serious book sorting efforts. You can often hit paydirt here. Wonderful vintage books that even charity shops won't touch, Penguin paperbacks, Faber plays, Haynes car manuals, 1970s textbooks, and spectacular children's books from the 1950s are piled high, sprinkled with general odds and ends like pamphlets, maps and even a pile of disembodied dust jackets.

Inside, the shop is a delicious muddle of books. Shelves line the walls and run in a spine up the middle. They tidied up once, for an appearance in Channel 4 comedy The Book Group but usually the books spill off the shelves in all directions. Browsing is encouraged by the sheer logistics of getting anywhere. To move at all it is necessary to shuffle along the tight alley of visible carpet. At the back on a hairpin bend, the way is obstructed by some cat food and a cat bowl. The cats are as much a part of the shop as the books and can often be seen sleeping in drawers or other cosy places.

Round the corner, a ladder has sat still for too long and had some books shoved on it, blocking the way. Progress down this aisle is particularly tricky as what's on the shelves is obscured by the waist high pile of overspill. Occasionally the silence is disturbed by the gentle plomph of a book-related landslip. Like a game of Jenga, pick up the wrong one and the whole thing collapses. This only adds to the wonderful experience; the sense that there's something amazing but out of reach beneath the surface.

Voltaire & Rousseau

If you do find a bargain then pay at the pile of books that's wider and taller than the rest. The proprietor is usually in there somewhere. Famous visitors include Barry Humphries, The Reverend Ian Paisley and Richard Booth who started Hay-on-Wye book town. He bought the entire contents of the store room.

So, Waterstone's it ain't. If you need to find something in a hurry don't go there, but if you've got some time to spend, love books and fancy finding something wonderful get yourself down there pronto.

How to get there

Voltaire & Rousseau is in 18 Otago Lane, Glasgow, G12 8PB. Otago Lane runs off Otago Street at the Gibson Street end. Nearest tube is Kelvinbridge.

Photo of Boris on a ladder by eagle stirreth. Used with thanks.

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Great review, tempted to go and take a look.


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