InFocus: Mairi Oliver, Senior Bookseller at Topping &Co

Photo: Topping

When you walk in the front door, you immediately notice the shelves of the bookshop, which stretch far out of the eye’s view and the mind’s imagination. They’re made of simple wood, but they support the work of historians, scientists, soldiers, and chefs.

The sounds of calm conversation and fluttering pages fill the room. You take a seat alongside friendly new faces and read. After all, you came here to buy a book and to lounge among fellow book-lovers. A pastime far preferred to skimming a grainy text on a hand-held computer screen at home.

Photo: Topping
Photo: Topping

Topping & Company’s senior bookseller, Mairi Oliver, will often be at the front of the store to welcome you. She manages its day-to-day operations and coordinates its events. The bookshop boasts 50,000 titles at its spot on Greyfriars Garden. She’s busily directing other booksellers when The Saint arrives.

“I do a million different things here, and everyone at Topping’s has a whole lot of roles,” she opens with a chuckle.

She begins by telling me how she made it here. After studying International Relations at the University, she worked for a human rights organisation in Mumbai. It was stressful work, and she wanted to try another career she had previously considered pursuing.

“I ran away to Australia, where I knew I wanted to try books. And in Australia, they take books very seriously. They wouldn’t let me work in a bookshop because I had never worked in a bookshop before. I ended up managing a bar in a bookshop, and I did that for six months before they let me touch the books.”

Ms Oliver became a children’s bookseller before returning to Edinburgh to work in the Golden Hare, when she heard that Robert Topping was opening up another store. In the independent bookshop industry, Topping is a well-known name.

“He’s respected for being a bit of a maverick, but he’s also just one of the most passionate advocates of bookselling as a thing. He just wants to share books. So I thought, I’d quite like to do that, and it’d give me a chance to come back to St Andrews, and those who’ve been here find it very hard to leave. So I met Robert in December 2013, and we had a year sort of planning out the bookshop. He and Louise, his wife, did most of the work.”

At this point in the interview, Mrs Topping walks in the front door of the bookshop, along with the president of the Royal Society of Literature, Colin Thubron, who needed some directions getting around town.

Ms Oliver describes some nearby sights to him. “Enjoy exploring, the good weather’s come out just for you, and if you need a coffee break, just come back. We can’t froth milk, but the coffee is really good!”

Ms Oliver, often perched at the register near the front of the door, greets visitors with warmth. She knows the name of nearly every entering customer. They come as groups of university friends, elderly couples and parents with little kids. The atmosphere is communal, and it’s hard to escape friendly chat when you’re surrounded by beverages and bibliophiles.

Robert Topping. Photo by: Yelim Lee
Robert Topping. Photo by: Yelim Lee

Ms Oliver returns to wrapping books bearing Mr Thubron’s name on the table in front of her in protective plastic covering. “He was here last night as one of our headliners for our St Andrews Literary Festival. Now, it’s just a matter of wrapping his many, many books and putting them all in the window. Physical books became the least sexy way to read for a while.

“You know, you could read on your phone, you could read on your Kindle, you could download things, you could order online and get it the next day. And so, I think we have to work a little bit harder to make people think that they want a book, they’ll have to come to a bookshop.”

But she’s not worried about them getting sold.

“There’s a big comeback! Even if you’re young and beautiful, there’s still something about holding a book in your hands. I think you also end up feeling a natural affinity for someone who’s also sitting on a bench, reading a book.”

She emphasises the strain of the digital era on a market bound in paper.

“Two years ago we dropped below a thousand independent bookshops in the whole of the UK for the first time. We just love books, and we didn’t look beyond the fact that obviously people must love to read.

“They’re always going to love to read and I think that made us complacent about being something different. The beautiful thing about working with Robert and Louise is that they get that. The bookshop is so much more than a bookshop. Here we try and do something different”.

[pullquote]Physical books became the least sexy way to read for a while.[/pullquote]

Mrs. Topping, seeing Mr Thubron off and walking back to the front of the store, notes the many books she saw on her walk today, and remarked that she’s just read about the falling demand for e-readers.

