Tag Archives: bookstores

In Praise of Booksellers

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.

Photo Credit: Ric e Ette via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Ric e Ette via Compfight cc

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.

My Favourite Bookshops*

So, right. I have to preface this by saying that I haven’t been to very many places, and that – naturally enough – this means a post such as this one may be very Ireland-focused. However, judging by my readership stats (hello, everyone!) most of you aren’t actually from Ireland, so perhaps you’ll find it interesting nonetheless. I also have to say that I’ve visited thousands of bookshops in my life so far, with the hope I’ll be visiting many more, and so chances are I’ve forgotten a few gems – I hope I’ll be forgiven for that.

Now. Let’s begin in Paris, shall we? It seems like the best place to begin most things.

In 2010, my now-husband and I took a trip to Paris. It was memorable for many reasons, including fabulous weather, train trips to the largest medieval keep in Europe (which was awesome), the accidental stumbling-upon of La Musée de Moyen Age, which made my life complete and – most definitely – the proliferation of English-language bookshops to be found. Paris is a great place to be if you’re a reader; in France, they cherish their bookshops and their reading culture, and it’s wonderful to see the open-air bookstalls in the streets and the sheer enthusiasm for print that’s going on. Now, of course, 2010 is an eternity ago in e-reader terms, so maybe things have changed – but I hope not.

Naturally, we went to Shakespeare & Company. It was mind-blowing, and so has to be top of my list of favourite bookshops.

Image: en.wikipedia.org

Image: en.wikipedia.org

It’s a bookshop which, to me, describes what I hope Heaven looks like. Warrens of corridors, tiny nooks, unexpected rooms, clusters of scholars doing whispery things in corners, typewriters set out in case you feel like doing a bit of creating, shelves jumbled with books, more books piled on the floor, an assortment of shop animals lying about, lovely laid-back staff, and a fascinating, eclectic selection of stock. Even thinking about it makes me weep, a little, that I don’t live there in Paris. I bought a hardback copy of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit here, and I treasure it.

We also took a trip into the posh end of the city to visit the stupendous Galignani. This bookshop, the oldest English-language bookshop on the continent, was equally as mind-boggling as Shakespeare & Co., but for entirely different reasons. Where Shakespeare & Co. was like a warm, fuzzy jumble, the sort of bookshop you’d imagine Gandalf owning, Galignani is clean, with sharp lines and immaculate shelves and utter, complete order, and it’s almost too much for a book-lover’s mind to take. There is so much to see. It goes on, and on, and on, and it’s so beautiful you’re almost afraid to touch anything – but then you get over that, and you get stuck in. I bought a copy of Le Petit Prince here, and I’m delighted with it. Galignani stocks English language books, but also French language – and I’m pretty sure they could get you anything you wanted, if you ask them nicely.

I’ve heard a dreadful rumour that The Red Wheelbarrow, the lovely bookshop in the Marais district, has closed since we were in Paris, but I hope it’s a vicious lie. Their website appears a little out of date, which may be a bad sign, but that makes it all the more important to memorialise it here. I bought a copy of Sarah’s Key, by Tatiana de Rosnay, in this bookshop and I was served by a lovely, knowledgeable, kind and enthusiastic young bookseller who was eager to ensure I got a book which enriched my time in Paris – and she was on the money with her recommendation. The shop was small, and jumbled, and homely, and its upstairs hid its children’s books (so, naturally, I made a beeline for them), and I spent many happy hours browsing there. If it has closed, I’m extremely sorry to hear it.

Next, we’ll go to Dubrovnik for a short spell.

Photo Credit: JonathanCohen via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: JonathanCohen via Compfight cc

In 2008, some friends and I went to Dubrovnik for a magical week. It was one of the best holidays I’ve ever had, mainly because the walled city of Dubrovnik is among the most spectacular things I’ve ever seen. One day when my friends preferred to sunbathe on the pebbled beach, I took a walk from our hotel down to the city, and spent hours alone simply wandering the streets. It’s impossible to get lost, because the walls mark the boundary of the street-grid, so once you’re within them you know you’re safe enough. On the main street (pictured above), I came upon Algebra, a treasure trove of books and art and knick-knacks, and I never wanted to leave. It’s a place where you’d likely find a Venetian-style mask nestling up against the books, or a piece of beautiful glassware being used as a bookend – and it’s definitely not for people who like their bookshops to have everything in order. It’s a jumble, and I loved it. I don’t think I bought anything, though, because it was near the end of the holiday. Sorry, folks.

I also visited several bookshops on the island of Malta while I was there on honeymoon, and while it was fantastic to have English-language books to browse, there’s really only one bookshop chain, called Agenda, which is no different to any other bookshop chain in the world. At least, we didn’t find any hidden gems, but if anyone wants to correct me I’m more than happy to go back to that beautiful island and explore…

And then, there’s Ireland.

Photo Credit: Neal. via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Neal. via Compfight cc

Ireland, particularly its cities, is full of bookshops. Like everywhere, they’re struggling against the internet, but they’re holding on, and there are some real beauties to be found.

In Dublin, there’s The Gutter Bookshop in Temple Bar, which is probably my favourite in the city because it’s small, it’s independent, and it has a charming children’s section. As well as that its proprietor is the hardest-working bookseller I know, a tireless champion of books, independent bookselling, and literary events. If you’re in the city, do pop in. Luckily it’s near a fabulous cake shop, the Queen of Tarts, so you can take your bookish purchases over there and have a relaxing cuppa while you read. What could be better?

There’s also Chapters, in Parnell Street, which is massive – its downstairs is all new books, and its upstairs is all second-hand. You’ll find gems there if you dig, believe me! It has great staff, it’s well laid out, and it’s well worth a visit.

Near Trinity College you’ll find Books Upstairs, in existence for over thirty years. Cramped and charming and nookish, this is a treasure-trove, too. I love it.

Facing the lovely Liffey, there’s The Winding Stair, which has a fabulous children’s section and is one of the prettiest bookshops I know of. It also houses a fantastic restaurant and is the only place I’ve ever been where you can have wine in one hand and a book in the other and for it not to be a book launch. Bottoms up!

In Waterford, there’s The Book Centre, which is fabulously, gloriously big and celebratory and shiny and beautiful. I haven’t been back for years but I really want to make the trip. I first encountered this shop when I was about ten, and it has remained in my mind as the ‘ideal’ ever since.

In Galway, there are loads of bookshops, but Charlie Byrne’s stands out. I have only been to Galway once, as a child, but I know I was in Charlie Byrne’s and a copy of Hounds of the Morrigan was bought for me there. The book is magic, but the place it was bought is equally magic, and the two have blended into one in my mind. I’d love to go back.

And then there’s Zozimus Bookshop. In a town very close to my heart, on a street I love dearly, this bookshop is a balm to my heart. It’s a second-hand shop, but I’ve come upon so many treasures there that I can’t name them all, and I’ve gone on to support authors whose works I’ve spotted in Zozzy’s by buying some of their books new in other shops. Its owner is a fount of knowledge and a genial man, and among its shelves is where I feel most at home.

This is only a smattering of my favourite bookshops, really. Everywhere I go, the first thing I look for is a bookshop, and so everywhere I’ve been I’ve encountered bookselling nooks which I’ve loved. I hope you’ve enjoyed this whistlestop tour, all the same, and if there are any shops you’d like to mention, have at it in the comments!




*Or bookstores, if you prefer.