18 July 2024
  • 18 July 2024

Abbey Books celebrates 40 years in Paisley

on 19 June 2024 0

The beloved Abbey Books is still going strong four decades into its existence, we find out more from shop manager Brian Hannan

The phrase hidden gem is bandied about a lot in popular culture. It can be applicable to anything from a deep cut on a record to a little eatery that’s flown under the radar. But for Renfrewshire’s avid readers and collectors, they know that phrase is very applicable to Abbey Books. Originally dubbed Wordsworth Books before the original owner changed the name simply to be at the front of the Yellow Pages as opposed to the back, this well-stocked shop has served the local community for 40 years now. 

If it were located in some major city, it’s likely that Abbey Books would be mentioned in the same breath as somewhere like Glasgow’s Voltaire and Russo or Edinburgh’s Armchair.

It has all the hallmarks, right down to its labyrinthine shelves full of publications which vary from obscure titles dating all the way back to the 19th century and 70s pulp paperbacks through to cheap copies of classics and newer titles alike. 

Plus, via its current steward Brian Hannan, it is overseen by someone who is just as interesting, insightful and delightfully idiosyncratic as what he’s selling. 

“It’s somewhere like Waterstones where they don’t tend to relate to individual customers,” Brian said of what sets the shop apart. “Whereas in here, people come in and they’re on the hunt for first editions of old children’s books or whatever they’re into. I’ve got a guy who comes in and immediately goes to the science section. Sometimes I even find books planked so he can come and get them at a later date!

Abbey Books

Photo Jamie Hackett

“Sometimes, I come across people sitting down with a stack of books and I need to let them know it’s not a library!”

“Sometimes, you just get fascinating stories. People come to the counter with big smiles on their face and I always say, ‘what is it you’ve found?’ One of the loveliest instances was someone who came in and had something from 1910 priced at about seven pounds. I said is there a story to this? And he said yes, this cover was designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh! He was a collector of these six titles that he’d made for [Glasgow Publishing House] Blackie and he just goes round on the off chance. I’ve got his number, so if I find the other ones he’s looking for then I’ll give him a call. 

“We get people from all over the world,” Brian enthused, “there’s been people from Canada, New Zealand, even two people from Pittsburgh in one day. We find all sorts of things that fall out of books. Whether it was receipts from a Chinese Laundry in 1923 or John Byrne’s notebook from a Broadway production of The Slab Boys. In these collections that are donated, you get to see a whole life.” 

For Brian, a former magazine editor in his own right, getting the chance to work in the shop is a wish fulfilled. 

“I used to come to the shop when George [Bell, owner] was over the road. I always loved it, so it’s a dream to work somewhere with so many interesting books. When we get something older in, I’ll look up the index to see if there’s anything about Paisley.

“Recently, I got a brochure from the 1920s by an Italian scarf manufacturer who had an exhibition in New York where he was talking about the Paisley pattern’s impact on the trade in his country. It’s mad, did anyone here even know that was a thing?” 

Abbey Books

Photo Jamie Hackett

With over 102 categories and around 60 of them handily labeled for people to find what they’re looking for, many people come in with a goal in mind. Meanwhile, others are content to just wander the aisles for hours or even come in to look at the walls which are adorned with its unique Rupert the Bear wallpaper, ancient maps of the town or paintings of Paisley’s “great and good” who paid for their image to be immortalised centuries ago. Now 40 years in, the shop holds a special resonance for so many. 

“Sometimes, I come across people sitting down with a stack of books and I need to let them know it’s not a library,” Brian humorously exclaimed. “I got someone in here who hasn’t been since 1993 when it was in Gordon Street. Sometimes, people whose books are donated were former customers of the store too.

“Recently, I sold a Communist Manifesto from 1948 which was owned by the first professor of Modern History at Strathclyde and was bought when he was studying at Cambridge. That was just sold to someone in China as we’ve got a small Ebay marketplace too. 

“A lot of people like to read about History from the time, rather than people looking back and doing their research,” Brian concluded. “You just see the world in a different way. A lot of these books were written before aeroplanes, where people barely travelled three miles. Whether they’re here to hunt for something specific or just for a cheap book, people come here for all sorts of reasons and it’s just fascinating.”

Abbey Books, 21 Wellmeadow Street, Paisley, PA1 2EF, 0141 887 7303. Visit the website, or follow on Instagram

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