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1833 - 1840


Princes Street

John Menzies returns to Edinburgh from his job with Charles Tilt in London and opens a bookshop at 61 Princes Street.

His notebook reports:

'Cash received in business very small.'

If his father had not died suddenly, leaving him to care and provide for a young stepmother and two sisters, it is doubtful if he would have returned to his Scottish home at all. Some years earlier, after a stiff and joyless apprenticeship to an Edinburgh bookseller, he had been given £10, his passage paid by smack to London, and advised by his father to make his own way in the world.

Princes Street

On hearing of his father's death he left London by mail-coach for Edinburgh in December 1832. The snow lay thick on the ground; the cold was biting. It was sixty hours before the journey was completed, sixty hours during which he sat on the top of the coach, grateful when the route lay through a lighted town, the glow of the lamps giving at least an illusion of heat.

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Gray's Edinburgh Directory describes John Menzies as Bookseller, Stationer and Printseller. He also publishes books and engravings and - rather unusually - sells The Scotsman over the counter.

The Scotsman

Bookselling was a more restricted trade than it is today. A retail bookseller was agent for a selected number of publishers, and it was their range of books only that he displayed and sold. John Menzies, with his London connections, felt a wholesale book department would be a valuable asset to his business, as few publishers sent representatives north of the Border.

His first task was to select - and acquire - suitable agencies. Not surprisingly, Mr Charles Tilt provided one of his first. The Tilt "Miniature Library" was famous, and ideal for John Menzies class of trade. Other agencies gradually followed, for London publishers, once approached, were quick to appreciate the usefulness of a new Scottish bookseller who did both retailing and wholesaling.


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The publishers Chapman & Hall appoint John Menzies as their Scottish agent for the monthly instalments of Charles Dickens' first novel The Pickwick Papers. The great popularity of the work enables him to lay the foundations of his wholesale department.

An envelope from Charles Dickens

He made regular visits to London. He liked to know what was new in the publishing world, and kept up diligently with the latest trends of events in the trade. He made rounds of the publishing houses and paid courtesy calls on W.H. Smith. His visits were far from extravagant sprees. His hotel bills, which he scrupulously entered in his accounts book, reveal the cost for the day to be 6s.

At home, London publishers received a warm welcome when they did brave the journey north to call, and a favourite, and famous, literary visitor was Charles Dickens. The Chapman & Hall agency for Dickens' works had brought about a friendship between the author and the Scottish bookseller, and Dickens seldom visited Edinburgh without calling at 61 Princes Street. The two carried on a sporadic correspondence, and the earliest letter from Dickens, written in 1842, refers to the presentation of the Freedom of the City of Edinburgh which he was due to receive.

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Turnover reaches £3,925, with £225 in profits.


John Menzies did some publishing as a sideline. His Scottish Guide Books and Vignette Views were tremendously popular, but possibly his most famous publication was Costumes of the Clans by Sobieski Stuart. It was an expensive book - four guineas - and lavishly illustrated. It was dedicated to the King of Bavaria, whom the Jacobites recognised as the rightful heir to the throne of Britain.

Punch Magazine first editionIn 1841, Bradbury & Evans appointed him agent for their famous periodical, Punch.

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