For October’s Bookshop of the Month, we went up to Edinburgh and down into the crypt of St. John’s Church to visit the fantastic Cornerstone Bookshop. We spoke to the bookselling team about their valued customer base, the recent re-development of the Cornerstone Centre and their friendly bookshop ghosts…
1. Cornerstone Bookshop is located within the newly completed Cornerstone Centre at St. John’s Church in Edinburgh. What’s it like being part of this community space?
We are lucky enough to be situated on a beautiful, peaceful terrace right in the heart of Edinburgh. While St. John’s sits at one of the busiest junctions in the city centre, we are tucked to one side in the church’s crypt. From the Peace Garden just outside our front door we have views across Princes Street Gardens and up to the Castle. We are in our own little world here and there has always been a strong sense of community along the Terrace, which we share with the One World Shop, which sells fair trade items, and a café.
We all recently moved back onto the Terrace which was closed while the church undertook a massive project, extending their hall and adding more community spaces. While we remain independent of the church, so that we can be welcoming to all regardless of denomination or belief, we do feel part of a community and St. John’s has always been, and continues to be, very supportive. They know what an important resource we are to the community at large.
2. As a bookshop known for its theological resources, do you find that most of your visitors are looking for spiritual reads or are your general interest titles just as popular?
Many of our customers do come to us for religious titles. While we sell many worship resources, bibles and hymnbooks, we are especially known for the breadth of the largely liberal, progressive theology and spirituality titles which we stock. We work hard to have a wide range of books available which don’t patronise the reader. A lot of people who come to us have questions and we are able to offer books which help them reflect on these. Our philosophy section is popular and we have a large poetry section which showcases authors not commonly found on the high street. We also stock children’s picture books, Scottish titles and natural history, so perhaps not your average Christian bookshop!
3. You offer your customers an ordering and postal service. At a time of astronomical growth in Amazon book sales, how important do you think it is for independent bookshops to provide such a service?
Our ordering and postal service is an important part of our business. Like any independent bookshop, we will never be able to compete with Amazon on price which is one of the reasons we don’t sell online. What we can offer is a personal service. We will happily order any book (so long as it is in print) and will turn the order around as quickly as possible, so we have many regular customers who do all their book-buying through us. People also appreciate that we will send books out with an invoice rather than asking for payment upfront.
We regularly send deliveries far and wide. There are so few Christian bookshops left selling the range of material we do (we also stock cards, gifts, candles and other church supplies) that we have people up and down the country who order from us, from Shetland to Cornwall and quite often from abroad too. This is mostly because they cannot find what they are looking for elsewhere, though some of our more far-flung customers shop with us simply because of the relationship we have built up with them over the years.
4. What do you think makes the perfect bookshop?
Everyone’s idea of their perfect bookshop is different and we hope that we come pretty close for at least some of the people that come here. Many of our customers love how peaceful it is here and are grateful for the comfy seating area where they can hide away, sometimes with a cuppa. Others like that we know their tastes and will often have a book we know they will be interested in set aside to show them when they come in. We are fortunate that many of our customers are also friends so Cornerstone is frequently a place of encounter; lots of lively conversations are struck up around our ‘new and interesting’ display.
One of the great things about independent bookshops is the variety; each space will be different and the passions of the people who work there will influence the atmosphere that each shop has. There can’t be many bookshops that are in a crypt, with literal bodies under the floorboards; for many of our customers, this holds a certain fascination!
Before the re-development our shop was in a slightly different location on the Terrace. At that time our till counter was actually a tomb! Some of the bodies buried under the Terrace are remembered on wall plaques. We discovered that one of those we had been living alongside was Lady Elizabeth Finch-Hatton, the daughter of the 2nd Earl of Mansfield who was raised by her Uncle (then Lord Chief Justice) alongside his great-niece, Dido Belle. The story of their upbringing and the influence Dido had on her uncle’s rulings against slavery were the subject of a book and film and is also said to have inspired Jane Austen’s novel, Mansfield Park.
If there are any spirits residing with us in the shop they are certainly friendly ghosts!
5. And finally, do you have any exciting plans for the shop that you’d like to share with us?
Nope! The re-development of the Cornerstone Centre meant that we had to move the shop twice in the last three years, so for now we are simply enjoying being booksellers rather than shop designers, removal men or project managers.