"HOW was tai chi?” It’s not necessarily the first thing you expect to hear in a bookshop, but that’s how Marie Moser greets a customer as they walk through the door. Not only does she greet them by name, but the two strike up a conversation about the traditional Chinese game mahjong. “She always comes in here after tai chi. It’s not always to buy a book,” Moser adds.

With Independent Bookshop Week well and truly underway, it’s interesting to learn that these oases of texts and titles are not just about the written word.

Moser is the owner of The Edinburgh Bookshop – winner of the Scottish Bookshop Of The Year award four times in the past 10 years – located in the city’s Bruntsfield. It’s run by a team of five people and is described by its owner as a “kick-ass community bookshop”.

She notes how her team have a keen eye for anyone who is having a bad day. “People also might just come in because they can’t get the lid off something,” she adds.

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Likewise, “being a queer bookseller is probably 20% bookselling and 80% counselling. Well, maybe 10% of it is like being a travel adviser”, says Fionn Duffy-Scott, who owns LGBTQ+ bookshop Category Is with their partner Charlotte. It’s located just next to Queen’s Park train station in the south side of Glasgow and was founded in 2018 to establish a queer reading space in the area. Unlike the team in Edinburgh, it’s run solely by its owners.

It’s noteworthy how much both Moser and Duffy-Scott spent time talking about things that had nothing to do with literature. “Community is important here and it’s a specifically queer space so a lot of the events have nothing to do with books.”

If anything, the Covid-19 pandemic only strengthened the shops’ sense of community. “It didn’t ‘hurt us’ hurt us if that makes sense,” says Moser, whilst Duffy-Scott simply says they “dealt with it”.

The Edinburgh Bookshop did a lot of deliveries which, although their owner admits wasn’t particularly cost or environmentally efficient, was worth it for the service they were able to provide.

She singles out the Scottish Government for praise in that regard. “Miss Sturgeon is a massive reader and is very supportive. We were incredibly lucky during the second lockdown because the Scottish Government accepted bookshops were a vital part of the community.”

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The Booksellers Association argued they were the equivalent of garden centres in the summer. Category Is managed to come up with a creative solution to help out the environment though – books were delivered via skateboard to customers who lived nearby.

That focus on being welcoming to everyone is particularly key for youngsters. Moser is interrupted by an enthusiastic child who runs to grab the stuffed Gruffalo sitting next to her. “There’s no such thing as a Gruffalo. Everyone knows that,” the young boy is told as he smiles. “That’s why I do my job. There was another little boy who went past the window during Covid in a different fancy dress outfit every day.”

She goes so far to say that what she does isn’t a job so much as it is a hobby and that anyone who knew her when she was 18 wouldn’t be surprised that she’s now running a bookshop.

On Friday morning in Category Is, a school group had been in with their local library who had managed to secure some funding for each person to pick out a book not only for themselves, but for the library as well. “Some mornings it’ll be kids coming in and other days it’ll be 80-year-olds,” says Duffy-Scott.

Neither shop wastes much space. Unsurprisingly, both are stacked with books as high as they can go. The Edinburgh Bookshop even has one of those old-school ladders that slides seamlessly along the shelves.

Even then, though, how do they decide what to sell? “You can’t just stock what you love. Sometimes you get a feeling about something but don’t realise how right you’ll actually be,” Moser says.

Last year, she picked up a book about how Norwegians stacked wood and it surprised her more than most. “Don’t get me wrong, it was a beautiful book and I thought we’d sell about 20 copies for dads at Christmas. It was one of the biggest books of the year – we sold about 120.”

The National: Owners of Category Is Books in Glasgow Charlotte and Fionn Duffy-Scott

Life isn’t without its challenges, though, and since its foundation, Category Is has been subject to homophobic and transphobic abuse. “Homophobia isn’t the overarching thing I think about when it comes to the shop, but we do deal with it. People have always got mad at us for existing,” Duffy-Scott says. They pause slightly but then laugh a little when they remember they deal with transphobic messages by posting some erotic stickers on the door. “We’ve found a power by finding our own way of dealing with abuse.”

Moser wonders how the cost-of-living crisis will take its toll on bookshops. “People will spend the same amount of money on a coffee and a muffin at Starbucks as they could on a book, but I guess people don’t think like that.”

She notes how other major companies bulk buy and sell books for slightly less, which simply isn’t the case for indie bookshops. “One year, we paid more tax than Amazon.”

One thing she isn’t worried about is e-readers which she thinks “have settled where they’re going to settle”. There is one book they did the world of good for, however. “Everybody read Fifty Shades Of Grey on them because you could read it and claim you were reading Dostoyevsky,” she says, smiling.

As you wander through these shops and stare at the shelves, each one filled with worlds waiting to be devoured in a couple of sittings, it’s a reminder of the satisfaction and beauty of browsing in independent shops like these ones. They are, as Moser puts it, a “safe space”. She gets up to pick out a favourite book of hers which has red pages and is lined with a floral pattern down the side. “You can tell the person making this has had an absolute ball. Look at how vinyl has made a comeback. I think a lot of that is to do with seeing what an album looks like.”

Despite those challenges, independent book shops are a unique industry in that most people seem to wish each other well.

“It’s an amazing community. There is a genuine non-competitiveness and a wish that everyone does well. Nobody is in this to be a billionaire,” Moser says.

Duffy-Scott shares that view: “There’s a friendliness you don’t get in other trades. We might not stock a book but I’ll know where does and send people there.”

Whatever it is you might be looking for, be sure to pay shops like these a visit over the course of Independent Bookshop Week, which runs until Saturday. It might not be all about the books, but that doesn’t make it any easier to leave without one.