Topping & Company Booksellers

Edinburgh | Conversion of substantial Georgian premises

Establishing a new use for a vacant property in the heart of Edinburgh

Designed by W.H. Playfair in 1821, and an important element of his Calton Scheme for the Eastern New Town, this property had lay dormant for too long. Originally designed for residential use, and most recently housing a bank, we were delighted when Topping & Company Booksellers approached us regarding the conversion of the property.

Having previously worked with the client on the creation of their successful St Andrews bookshop we knew exactly the type of atmosphere they like to nurture. Visiting the property it was clear that there was the potential to create a very special place for the booklovers of Edinburgh.

At a Glance | Our Role
  • Survey of Existing Building
  • Architectural Drawings & Signage Design
  • Obtaining Planning Permission & Listed Building Consent
  • Obtaining Building Warrant
  • Liaising with relevant consultants
  • Inspecting works on site
A view of a curved bookcase at Topping and Company, Edinburgh. Shelves filled with Art monographs. At the end of the shelf a curved door with a window behind, looking out onto the street.

Revitalising a Playfair Classic within Edinburgh World Heritage Site

Positioned just below Calton Hill, 2 Blenheim Place is an impressive, curved tenement block designed by the renowned architect William Henry Playfair.

It plays an important part on the eastern fringes of the world heritage site, with a two storey Ionic portico to the east and a quadrant colonnade facing onto Leith Walk.

The architectural importance of the property would therefore necessitate a sensitive approach to its conversion.

Daytime view across the roundabout at London Road and Elm Row, towards Blenheim Place. The William Playfair designed 4 storey sandstone building has columns around the curved frontage. The ground and first floors house Toppings and Co, booksellers
Architectural drawing by William Playfair of the four storey building at Blenheim Place.

Bank to Bookshop

Its time spent as a bank had seen the property become cluttered with commercial paraphernalia, air conditioning units, plastic trunking, suspended ceilings, meeting booths etc. This all detracted from the architectural splendour of the beautifully proportioned rooms.

Interior images of the listed georgian building after Royal Bank of Scotland had moved out. The spaces are in need of substantial work.
Rounded room at 2 Blenheim Place Edinburgh, prior to renovations by Topping and Co Booksellers.

Our aim was to strip away this mess and allow the rooms to be read as intended. This however had to be addressed while inserting as many bookcases as possible for our client.

This was done by carefully crafting the bookcases around existing skirtings and sticking as close to the symmetry of the rooms as possible.

Inside the first floor of Topping and Company booksellers, Edinburgh. A round room with windows side-by side and doors at either side. Shelves, a counter and a table, which is stacked with art books. Stools and tables are sited by the window.

A particular triumph is the oval room on the first floor where the art section is housed in beautifully curved bookcases.

A view of a curved bookcase at Topping and Company, Edinburgh. Shelves filled with Art monographs. At the end of the shelf a curved door with a window behind, looking out onto the street.
The round room at Topping and Company, booksellers, Edinburgh.

Retrofitting for accessibility

One of the most substantial interventions undertaken during the project was the insertion of a lift. Firstly, a suitable location had to be decided in order not to ruin any of the main rooms and secondly it needed to work for the circulation of customers around the shop.

Fortunately, an area to the rear of the property had been significantly altered during its time as a bank, but unfortunately this is where the bank vault was also located.

This led to some intricate structural design and hefty construction work as the contractor broke through and removed sections of the reinforced concrete safe. It was however all worthwhile and the first floor is now accessible to all for the first time.

Newly installed lift in the listed, georgian building now occupied by Topping  and Company Booksellers.
Evening view across London Road towards the William Playfair designed building which houses Topping and Co booksellers on two floors. Light spills from the windows.

Kerb Appeal

We were confident that our plans to turn the vacant property into a bookshop would be well received by the local authority, but we were still keen to make sure that the redevelopment made a positive contribution to the local streetscape.

At ground floor level the building had previously been split into two with the neighbouring property housing offices. The external walls of the offices had been painted in a dark grey with the project site a mix of light grey to the north and granite cladding to the quadrant facing Leith Walk. Our clients quite rightly wanted the external façade to attract as much attention as possible to passers-by. Through a series of photomontages, we were able to convince them that the use of traditional signage would be enough and that the light grey areas to the north would be better if they closely matched the neighbouring property.

This allowed the building to be read as a whole once more, albeit the first floor band course was picked out in the bookshop colours.

Part of the facade at Topping and Co Booksellers, Edinburgh. Georgian sandstone building with arched windows. 'Blenheim Place' is carved into the stone and picked out in gold


The area surrounding the bookshop has a plethora of plastic signage adorning mainly historic buildings. It was our intention to provide an example of good practice by putting back a traditional hand-painted sign. We wished to pick out the carved street name on the first floor band course which left little room for the shop name in this location.

Therefore, in order to address potential customers walking up London Road, we decided to design some hanging signs, the brackets for which were selected to imitate the railings at the front door of the shop. The result is a façade that looks like it has always been there.

Painted signage in blue and cream at Topping and Co Booksellers, Edinburgh. Traditionally handpainted with a swing sign.
Library ladders to reach high shelves in the Topping and Company bookshop, in Edinburgh's Georgian New Town. A doorway with a fan light leads through to further booklined rooms, and a member of staff climbs a ladder.

A Place to Browse

Having enticed customers to enter the shop with the lure of books visible through the windows, it was important to create the right atmosphere to keep them there. Toppings do a great job of that themselves with their great enthusiasm for books and their offer of free tea or coffee. The use of oak on the bookshelves and the re-clad stair helps to create a sense of warmth especially on a cold Edinburgh evening.

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On the ground floor of the bookshop, tall shelves and tables are full of books.

The warren of books designed to allow you to find a cosy nook to sample a chapter or always feel there is one more shelf to browse. If comments on social media are anything to go on then Toppings is a very welcome addition to the UNESCO’s first City of Literature.

Period style wooden bookshelves in a listed, Georgian interior in Edinburgh's New Town

Project credits & thanks

Photography credits

  • Angus Bremner
  • Harry Taylor & Co (on site / work-in-progress photography)

Filed in:

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