James Thin

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James Thin Ltd was a British bookshop chain, founded by James Thin in 1848. It operated for 154 years, during which time it was run by five generations of the Thin family. Starting from a single shop in Edinburgh, it grew to a national concern with 35 branches throughout Scotland and England. In 2002, following a period of rapid expansion, it went into voluntary administration, after which most of its shops were purchased by other companies in the book trade.



The company was founded in 1848 by James Thin (1824–1915). For most its existence the firm traded under Thin's own name, only becoming James Thin Ltd. in the 1970s. [1] Thin had previously worked for 12 years for James McIntosh, a bookseller at 5 North College Street, having joined the firm as an apprentice at the age of eleven. [2]

On 3 April 1848, Thin opened his own shop, at 14 Infirmary Street, having taken over the assets of a Mr Rickard, a bookseller who was in financial difficulties. Thin was 24 at the time. Trade was slow at first, but improved over the next few years. Most of its sales were in the academic market, thanks in part to the shop's location close to Edinburgh University. [3]

James Thin's bookshop in South Bridge James Thin in shop doorway.jpg
James Thin's bookshop in South Bridge

In 1853, Thin took a lease on two rooms above a neighbouring shop, at 54 South Bridge. The only access to these rooms was by a staircase from the street. Although the rooms were in the same corner block as the Infirmary Street premises, there was no communication between them apart from a speaking tube. Two years later Thin took over an adjacent shop at 55 South Bridge, at which point he gave up the rooms at 54. An opening was built into the back wall of 55 to give access to the Infirmary Street premises. [4]

Trade continued to improve and Thin was soon advertising the business as "the largest retail bookselling establishment in Edinburgh". [5] In 1854, he issued his first catalogue of second-hand books. [4] In 1864, the shop was extended into 15 Infirmary Street, a former tavern. [4] :6–7

Later years

Cover of James Thin's catalogue of second-hand books from 1858 James Thin catalogue 1858.jpg
Cover of James Thin's catalogue of second-hand books from 1858

James Thin worked in the business for most of the rest of his life. [3] He was the first of five generations of the Thin family to run the firm. Other prominent family members involved in the business included:

When Jimmy Thin joined the firm in 1949, the business occupied sprawling premises on several floors of the South Bridge / Infirmary Street block. Over the next few years, these separate units were consolidated into a single shop, using 55 South Bridge as its main address. This was to remain the flagship shop and head office for the rest of the firm's existence. [1]

During the second half of the 20th century, the business underwent rapid expansion. It opened new shops and bought existing shops throughout Scotland and England. By 1990, it had grown to a chain of 34 stores, stretching from Inverness to Portsmouth, with an annual turnover of £34 million. [7] In 1994, it purchased the Volume One chain in England for £4 million. [4] [9]

The firm also had interests in publishing. Between 1900 and 1962, it was joint owner (with James Grant, Booksellers) of Oliver and Boyd, a large Edinburgh-based publisher of school books, theological books and literary works. Thin's share of that business was sold in 1962 to pay death duties. In 1970, Jimmy and Ainslie Thin established the Mercat Press imprint, specialising in books with a Scottish interest. It later took over the titles of Aberdeen University Press when that company became insolvent. [4] By 2007, Mercat Press had over 200 titles in its list, these being predominantly works on architecture and heritage as well as guides books and general fiction, the latter category including the novels of crime writer Gillian Galbraith. [10]


James Thin Ltd was a pioneer in technology and automation. In the mid 1960s, it implemented a computerised stock control system which it claimed was the first of its kind for a UK bookshop. In the 1980s, Ainslie Thin developed a version of the system in dBASE III to run on personal computers within 26 of the shops. [1] [4] In 1998, the company started selling books on line, making it what at the time was described as "the biggest on-line bookseller in the world". [11] It was also the first bookseller to use the Whitaker TeleOrdering system [9]

Decline and administration

The former premises of James Thin, now Blackwell's Bookshop, South Bridge, Edinburgh. Former James Thin bookshop, South Bridge Edinburgh.jpg
The former premises of James Thin, now Blackwell's Bookshop, South Bridge, Edinburgh.

