Yesterday, I had to go into Dublin city for the day to attend to some business, but – of course – when I’m in the capital I always make time to visit a bookshop or two. This is partly because Dublin has some gorgeous bookshops, but also because, where I live, buying (or even seeing) books is tough. (Unless you’re standing in my living room, which is wallpapered with the things, but you know, I trust, what I mean). In my sleepy town we have one supermarket which has a small selection of new books, though it’s growing all the time – particularly its kidlit section, which is fantastic – but I have qualms about buying books from supermarkets. Call it once-a-bookseller-always-a-bookseller guilt about margins and profits, if you like, but that’s the reality.
Anyway. So. I’m in Dublin. I’m in the comfortable surroudings of one of my favourite bookshops, a place I’ve known and loved for well over fifteen years. I feel at peace. Blood pressure lowered, heart-rate calm, all that jazz. The scent of paper soothing my senses. The quiet buzz of bookish commerce making me feel right at home. The gut-wrenching reality of only having so much money, and a ‘to-buy’ list as long as my arm, and knowing I can only choose one book. One. So it has to be a good ‘un.
I love this stuff.
I eventually made my choice, and approached the register to pay for my purchases. (Yes. Purchases. So I bought two books. One wasn’t for me, though, so you can keep your collective wigs on, thanks very much). I happily queued behind a customer who was there with his small daughter, buying books and bookmarks and generally having a fine old time, and when I got to the till the bookseller – who is a lady I’ve often talked to before in this particular bookshop – appraised my choices.
‘Have they read the first book in this series?’ she asked me, holding up the book I’d bought for myself, which is indeed a sequel.
I smiled at her. ‘It’s for me,’ I said. ‘And yes, I have!’
And that started a long, fascinating and fabulous conversation about books, bookshops, writing, book groups, YA and children’s literature (and how good it is right now), King Arthur and how he pops up everywhere, books we’ve recently read which we loved, and ones we didn’t love so much, books which become incredibly successful (sometimes inexplicably), and ended in the bookseller giving me a personal recommendation for a book series she feels I’d love, and which she wants me to check out as soon as possible. I was glad to take her advice because she is, undeniably, a lady wot knows her onions when it comes to books. She’s the kind of bookseller who makes me glad that I, in my heart and soul, am also a bookseller, even though I ‘only’ worked in an academic bookshop where these sorts of conversations with customers weren’t a daily reality (but I treasured them when they did happen). She’s the sort of bookseller who makes shopping for books an absolute joy, and the sort of person with whom I love to be met when I want to make a bookish purchase. Expert in her field, knowledgeable about many genres of literature outside her own, excellent at spotting the sort of book a customer would like and finding just the right story to slot into their life, enthusiastic and happy to talk and full of the joy of reading, she has always made my trips to her shop hugely enjoyable. I don’t know her name, but that doesn’t even matter. We are of one type, she and I.
And she’s not an algorithm, recommending books based on previous internet searches. She’s not a machine which doesn’t understand it when you want a different edition, or a different cover, or when you have a detailed question, or when you simply want to talk about how amazing a book is. She’s a human being with a brain and a mighty aptitude for her field of expertise, a charming person who makes buying books even more pleasurable than it is already, who greets you and chats and makes you feel special and valued – and not just because she’s programmed to. Because she wants to, and she’s doing a job she loves, and she’s damn good at it. She’s one of the reasons why I hope bookshops are never allowed to wither and die, and why I hope, very sincerely, that there will always be enough people shopping for books offline to keep booksellers like this lady in work, encouraging readers and writers alike, championing books and making spot-on recommendations, and just making people’s lives brighter simply by existing. This recent article gave me hope for the future, and I hope the claims it makes are accurate.
I want to thank this bookseller, and all booksellers who love and cherish the work they do, and all bookshops. Just – thanks. For being yourselves. You’ll always have a friend in me.