Ms Oliver responds by saying, “Yeah, the figures show that Kindle has plateaued. It’s found its place. A lot of people have both. A lot of people do feel guilt-free. They’ll read on their phone, and they’ll have their kindle when they’re travelling, and they’ll have paper books on the bedside table or for studying.”

“But what’s really interesting and really exciting for us is that the fastest demographic to come back from digital to books is those aged 16-25. A lot of people were thinking they were the generation we’ve lost, because they haven’t grown up loving the touch of a book, but there’s digital exhaustion.

“If your whole life is on a computer, there’s something unique about switching-off in a way that you can’t otherwise. We’re really seeing it here in town. We’re feeling optimistic about books!”

The Saint asks Ms Oliver to elaborate on this impassioned statement. What makes this small bookshop off of Market Street so different?

She imagines St Andrews without Topping’s, “If we disappeared, if we closed our doors tomorrow, people would still be able to buy their books from the Blackwell’s in the Union, they’d still be able to buy their books from Waterstones, they’d still be able to buy them from Bernardo’s down the road, but I think that across the town, people would feel like something special had disappeared.

“They would notice that [because of] the authors that come to town, and in the calibre of the people that we bring here. We bring huge names. “In years past, we have brought Richard Dawkins, Alex Salmond, Irvine Welsh and Rick Stein to the town. People would see these extraordinary voices disappear. The wonderful thing about bringing these authors through the bookshop is that anyone can come to them, and it’s the community that comes.”

[pullquote]If we disappeared, I think that across the town, people would feel like something special had disappeared.[/pullquote]

“It gives older people a place to go out. We know most of our regulars by name, even if they don’t buy a book every week. They come in here because they will meet like-minded people. The great bit about our job is that you’re predisposed to like everyone who walks through the door, as they’ve walked into a bookshop.

Ms Oliver also described how their events appear to appeal to many audiences, both in the town and the gown. “Robert and Louise are graduates of the University. I’m a graduate. A lot of the team are students. Andrew is a local. The only local. He grew up in St Andrews, left, and came back. For us, it’s really important to have that intersection. We want to be that link; it’s our raison d’être.

“My favourite part of my job is to be a part of that bridge, to find ways that we can get a student browsing in history and get some 70-year-old woman walking out of the gardening section to say

“Oh don’t read that, the one you really want is Richard J Evans. He’s so much more erudite on that.’ And to be able to have a place where that can happen, where it doesn’t really happen in so many other walks of life, to have that connection between generations in different walks of life in the town somewhere other than an ice cream parlour…that’s quite unique.”

I comment that the complementary coffee they offer compounds this effect. “Yeah! That’s because you’re supposed to stay and linger and explore and feel at home and people respect that. It very rarely gets abused,” she said.

Ms Oliver also runs the bookshop’s events program. On this topic she said, “My other main hat is to approach publishers and book events and coordinate book launches. I coordinate with different publishers. The first part of my job is finding the books. Finding out which authors are publishing, who they’re publishing with, and which publicist is representing them.”

Ms Oliver spends half of her time networking with publicists and coordinating with her colleagues at Topping’s other bookshops in Bath and Ely. They draw in authors with their uncommon emphasis. For Topping, unlike other bookstores, “it’s always about the books, not the celebrity author.

“For example, Richard Dawkins: a lot of people wanted to hear his controversial views on religion, but he was promoting a book that was mostly about his scientific career, and that’s what he as an author wanted to talk about, his book about his scientific career.”

Seasoned book writers aren’t Topping’s only attraction.  Apart from a foreign and translated fiction bookclub, they showcase new authors whenever they can.

“It’s about always putting the book forward and giving the author the chance to promote whatever they’re working on now, as opposed to what made them most famous,” Ms Oliver said.

However, the work doesn’t stop once the author agrees to visit. Ms Oliver spoke about having to generate publicity, which involves “creating all the flyers, and developing all the marketing and promotion for the event.

While Ms Oliver handles much if the shop’s ordering and financial matters, she asks The Saint not to be referred to as a manger.

“I’m the senior bookseller. We’re all booksellers. None of us are sales assistants.”

Indeed, this sums up what appears to be the mission statement of Ms Oliver and the other staff of Topping & Co. Rather than a pursuit of commercial or financial  gain,  a dedication to, and love of, the trade of book selling itself.


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