James Thin Ltd.'s annual turnover remained at about £35 million throughout the 1990s, but then declined rapidly. For the year to 31 January 2001, the firm reported a pre-tax loss of £116,000 on sales of £26.8 million. In January 2002, it went into voluntary administration, with debts of £5 million. [9] [12] Jackie Thin, the managing director, blamed the collapse on increased competition, falling turnover and the cost of closing loss-making shops. According to press comments, the rapid expansion into England and in particular the acquisition of Volume One were major factors in the chain's failure. [9] [13]

PricewaterhouseCoopers was appointed as administrator to run the chain and realise its assets. It immediately made 60 staff redundant at the head office and in 28 of the branches. It then announced that it expected to sell the entire business, having received ten approaches from prospective buyers. [9]

In March 2002, Ottakar's purchased eight of the company's general bookstores for £1.64 million, with no redundancies expected. These shops had a combined annual turnover of £10.1 million. [13] [14] Ottakar's was itself taken over by Waterstones in 2006. [15]

In April 2002, Blackwell UK announced the purchase of Thin's twelve academic bookshops for "in excess of" £2 million, with all of the 102 staff retaining their jobs. The purchase included branches at St Andrews University, the University of Edinburgh, Heriot-Watt University, and Napier University as well as the South Bridge shop and stores at six other sites. Between them, these branches had an annual turnover of £7 million. Blackwell's also announced a £1.5 million refurbishment for the South Bridge shop. [13] [16]

Thin's publishing arm, Mercat Press, continued to trade as an independent entity following a management buy-out. In 2007, it was taken over by Birlinn, which continues to use the Mercat imprint. [10]

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">James Thin (bookseller)</span>

James Thin was a Scottish bookseller and businessman. In 1848, after a five-year apprenticeship and a further seven years working as a bookshop assistant, he started his own bookselling business. He worked in the business for over 60 years and was succeeded by four generations of his family. By the end of the 20th century, the firm had grown into a national concern, with 35 shops in Scotland and England, but it went into voluntary administration in 2002 with debts of £5 million.


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  2. 1 2 3 Cant, Malcolm (2001). Marchmont, Sciennes and the Grange. Edinburgh: Malcolm Cant Publications. p. 126. ISBN   0952609959.
  3. 1 2 "The Late Mr James Thin". The Scotsman. Edinburgh. 12 April 1915. p. 6.
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 James Thin 150 Years of Bookselling 1848–1998. Edinburgh: Mercat Press. 1998. Retrieved 20 February 2023.
  5. Goring, Rosemary, ed. (1992). Scottish Biographical Dictionary. Edinburgh: Chambers. p. 431. ISBN   0550160434. (Citing the North British Advertiser)
  6. "The Late Mr James H. Thin". The Scotsman. Edinburgh. 9 September 1943. p. 3.
  7. 1 2 "James Thin". The Times. London. 9 June 1997. p. 23. Gale   IF0501222944 . Retrieved 25 January 2023.
  8. Andrew, Hugh (15 March 2023). "Obituaries: Ainslie Thin, bookseller who devoted his life to James Thin Ltd". The Scotsman. Edinburgh. Retrieved 2 May 2023.
  9. 1 2 3 4 5 Lewis, Richard (17 January 2002). "Jobs go in Thin's collapse". The Bookseller. London: The Stage Media Company Ltd. Retrieved 26 January 2023.
  10. 1 2 Lyons, William (1 July 2007). "Birlinn buys Mercat to become biggest publisher of Scottish interest books". Scotland on Sunday. Edinburgh. p. 1. Gale   A165896377 . Retrieved 25 January 2023.
  11. "James Thin on Net". Evening News. Edinburgh. 25 September 1998. p. 31. Gale   A83174250 . Retrieved 25 January 2023.
  12. Patten, Sally (25 March 2002). "James Thin set to be broken up". The Times. London. p. 46.
  13. 1 2 3 Beach, Andrew (19 April 2002). "Blackwell's closes book on James Thin". Evening News. Edinburgh. p. 1. Gale   A85038203 . Retrieved 25 January 2023.
  14. "Thin's branches bought by Ottakar's". The Bookseller. London: The Stage Media Company Ltd. 27 March 2002. Retrieved 16 February 2023.
  15. Seawright, Stephen (31 May 2006). "Ottakar's falls to Waterstone". The Daily Telegraph . London. Archived from the original on 11 March 2007. Retrieved 27 May 2010.
  16. "£2m tag on Thin books". Western Mail. Cardiff, Wales. 20 April 2002. p. 32.