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Elizabeth Strong | | Elizabeth Strong

Elizabeth Strong

Published on 18 Sept. 2018
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Sheila Markham in conversation with Elizabeth Strong of McNaughtan’s Bookshop


I cannot remember a time when I did not like to read. When I got into my teens I began to buy books faster than I could read them – a telltale sign of a bookseller. The first book I remember buying was a copy of Jessie King’s The Enchanted Capital of Scotland for nine old pence in a jumble sale.

I spent the first two years of my life in London, but have lived in Edinburgh ever since my father took up an Edinburgh University appointment at the Western General Hospital in the winter of 1948. I almost feel that I have become a Scot from living here for so long. I remember Grant’s bookshop on the corner of George IV Bridge, and the Book Hunter’s stall opposite – both had been there since the nineteenth century. In general I was a bit intimidated by antiquarian bookshops, and had the feeling that I was not sufficiently knowledgeable to go inside.

Things changed a bit in Dublin, where I read English at Trinity College, and frequented the bookshops, although I was still mainly buying new books. There was George Webb on The Quays, Hanna’s, Greene’s and of course Hodges Figgis. Three of my grandparents were Irish and I spent a lot of childhood holidays in Ireland. Dublin was a happy place to be and a wonderful place to study literature. After university I returned to Edinburgh to study history of art, with a vague idea of finding work in a museum or a gallery. I was afraid that it might be very competitive and, at that stage, it had not occurred to me that whatever you do in life will have some element of competition. In the event, I came down to London and got a job working for the Wiener Library for eighteen months. I did some cataloguing and proof-reading, but the work was essentially secretarial. I viewed it as just a job, but I did work with and meet some very interesting people. The Wiener Library was based on the Nazi material collected by Dr Alfred Wiener, a German Jew who fled to Amsterdam in 1933, and set up the Jewish Central Information Office for the collection and dissemination of information on what was going on in Nazi Germany.

Dr Wiener managed to transfer the collection to London in 1939 and get out of Holland just in time. The collection was initially housed in Manchester Square, where its resources were made available to British intelligence workers. After the War it was extensively consulted by the United Nations War Crimes Commission. During the 1950s and ’60s, the Library embarked on the huge project of interviewing eyewitnesses of Nazi activities. The transcripts of these interviews, often accompanied by photographs, were much consulted by people who suspected that a neighbour, colleague or even friend had been a collaborator.

By the time I worked for the Library, it was in Devonshire Street, and had become the Institute of Contemporary History, enlarging its scope to cover the entire field of modern European history. People would still come to the Library and go through the interview files, looking for relevant names. Some of them were Holocaust survivors. It could be very emotional, but always very interesting, and I met some extraordinary people.

I was living with an aunt at the time, who one day remarked that it would be good for me to work in a more commercial environment. Meanwhile a friend from my student days told me that Mrs McNaughtan was looking for an assistant for her bookshop in Edinburgh. I was offered the job and started working for her in September 1972. Major McNaughtan was already seriously ill, and died shortly after I joined the business. Sadly, I never actually met him.

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It was understood that I would have the opportunity to take over the business when Mrs McNaughtan eventually retired. Meanwhile she was very much in charge, and I was the assistant in the background, which suited both our temperaments very well. Mrs McNaughtan was an excellent teacher, who appeared to have no doubts about anything. She was enthusiastic and very generous with her knowledge of books, which was considerable.

John and Marjorie had begun as book collectors while he was serving as a barrister in the Army. The Major used to attend courts martial all over the country, and would always visit the local bookshops, buying law books, which he would often sell to Wildy’s in Lincoln’s Inn. Mrs McNaughtan meanwhile was making her own collection. When the Major retired from the Army, bookselling seemed the obvious thing for them to do, having accumulated enough books to launch a business. They both had Scottish forebears, and had been stationed in Edinburgh at one point, and no doubt felt that it would be a good place to open a book business.

