Obituary: James Thin

Tam Dalyell
Wednesday 04 June 1997 23:02

University cities are enhanced by famous and distinguished specialist bookshops. Oxford has Blackwell's. Cambridge has Heffers and Edinburgh has Thin's. Across the street from the Old Quadrangle of Edinburgh University in South Bridge is the sprawling, shambling premises of James Thin, a haunt of many scholars and antiquaries, with a world-wide reputation.

At the centre of its business over four decades, from 1949 to 1990, was the bustling, athletic figure of James ("Jimmy") Thin, great-grandson of that James Thin who founded the firm in 1848, man of letters, mountaineer, and descendant of the Edinburgh Enlightenment. Sir Edward Appleton, Nobel prizewinning physicist and vice-chancellor, opined to my parents that Thin's had become a department of the university; and de facto it was just that. Indeed, for most of the last century, James Thin was the official publisher of the university in an age when Edinburgh was the printing centre of the world. Generations of undergraduates and postgraduates have browsed and often bought (though not always were purchases made) in its tolerant atmosphere.

After the Second World War Jimmy Thin set the tone. Ainslie Thin, one of the leading spirits of the current United Kingdom book trade and now the company's chairman, was joint managing director with his cousin and enjoyed an excellent relationship with him. He says: "In the business, Jimmy was always happier to be a real bookseller than an administrator. He very much enjoyed, and appreciated the importance of, talking to his customers and indeed writing to the thousands of his customers, many of them overseas, who wrote in to enquire about books - many of these customers became his friends."

I come into the category of customer who became friend. The trouble to which he would go was infinite. In 1955, for my Christmas vacation reading, my university supervisor, the economist Harry Johnson, had told me to study Professor Johnny Von Neumann's Theory of Games and had lent me his own personal copy. Horror of horrors, my suitcase in which I had the volume was pinched. Distraught, I went to Jimmy Thin.

Sympathetic to my plight, he went to the trouble of borrowing a copy of this then obscure work from a friend of his in the university, to let me get on with my studying - and 10 days later somehow got a replacement volume from London. He insisted that he would take cost price! One does not forget these things. I joined the ranks of Thin's lifelong customers.

Jimmy Thin left Loretto in 1942 and joined the Army at the first possible opportunity. It was characteristic that he should opt to go out to the Gurkhas in India and used his off-duty time to climb mountains and to learn to speak fluent Urdu. He never pretended that he had been in the thick of the fighting in Burma and was modest about his war service, which I am told by others was enormously to his credit. He returned to take a degree in languages and literature at Edinburgh University and was inspired by the Professor of German, Walter Horace Bruford.

The family wisely determined that he should not go straight in to the family firm but, like a scion of a noble house in the Middle Ages, should be apprenticed to another baron's court. Therefore he was depatched to Cambridge for six months, to Bowes and Bowes, and for another six months to a bookshop in Zurich, before he returned to the family business. Even then he was told to be a part-time publisher with Oliver & Boyd in Edinburgh, specialising in publishing scholarly and theological books.

Thin himself made three English translations of German fairy stories into English, R. Bamberger's My First Big Story Book (1965), My Second Big Story Book (1966) and My Third Big Story Book (1967), all of which were later reissued by Penguin.

In his business Jimmy Thin is remembered by his colleagues for his prodigious energy. He didn't simply tackle problems, he attacked problems. Above all he loved books, he read books and he respected books. Many hundreds of his customers sought his advice when they were about to travel, or about to study a subject, as to what they should read. He was discerning, impatient of badly written books, keenly interested in good authors and had not the slightest hesitation in telling customers not to waste their time, even if it meant that his shop was deprived of a sale.

Even in a city where a large number of the citizens have an extensive knowledge of antiquarian books he was highly regarded and frequently to be seen enjoying himself at auction. He said computers gave him no pleasure, but he learnt to use them. His business became bigger and thrived, although one sometimes felt that he himself regretted this.

Outside business, Thin had many interests. He was a member of the "Monks of St Giles" - an Edinburgh literary society which indulges in literary conversation and the reading of poetry, some of it very amusing, written by the members of the coterie. He was a mountaineer and walked on the hills with Marjorie, his wife of 40 years. They spent a lot of time on the magic island of Barra, where he had a small cottage, and where he could get away from crowds. He was a champion of wilderness.

Thin had bagged every Munro - that is, climbed every mountain above 3,000ft in Scotland - apart from one rather simple slope. He was saving this for his 80th birthday.

Tam Dalyell

James Thin, bookseller: born Edinburgh 26 November 1923; partner, James Thin 1949-73, joint managing director, James Thin Ltd 1973-90; married 1956 Marjorie Pollitt (four sons); died Edinburgh 1 June 1997.

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