We headed up to Edinburgh for November’s Bookshop of the Month, and chatted to Mairi from Lighthouse, Edinburgh’s radical bookshop. We asked her about what it means to be a radical bookseller, the kind of differences that this focus brings to her customer base, and what it’s like to run an independent bookshop in the vibrant city of Edinburgh (with the help of their little puppy Artemis).
1. What does being a radical bookseller mean for you and how do you think it affects your customer base?
As a Radical bookshop our primary aim is to further progressive thinking and action, to play our part in building a fairer, kinder, more inclusive world. I believe our only way of achieving this is to build communities that share in this vision and are equipped to fight for it. Lighthouse, as Word Power was before us, is a home, a meeting place, a spark for such communities.
At the heart of that is a deliberate effort to champion social justice, to find and share stories and experiences that are often silenced or overlooked, and to ensure that those marginalized have a chance to tell their own stories. To that end we do stock a really broad and diverse range of publishers, authors and publications.
Being unapologetically political, hopeful, opinionated and inclusive as a bookshop seems to attract a wonderfully diverse, curious and socially engaged readership. We are a home to all real readers, most especially those who aren’t usually at the center of the narrative in other bookshops- readers of colour, LGBTQ+, working class, immigrant, or otherwise disenfranchised readers.
2. What’s it like being based in the beautiful city of Edinburgh? Does the Fringe Festival bring new customers to you?
Edinburgh is steeped in literary history, making it a great home for a bookshop. Lighthouse is at the heart of the city’s historic Old Town and a stone’s throw from two Edinburgh Universities, so we also have a part to play in offering up an alternative education, challenging accepted theories of the world, and of people. Our hope is to be an oasis for curious minds – if our challenging, thoughtful conversations with readers are anything to go by, we’re getting there!
Of course the city sees a huge shift during the August festivals and we’ve found that does bring a lot of new readers to us, especially families who come from all over Scotland for Fringe shows. We host our own Fringe to the Edinburgh Book Festival in August, this summer our Book Fringe hosted free lunchtime talks from the likes of Reni Eddo Lodge, Gary Younge and Angela Saini and we had huge local support. It’s a great opportunity to bring authors into the community and celebrate books in a way that’s accessible to and reflective of the neighborhood.
3. You also have a publishing arm, Word Power Books, tell us a bit about that.
We’ve put the publishing on the backburner for now, Word Power was very much the brain child and labour of love of Elaine and Tarlochen (who used to run the bookshop) and they’ve left big shoes to fill! At the moment we’re focused on getting the bookshop rebooted and keeping other traditions alive– like the Book Fringe and Radical Book Fair. That said, the Word Power Women series started with Meghan Delahunt’s Greta Garbo’s Feet is certainly something I would like to continue…
4. You run events in store, including a reading group focusing on translated works by women– what kind of events are your most popular?
Events are a huge part of the way we interact with our community, I think I love the bookshop best when we’re heaving with readers and buzzing with conversation and an author is at the heart of it taking questions and scribbling dedications. We host about one event a week, mostly non-fiction, although Poetry is very popular too. We’ve had sell out nights for a broad range of subjects – the launch of Annie Miller’s Universal Income Handbook, a fundraising night for an anthology of millennial essays called No Filter, and on November 1st a talk on music & misogyny is set to be a hit.
Dave Randall drew a good crowd a few weeks ago when he was up to discuss the political power of music; he didn’t pack a stadium, but as with a number of other visiting authors what was remarkable was how much he touched and inspired those there, readers who keep coming back to unpick something he said, or find another book he recommended on rock against racism, or the BDS movement. Seeing people fired up in the days and weeks and months after an event, and being there to enable that journey, well, that’s really special.
5. Do you have any exciting plans for Lighthouse that you’d like to share here?
We are so excited to be bringing back the Edinburgh Radical Book Fair just 6 months after we re-opened. From Nov 16th to 19th we’ll have all the best progressive publishing – including a Yale stall!- laid out across a huge hall in a brilliant flea market of books and ideas. On top of that we have over a dozen cracking speakers, from Shami Chakrabarti to Michael Rosen, Scilla Elworthy and Jackie Kay, discussing subjects as varied as protest, peace, welfare, and the refugee crisis– to name but a few!
We’ve also recently become home to a terrific charity called Streetreads who bring books to homeless readers around Edinburgh. They’re just starting out too and working out of our basement – aka The Book Cave – for the next year, so we’ve been working really hard to curate an events line up for Book Week Scotland (Nov 26th-Dec 2nd) that will shine a light on Scotland’s homelessness crisis and the extraordinary people fighting its devastating human impact.
Mostly we’re just excited to keep evolving!