All good things must come to an end, and Tam Macphail was a very good thing.
Tam arrived in Orkney in 1976 with his wife Gunnie Moberg and their four young sons. Tam was an artist at heart and Gunnie was too – sculpture for him, batik for her. But needs must, so Gunnie started working on the desk at Kirkwall airport, which led to her flying frequently to the north isles, which led to her developing her interest in photography so she could capture the beauty below the Islander’s wings, which led to her long and much admired career as a photographer. Gunnie was a very good thing too. But this is about Tam.
In his early days in Orkney, he had a false start in the boat yard at the south end:
Boat builder: Can you build boats?
Two weeks later:
Boat builder: You can’t build boats, can you?
Tam: Yes I can.
Boat builder: But you’ve been here a fortnight and you haven’t built anything.
Tam: Maybe I’m just building them a bit slower than you expected.
Half an hour later, as Tam trudged back up the street, someone looked out the door of Stromness Books & Prints. It was the owner, John Broom. He told Tam he’d just been offered the job as town librarian, and desperately needed someone to run his bookshop.
The rest is history. It’s Stromness history and it’s Orkney history. It’s family history and it’s history for the thousands of customers who have stepped into this tiny room in Graham Place with its undistinguished frontage, and re-emerged half an hour later not just with the Greenvoe or Highway Code they expected, but with a history of left-handed knitting, a classic novel from the Faroe islands, and a cookbook of Elvis Presley’s favourite recipes.
More than that, they came out with memories of a warm, humorous, and encyclopaedically- knowledgeable man: Campbell Thomas Macphail. True, he could be so oblique in his conversation, that sometimes he seemed grumpy. But he wasn’t looking at you sideways: he was looking at the whole world sideways.
Tam died ten days ago, and on Friday he was buried – along with his beloved Gunnie – at Warebeth. But not before he made one last tour of Stromness, including a long pause outside the open door of the bookshop. As the hearse waited, friends, family, neighbours, and customers bowed their heads and raised a glass of whisky in a final Dram for Tam.
The whisky – Tamnavulin, of course – had been laid on by his successor in the bookshop, Sheena, in a typically thoughtful and generous gesture. Sheena served a long apprenticeship, being Tam’s assistant for 16 years before he decided to pass on the shop to her, very much as John Broom had passed it on to him in the late seventies.
Sheena shares Tam’s great ability to absorb the contents of a book without actually reading it, and the variety and scope of books she stocks is if anything even greater than before. Orkney was lucky to have Tam as long as it did, and it’s just as lucky to have Sheena carrying on his legacy in what The Independent called, “The best small bookshop in Scotland.”
Before Sheena came along, I was Tam’s assistant for a couple of years in the mid-nineties. It’s only recently that I realised how much I have replicated Stromness Books & Prints in Kirkness & Gorie. Instead of obscure and wonder books, the shelves are full of obscure and wonderful wines. And instead of a counter of Ordnance Survey maps and George Mackay Brown books, Lauren and I work in the tiny space behind the serve-over cheese fridge. But the conversations with customers are very much the same – sometimes rambling, sometimes rapier-witted, always about much more than making a sale.
I made Tam laugh a few months ago when I said to him, “Everything I know about business I learned from you.” He laughed because most people would have looked at his tiny shop, and his modest lifestyle, and thought he hadn’t been much of a businessman.
I’d say he was entirely successful. 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. All this, while living one of Orkney’s greatest love stories with Gunnie, and raising four boys to be almost as great characters as himself.
That’s not just good business. That’s the best.
Farewell Tam. And yes, I would like my book in a soundproof paper bag.
This diary appeared in The Orcadian on 24 September 2021