The bookseller of Stromness

July 1, 2022 3 Comments

Hanging on a wall in the public library in Stromness, where you can sit in an easy chair and enjoy a view of the waterfront through the picture window, is an oil painting called The bookseller of Stromness. It was painted in 2005 by a self-taught artist from Stornaway, Calum Morrison, who had long settled in Orkney and specialised in portraits (he died early this year).

Calum Morrison, The Bookseller of Stromness (Stromness Library)

The painting has just one figure, Tam MacPhail, the owner at the time of Stromness Books and Prints, the independent bookshop still going strong in Graham Place.  Tam, who died in 2020, started out as a sculptor in California, and came to Stromness to work in the bookshop in 1976.  Calum didn’t know him outside the shop, but recalls their ‘comical, surreal’ conversations, and how Tam had an almost supernatural gift for knowing which books would suit which readers.  He also had a quirky sense of humour, as his son recalls:

Once customers had paid, he would ask them if they wanted to have their book ‘in a bag?’ When they said ‘Yes,’ he would pull a brown paper bag up from underneath the counter.  He had already cut the bottom off the bag.  So he would pass his hand and the books directly through the bag and give the customer their purchase.  All done with a completely straight face and no attempt to draw a laugh. 

When Tam died, Duncan McLean, once his assistant, remembered

He created the shop in his own image, expressing his own interests and passions.  He helped educate, entertain, and inspire several generations of Orcadians.  Without changing his eccentric individuality one bit, he became a much-loved part of the Stromness community – so that when we lined Graham Place as the hearse went by, fishermen mixed with film-makers, ministers with coalmen, dinner ladies with poets. 

Stromness Books and Prints

Tam refused to pose for his portrait, but agreed to lend his jumper, on strict condition that no paint was spilt on it.  The jumper, Calum remembered, received more painterly care than any other part of the painting.  Though, in fact, all parts of the work are meticulously detailed.  The books are ‘real’, recognisable books, often by Orkney authors, of whom there are many.  And they don’t sit quietly on the shelves, but are busy lifting off, winging it out of the open window, and making their way across the island.  The feature in the distance is the Black Craig, a few miles up the west coast, near where Tam had his home.

Stromness Books and Prints is a tiny room.  With two browsing customers it feels crowded.  But the books are well-chosen – or curated, to use the current cant – and packed in wherever they’ll go.  Orkney writers are to the fore, poets are given more than their usual half-shelf, and there are plenty of curiosities, like two volumes of the Loeb Tacitus, for which you’ll need a long arm.  The shop advertises itself as the only ‘drive-in’ bookshop: there are no pavements in the street, and it was easy enough, Tam explained, to pull up the car, roll down the window and place your order, if you happened to be disabled, lazy or drunk.

Stromess Books and Prints: man with paper bag on head

Somehow, independent bookshops miraculously survive as small clearings in the smothering Amazon forests.  Their ability to set free the ideas lying dormant on the leaves of printed books and let them fly off to gather like gulls on a far-off cliff-face is just what The bookseller of Stromness celebrates.  Both bookseller and painter may have departed, but their message lives on.

In the library in Kirkwall there’s another painting with a similar theme, though it dispenses with the literal metaphor.  It’s by the Dutch artist Fred Schley and shows the composer Peter Maxwell Davies working on a score in his home on Sanday.  On the table is a book by Davies’s friend George Mackay Brown and a picture of Jean Sibelius, but the eye is led past them to the window and the seascape beyond it.  Through the window, you sense, the musical notes pass, out to the wide world.

Fred Schley, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (Kirkwall Library)

Comments (3)

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  1. Paul Jeorrett says:

    I remember Tam well from visiting the bookshop many times over the years. I am eternally grateful to him for introducing me to the books of the fabulous Scottish author Neil M. Gunn.

  2. Gill Lewis says:

    Really enjoyed that Andrew.

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