- Created: 01 September 2014 01 September 2014
Telling and re-telling Old Town stories is an important part of what The Word Bank is about.
Here, Bronwen Edwards, a former resident of Tollcross, shares her memories of a bookshop long gone from Candlemaker Row which turned out to be much more than a refuge from the Edinburgh weather.
Candlemaker Row, in the South East corner of the Grassmarket housed the First of May bookshop from 1980 until the mid Nineties. From the street the shop window invited both the casual visitor and the regular, determined radical book hunter into a cosy book-lined cavern.
I can’t remember whether you could get a mug of coffee as you browsed, and I’m pretty sure it was not lit by hurricane lamps, but it was that kind of a place. Staff and customers were indistinguishable, though I suppose that in winter the customers were wearing more clothes.
Neither can I remember how I came to visit First of May that first time, but once inside, I knew I’d be back. I was immediately drawn to the selection of children’s books with colourful illustrated pages emanating messages of mums who thought nothing of going out fishing to bring home the odd whale for tea. This was feminism’s lighter side, and a gentle introduction for one who’d missed all those consciousness raising groups her sister had spoken about. There was also a nice collection of Leeds Postcards, illuminating a range of radical views from the hilarious to the deadly serious. My purchase of the funnier ones enabled me to inform my sister that the radicalisation of her older sister had borne fruit.
It was probably my desire to explore the theoretical base of community work that first sent me to First of May’s well-stocked shelves in 1980. I was working for a low-budget advertising agency set up by the Edinburgh Council for Social Service (now Edinburgh CVS) and funded by the Manpower Services Commission. Our base was in a turret room in Craigentinny Castle, a community centre where a wide range of activities, from carpet bowls to children’s drama, attracted the attendance of many of the locals in that rather run-down area of the city. I was, from my first days in Edinburgh (circa 1977) attracted by the many and very visible efforts of its community workers to connect with the population. Now that I sort of was one of them, I wanted to know more about the theoretical basis of ‘our’ work. An early purchase was ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ by the widely esteemed Paulo Friere. Like Joyce’s Ulysses, and Marx’s Capital, it received my attention for about 37 pages on several occasions and its contents languish – still unassimilated on my bookshelves to this day. It was about as useful as another early purchase - ‘Sex and Class in Latin America’.
When First of May bookshop came into its own for me practically speaking, apart from offering an amusing, esoteric and generally entertaining haven from the famous Edinburgh wind, was when, in 1982, I became a mature student on Stirling University’s postgraduate Housing Administration Diploma course. Our studies demanded that we embrace 10 separate disciplines with some rigour. First of May helped me add some gravitas to essays on Social Policy, Welfare, and Economics. These would otherwise have consisted of regurgitated lecture notes, brief snatches from reference works housed in the Library and what I had garnered from recommended texts or the ‘Teach Yourself’ books I had bought to arm myself with the basics. I can’t say First of May sported any radical critiques of Building Technology, but my Economics and Social Policy essays sparkled with radical gems found there.