After renting premises for a short time, the McNaughtans bought the present shop in Haddington Place, on the edge of the New Town, in 1957 for just under £600. The building dates from 1826, just after George IV’s visit, when Edinburgh was still enjoying its Enlightenment phase and was one of the great centres of the book trade. If you look at old trade directories of Edinburgh, there were bookshops on almost every street, not to mention all the publishers, stationers and printers who served the many learned societies and institutions of the capital city and its university. The McNaughtans had good books in all sorts of subjects, in addition to the Major’s special interest in law books, theology and Americana. By the time I arrived, Mrs McNaughtan had sold the   law department, and most of the theology  went in a huge sale shortly thereafter.  While helping the late Professor Eudo  Mason to build up his fine collection of  children’s books, now in the National  Library of Scotland, Mrs McNaughtan  developed her own interest in the subject  which became her speciality. We used to  go on an annual book-buying tour in the  autumn, closing the shop for a week or  two and travelling as far south as the West  Country. I would be her driver on these  trips, which were a wonderful experience  and a great way of learning  the business. She was very  particular about good booktrade  manners, and we  always presented a business  card when we went into a  shop.

When VAT was introduced,  Mrs McNaughtan  decided that she could not  be bothered with it and gave  it to me to look after. She  had no patience with any  form of ‘red tape’. I think  she would have found it very difficult to  run a shop today. Her attitude enabled  me to learn various skills and prepare for  the time when I would be running the  business myself.

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When Mrs McNaughtan retired in April  1979, she made it possible for me to buy  the business on the most generous terms.  I paid for half the business through a bank  loan, and the other half over a period of  ten years. I doubt if I would have got the  loan if it had not been my father’s bank.  I had an extremely fortunate start and  was able to pay off the loan within the  first six months, having thought that it  might take years. In buying McNaughtan’s,  I also took over the agency for the  National Library of Scotland at a time  when there were a number of important  auctions. In fact I had to borrow more  money to cover all their purchases in the  sale of the library of the Free Church of  Scotland, which contained a lot of very rare  material of great interest to the National  Library.

The McNaughtans were proud to belong  to the ABA, and were founder-members  of the Scottish branch of the Association  in 1972. It was not long before I realised  how much benefit we derived from    membership. After I had owned the  business for several years, Anthony Rota,  Hylton Bayntun-Coward and Ian and  Senga Grant suggested that I might like  to ‘put something back’. I eventually  succumbed to the gentle pressure, and  was elected President of the ABAin 2000.  It was good to keep Scottish bookselling  in people’s minds. My appointment coincided  with the ILAB Congress and  Bookfair in Edinburgh, with which I  received an enormous amount of help from  colleagues.

Shortly before I became  President, the Committee  had appointed John Critchley  as Secretary, who in  turn appointed Marianne  Harwood, and together they  transformed the day-to-day  running of the Association.  John was the perfect person  to give me confidence, and  there were so many other  people working hard on the  Committee that I found my  role was more one of bringing  things together. The setting up of the  ABA website was the great issue of the  day and, as I did not have the necessary  expertise, I decided to serve for one year  only. This decision enabled Adrian Harrington,  who was next in line and had all  the right expertise, to become President  in 2001.

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All businesses to some extent reflect  their owners’ interests. Although I try to  maintain the McNaughtans’ range of good  books across most subjects, and particularly  Mrs McNaughtan’s children’s books,  the architecture and art sections have  gradually expanded under my influence.  If you have a shop, you need to have something  for everybody. This is not a problem  as I am offered books all the time in  so many different subjects, and find it  quite hard to say ‘no’.

As I am always trying to catch up with  what I buy privately in the shop, I tend  not to travel much – in any case, so many  of the shops which I visited with Mrs  McNaughtan have disappeared. Book fairs  have to a certain extent replaced the old  buying trips. I love buying books,  researching, pricing and chatting with  customers about them, but I dislike cataloguing.  Perhaps it is something to do with    the physical aspect of sitting in front of a computer.  I have not done a catalogue since 1974,  when I produced one for Mrs McNaughtan’s children’s  books. Nowadays we have a few hundred  books listed on the ILAB website, but I did not  catalogue them.

