A Love Letter to Voltaire & Rousseau

Rory MacNeish finds out how Otago Lane’s independent bookshop benefits the biodiversity of Glasgow’s West End.

Shop owner Edmond McGonigle and BB the cat.

A tumbling sound and rustle of flapping paper causes all, aside from the shop’s owner ensconced behind the desk, to glance over. The customer who removed the critical piece smiles sheepishly as she gathers the fallen books and reconstructs the Jenga tower of paperbacks.

Such mishaps are a common feature of a visit to Otago Lane’s Voltaire & Rousseau bookshop due to the bulging piles of loosely categorised stock which appear to grow out from the shelves to from two subterranean passageways. Customers must delicately remove titles which catch their interest to prevent the shelves from caving in.

The shop is owned by the McGonigle brothers who initially opened in a premises on Park Road in 1972. Edmond mentions what first motivated his older brother to become a bookseller: “He wondered why some books were sought after and some books weren’t and started to study the whole idea of rarity. Why some books were rare and why some weren’t, and that’s how it started.”

After a few years on Park Road they moved to the shop’s current location where, aside from the churn of stock, it appears largely unchanged ever since. “The place got redone in… 1999. Not really modernised, but there were some improvements made to it,” says Edmond.

Sleeping on a stack of hardbacks by him is the shop cat, BB. “We originally called it PP but somebody said you can’t call a cat PP, so we called it BB after BB King.” Also populating the shop are several busts of composers and a death mask of Shakespeare hanging opposite a wooden carving of a native American. Edmond is uncertain of its origin: “We’ve had it so long. My brother doesn’t want to sell it, but people keep making offers.”

The interior might look like the aftermath of a landslide of books, but the McGonigle brothers apply a mysterious logic to order the shop. Edmond squeezes past some browsers in the aisle, whispering: “I’ll just get through here.” Picking up two hardbacks sitting on a stool, he then pulls back a fleece covering a nearby heap of books and adds the hardbacks in his hand to the pile. He covers this all back up with the fleece and returns to the desk. I am desperate to ask for an explanation of how this system works, but within the heady silence of the shop’s dreamlike atmosphere it seems somehow rude to question it.

A friend believes that Edmond keeps an index in his head. She mentioned once popping in to look for a long out-of-print book about the Jacobite Risings. Glancing at the jumbled history pile, she asked if he knew if it was in stock. Edmond reached over his shoulder and pulled a copy off the shelf, “That’s, eh, £3.50.”  On another visit, I asked if they had any Jean Rhys novels in. Edmond frowned as he jogged his memory and replied, “I think I saw one in the literature section.”

A little digging was required, but this can unearth strange rewards. That afternoon I came across a book about Classical Hollywood comedy legends the Marx Brothers – written in Spanish. Though catering to a highly specific customer profile within Glasgow, one day this book will delight someone. The shop also appears indifferent to commercial practices such as meeting fluctuations of demand to drive sales: “Every day we’re getting asked for the Dune books and we know we haven’t got any,” says Edmond. “I did go and see the first film and I thought it was very, very dull. I tried to sit through it and I was falling asleep. So I haven’t seen the second one.”

Stock is often bought from home clearances, and over the years the shop has seen instances of people recognising books which formerly belonged to family members. Edmond describes: “One guy, he found a Jewish book here that belonged to his uncle. He just came across it by accident.” Another customer found a children’s book his father had owned. “He said: ‘I want to buy that back, because I realise it was my father’s.’”

Part of the shop’s charm is in observing Glasgow’s ‘book-drunk freaks’ who potter inside, absorbed in some obscure text unearthed from a pile. One such punter, overhearing Edmond discussing commonly requested titles – Sylvia Plath and Charles Bukowski – chimes in: “Ooof, of course! The kind of stuff people are looking for is sex, death and perversion. Nabokov, Bukowski… sex and… death. There’s always some Dostoevsky, bit of murder thrown in.”

“Yeah, a lot of the time we get asked for Dostoevsky,” agrees Edmond. The man rubs his hands and continues: “And, eh, they’ll want something kinky as a nightcap, an aperitif. A lot of young students are exploring, exploring themselves – finding their buttocks [grabs his behind] ‘Oh, look at that! Oh wow!’” It is hard to imagine this conversation taking place in the queue in Waterstones.

Voltaire & Rousseau sits alongside neighbouring Otago Lane outlets including the vinyl shop Mixed Up Records and, until its closure last year, the teahouse Tchai Ovna. Together these shops form an oddball microclimate within the West End’s otherwise manicured professionalism and (at times, curated) cool vibes.

A recurring threat looming over the lane has been the perennial scheme to construct three tower blocks on an adjacent brownfield site. Objections registered against this plan were that it would threaten the biodiversity of the green corridor along the River Kelvin, and the proposed seven-storey towers would block out one of Glasgow’s scarcest resources – sunlight – from pouring into the lane.

After an initial rejection, an appeal was then approved by the council last year, but some unruly spirit of the lane, and an active group of locals, have so far prevented its development: “We haven’t heard officially, but from other people, that they’ve given up any idea of building here,” says Edmond. More recently, new plans submitted propose the construction of a block of student flats, signalling the possibility of the lane being transformed into a transient, anonymous non-place. Perhaps this stubborn nook will outlast these plans too. “So many things have been proposed over the years,” Edmond tells me.

It is in some way reassuring that an outlet where VR means Voltaire & Rousseau, which sells second-hand material objects, and where contemporary blockbusters sedate its owners but books about Hollywood’s Golden Era can be found in a foreign language, has survived encroaching speculators and continues a quiet trade.

Languid though it can seem, the lane gathered 753 letters of objection and a petition signed by 82,842 people opposing the tower block plan. Let us hope these many devoted patrons prevent us from being deprived of this precious haven in the West End, and lets lend our voices if any developer threatens to impose on the lane’s community. 

Rory MacNeish is a freelance journalist and aspiring useful citizen. He lives in Glasgow.