When Spurtle interviewed Tom Hodges earlier this week, the irrepressible fizz in the Typewronger Books bottle was anxiously preparing for a special delivery … 1,400 books all arriving at once and requiring careful checking before removal by a customer the next day.
The client on this occasion was a film company requiring Tom’s quirky curation to dress a set. But compiling collections small and large like this is nothing new for this 34-year-old bookseller, who is long accustomed to providing personalised consultations and bespoke gift boxes for curious readers.
It’s a level of attention that is typical of the 6’ 4” dynamo, who will soon be celebrating the third anniversary of his business as the capital’s smallest and quirkiest independent bookshop.
Fife and foreign parts
Tom grew up in Edinburgh before studying Classics at St Andrews University. His Master’s dissertation examined Reception theory through the lens of Disney’s Hercules – a typically oblique approach to some serious scholarship.
From there he returned to Edinburgh, working for two years in the Scotch Whisky Experience before hitch-hiking on a wing and prayer to the world-renowned bookshop of Shakespeare & Co. in Paris.
Here he enjoyed overnight accommodation on a shelf above the Children’s Dept in return for flexible and informal employment during the day. There were up to six others working here on the same terms, collectively (and affectionately) known as ‘Tumbleweed’.
Tom’s time in the shop turned into a 6-month crash course in all aspects of bookselling, lightened by vigorous and mightily refreshed participation in the French capital’s bohemian night life.
At this point in his recollections, Tom became misty-eyed at the memory of illegal excursions into the underground catacombs, and of a brief stint working for a topless catering company.
There followed jobs as a male nanny, more bookselling – this time for Heywood Hill, Mayfair – a further 3 years in Paris, and then a move to Desperate Literature, selling English-language titles in Madrid.
Time and relative dimension in space
Finally, in 2017, he returned to Edinburgh with £50 in his pocket and a determination not to get stuck in a job at a call centre. He worked the odd day now and then for the antiquarian booksellers MacNaughtan’s, and arranged pop-up book sales at St Margaret’s House and the Leith Walk Police Box.
Then, in January 2018, a discussion with Derek Walker and Anna Fomicheva led to Typewronger taking on the former gallery space in the beautiful basement at 4A Haddington Place. MacNaughtan's and Typewronger are now divided by a curtain, and share a member of staff whose presence has allowed Tom at last to start taking some days off.
Typewronger today is small but surprisingly spacious (its genius loci is a big fan of all things TARDIS), uncluttered but punctuated with surprising corners and an eclectic selection of books.
These represent Tom’s personal taste. He doesn’t claim to have read every one, but they’re all works he would like to read if he had the time. Poetry, fiction, sci-fi, philosophy, history, and above all mythology feature prominently.
And then there are the typewriters – over 50 of them, dating from 1892 to 1990, and most in some state of pre-loved wonkiness. A few form part of Tom’s personal collection, others he will fix and sell on as part of an interesting side-line in the business’s diverse retail ecology.
Coping with Covid
Times have been tough since the arrival of Covid-19. The shop reflected an abundance of caution by shutting before, and reopening after, strictly required to do so for Lockdown. Informal after-hours readings, discussions, and open-mic events – all very social and liberally lubricated – have now moved online.
For a while, the stock and organisation shifted from premises to home. But customers remained loyal, appreciating a new virtual shop, and enjoying free delivery of orders to Edinburgh addresses. Now that the real shop has reopened, the super-health-conscious can even book exclusive time-slots for worry-free browsing.
The result has been that – against the odds –Typewronger not only survives but thrives. The business is financially secure at least until Christmas, even if what 2021 and beyond will hold in a world of ongoing pandemic is anybody’s guess.
Tom remains cheerful, though … confident that he has the nerve, flexibility, and boundless bounce to adapt in strange times.
There are plenty more books to read. Plenty more books to sell. And many new adventures still to enjoy.—AM
Typewronger Books celebrates 3 years in business at the Leith Walk Police Box on 5 November, 11am–5pm. Bring banter.
On other days, the shop trades from Mon–Sat, 11am–9pm; Sun, noon–6pm.
Tel. 556 5897. Facebook