Independent Bookshop Week 2024: The Portobello Bookshop Q&A


To celebrate Independent Bookshop Week this year, we have partnered with The Portobello Bookshop in Edinburgh. As part of this partnership, we asked them a few questions about their shop, what it means to be an independent bookshop and some of their favourite recent reads. You can explore their excellent website here.

Could you give a brief history of The Portobello Bookshop?

We’re an indie bookshop based in Edinburgh’s seaside community of Portobello, open since July 2019. The premises previously housed a fishing tackle shop for thirty years and, prior to that, a cooperative.

When renovations took place in early 2019, the aim was to create a warm and modern space that is welcoming, accessible, and a pleasure in which to spend time browsing. We also wanted the layout of the shop to be flexible to enable us to host events. It was during the renovations that we had the joy to discover some of the shop’s beautiful (yet previously hidden) features, such as the columns by our counter and the cornicing around the shop.

We are a general bookshop; we mostly stock recently published titles in a range of fiction and non-fiction for both adults and children. In our shop, the latest bestsellers are displayed alongside experimental fiction. We want to offer customers what we feel is a unique and diverse selection of books across most genres and put a lot of love and time into curating our stock, arranging book displays and recommending our favourite books.

Having opened in July 2019, our first few years were very different from what we’d anticipated. Throughout lockdowns, we received incredible support from our community locally as well as from customers further away. Our team has even grown since we first opened our doors, from five booksellers to now a team of twelve. In the past two years, we have expanded our reach, developing our events programme and building a new, more intuitive website that presents millions of titles available to order. We host a mix of intimate and large-scale events and love this variety; we want to support local talent as well as host international authors.

Every independent bookshop has its own personality, often informed by the local area and its community. How do you cultivate this at The Portobello Bookshop and how do you think yours is unique?

It has been quite an organic process. We are lucky to be located by the seaside, and naturally this has played a part in how we communicate and present the bookshop – we like to post photos of the beach on social media, for example, and have also curated many sea-themed shop displays! The bookshop’s ‘personality’ shows through the titles that we stock, events that we host, charities we partner with, etc. These are simply a reflection of our reading tastes and of our values. When we first opened our doors, we wondered how visitors and customers would respond to the titles on our shelves, but it turned out that the books we like are also what our customers read, and we’ve never had to compromise on what we want to stock. We want the bookshop to be as inclusive and open a space as possible, and we curate our events, displays and social media communication accordingly. LGBTQ+ titles, translated fiction, and books published by indie presses are particularly well represented on our shelves; we’ve also recently started spotlighting a different small press every month on our paperback fiction table, and this has been really well received.

We put an emphasis on our personal bookseller recommendations which are dotted around the bookshop as well as displayed in a dedicated ‘Our Picks’ bay. Finally, we have strong links with fellow indie businesses on our high street and like to highlight their book recs too!

What is the importance of Independent Bookshop Week for an independent bookshop like The Portobello Bookshop?

Events and campaigns such as Independent Bookshop Week, Bookshop Day and World Book Day make us feel connected to other bookshops and like we are truly part of a bookselling community. Books are My Bag and The Booksellers Association teams work tirelessly to plan and communicate these events and they are always a highlight of our calendar year. There’s always a particularly lovely atmosphere in the bookshop during IBW, and increased footfall too. It’s great to have the opportunity to celebrate the fact that we are an independent bookshop, and we also use it as a way to highlight fellow indie shops and publishers. This year, as we take part in the Indie Twinning initiative for IBW, we’re excited to be partnering with Fitzcarraldo Editions and to celebrate together.

The Portobello Bookshop has some great offerings such as your event schedule, signed editions, bookseller recommendations and online shop, is there anything coming up in particular that you’d like to highlight?

Thank you, this is lovely to hear! We’ve been looking to our Independent Bookshop Week events for quite some time as it’s a pleasure to be hosting three debut authors (Juano Diaz, Margaret McDonald and Tom Newlands) for a Scottish Narratives Panel, as well as welcoming Julia Armfield back to the bookshop for a discussion of Private Rites. On the horizon, we’re teaming up with Porty Pride for an event with Kate Young on Thursday 27th June, as well as hosting the Edinburgh launches of new work from Andrés N. Ordorica (How We Named the Stars), Dean Atta (Person Unlimited) and Rebecca Watson (I Will Crash) in July. We also recently started a series of writing and craft masterclasses and the next one, on Mastering Point of View, will be hosted by Edinburgh-based writer and friend of the shop T.L. Huchu on Wednesday 10th July.

In terms of upcoming releases, we look forward to reading Elif Shafak’s There Are Rivers in the Sky and to welcoming her back to the bookshop for a signing this August. Jenna is really looking forward to The Empusium by Olga Tokarczuk, whilst Alice is excited to read Lauren Elkin’s debut novel Scaffolding. Lily highlights Ali Smith’s upcoming novel, saying: ‘We are all big Ali Smith fans so we are eagerly anticipating the release of her new novel Gliff, and we have signed copies available to pre-order on our website’.

On the subject of events and the important role they play for Portobello, what have been some of your favourites throughout your history?

There are so many to choose from! I (Alice) have fond memories of our event with Richard Holloway back in November 2022, for the paperback publication of The Heart of Things. It was an emotional evening, and to hear Richard Holloway talk about poetry, memories, the challenges that life brings and the way words can both heal and impart pain was very special. A more recent one was our event with Teju Cole last November – the discussion he had with Dr Roxani Krystalli about Tremor was simply fascinating. Our events manager Euan picks our event with Ali Smith in April 2022. Her work is a firm favourite amongst the team, and hosting a bookshop event with her for Companion Piece was a long-held dream come true. Our website coordinator Lily particularly loved our event with Kae Tempest last May for Divisible by Itself and One – they are a phenomenal performer. Jenna’s favourite event that we’ve held was our evening with Carys Davies for Clear. They say: ‘I loved hearing her talk about her writing process, especially since she doesn’t waste a single sentence in her novels! I also really enjoyed our event with Elle McNicoll for her latest book, Keedie. McNicoll is an inspiring and pioneering author, putting neurodivergent characters at the forefront of her stories, and it was incredible to see all the young people in the audience that night completely mesmerised by her.’

The way you curate your shop and the books on offer represent an ability to highlight titles that might be overlooked elsewhere. How do you go about putting these together?

We have plenty of display space, from the large A-frame at the centre of the bookshop and our counter space to our ‘Our Picks’ bay and to our round tables for paperback displays. The various ways we can display books allows us to be flexible, and to curate and change our displays regularly. Our senior buyer Molly puts a lot of brilliant work into planning regular themed displays, communicating with our social media coordinator Kira to gather our team’s recommendations and to post about them online too. So far this year, we have highlighted the indie presses Prototype, Charco Press, And Other Stories and Hajar Press, and have curated displays for LGBTQ+ History Month in February, Short Story Month in May, the 40th Anniversary of the Miners’ Strike and more. Being able to highlight the titles we want is one of the best parts of working in an independent bookshop, and selling lesser-known titles on the strength of a bookseller rec or display is a particular joy!

What books (Fitzcarraldo Editions or otherwise) have you enjoyed reading and selling the most this year?

We have loved reading and championing Martin MacInnes’ Booker Prize-longlisted In AscensionArrangements in Blue by Amy Key is a title we have kept recommending to each other in the team. It is a favourite and we loved getting to hear Amy Key discuss it in more depth at an event we hosted last month at the bookshop. Other titles we have enjoyed reading and selling this year include Isabella Hammad’s Enter Ghost, Jenny Erpenbeck’s Kairos, and Sheila Heti’s Alphabetical Diaries.