I ‘inherited’ my first assistant from Mrs  McNaughtan, who insisted that I should have  one. I thought I could manage without – there  is something quite nice about being in the shop  on my own, but it gets a bit lonely and of course  I do need some help in the shop. Shortly after I  took over, Katriina Hyslop came, and stayed for  eighteen years before she married John Marrin.  They live in Berwickshire and John runs his book  business from a former gamekeeper’s cottage on  the Ford and Etal estate just over the border in  Northumberland. Since Katriina left I have never  been without an assistant, apart from a brief  experiment last summer. Edinburgh Central  Youth Hostel is just down the road and we sometimes  get a horde of young people coming in,  which is lovely, but it can be a bit overwhelming  if I am on my own.

Sometimes I think that the bookshop has  become a spectator sport for tourists in Edinburgh.  Some visitors behave as if the shop is a  museum. ‘Isn’t it wonderful?’ they say, ‘I could    spend all day in here,’ and then  promptly walk out. They like the  look of the shop, but it would never  occur to them to buy a book. Nowadays  people turn to computers in  the way that they would have  turned to books for a lot of their  needs. Quite apart from their effect  on our trade, I believe that computers  are actually changing the  way in which people think. Everything  is highly focused toward a  specific goal, instead of reading  around a subject and taking a more  wide-ranging approach. We have  to keep trying to get young people  to look at books and aspire to own  them. This is a role for book fairs  and shops – just being there on  the high street helps to remind  people that books can be bought,  and that we are not libraries or  museums.

In recent years the West Port in  the Old Town has developed into  a bookselling area – I do not think  there was a single bookshop there  when I joined McNaughtan’s.  As for auctioneers in Edinburgh,  a number of Phillips’ senior staff  left, when it was taken over by  Bonhams, and joined Lyon &  Turnbull. Originally established  in 1826, Lyon & Turnbull is Scotland’s  oldest firm of auctioneers.  After a long history in family  hands, the business changed  ownership in 1999 and is now a  very lively auction house, with a  marketing partnership with Freeman’s  in Philadelphia. Lyon &  Turnbull did a marvellous job converting  a redundant neo-Classical  church in Broughton Place into a  saleroom. There are three book  sales a year, and the good material  is no longer creamed off and sent  to London.

* * *

While Mrs McNaughtan was  alive, I could not possibly have  thought of changing the name of  the business, nor did I particularly  want to. Of course I have made  certain changes, and you do put  your own personality on a business,  for better or worse. I buy a lot of  art books because of my interest    in painting. I used to collect books by  William Lizars, the Scottish printer and  engraver, whom Audubon commissioned  to produce the plates for The Birds of  America. Work began on the first ten  plates in 1827 but, before they were completed,  Lizars’ colourists went on strike  and Audubon transferred the work to  Havell & Son in London.

When I bought the premises next door,  it made the shop bigger but did not  improve the turnover. The extra space  simply allowed me to be less disciplined  about what I bought. One of my oldest  customers, who first came to the shop on  his tricycle, suggested that I should turn  it into a gallery, and have my studio here.  I have always painted a bit and, in recent  years, spent some time at Leith School of  Art. The school was started in 1988 by  Mark and Lottie Cheverton, both artists  and inspirational teachers, who were  tragically killed in a car crash in 1991.  Lottie was the sister of George Ramsden  of Stone Trough Books, who recently  published a tribute to the Chevertons’  achievement in Leith. Scotland’s Independent  Art School. Founders and Followers.  The school was based on Mark and  Lottie’s belief that anyone can paint if they  are shown and encouraged properly. Leith  has flourished and is a wonderfully  nurturing place.

I am now getting to the age where a lot  of my friends outside the book trade have  retired. I would quite like to paint more  and perhaps the gallery idea would enable  me to do so and keep the shop going. There  are a lot of aspiring artists in Edinburgh  who would like to have somewhere to  show their work, and it would be interesting  to see if I can collaborate in some  way.

I sometimes wonder if I would have  been more confident if I had actually  started a business from scratch; I’m never  sure if the business has worked because  of me or because of what I took over from  the McNaughtans. My colleagues in Edinburgh,  Edward Nairn and Ian Watson of  John Updike Rare Books, have a delightful  trading style. They work from home,  and business is always done over a cup  of tea – such a gentle way of doing business.  The book trade allows you to  approach it in the way that suits you.

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The interview was published in The Bookdealer (February 2010), an is presented here by permission of Sheila Markham. Thank you very much.

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