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David Roche, the bullish Irish and UK boss of Borders book superstores, is so upbeat that he is looking for new sites to open more branches around the country

David Roche, the bullish Irish and UK boss of Borders book superstores, is so upbeat that he is looking for new sites to open more branches around the country

David Roche, the bullish Irish and UK boss of Borders book superstores, is so upbeat that he is looking for new sites to open more branches around the country

Reading some of the recent commentary about Ireland's bookshops, it's hard not to be overcome with a sense of terrible sadness.

Local book stores, the very cornerstone of some small towns, are being forced into submission, we're told, as a deluge of book superstores (a la Borders), book selling supermarkets (a la Tesco) and book selling websites (a la Amazon) invade our isle.

The inevitable consequence of this onward march toward big business, the more alarmist commentators warn, is the demise of the local bookshop so that Ireland's book-selling scene becomes an impersonal discounting fiasco, populated only by books with mass market appeal.

Given the heavy clouds hanging over the industry, it comes as a surprise when John Butler, chairman of Ireland's booksellers group, says independent traders are "happy with business this year".

Butler's optimism, incongruous it may seem against a doom-and-gloom background, is founded on hard data from Nielsen BookScan.

Those figures show that between 2004 and 2006, the value of the Irish bookselling market has grown from €104m to €131m, while the volume of books sold has jumped from 8.2m to 10.4m. More recently, in the last four weeks €14.7m worth of books has been sold in Ireland, up 8pc on sales for the same four weeks last year.

As Michael McLoughlin, head of Penguin Ireland puts it: "The value has grown from €116m to €131m in 2006 alone. Whatever way you look at it that's definitely growth."

Butler acknowledges that the decline we've heard so much about is already underway across the Irish Sea and may soon begin closer to home.

After all, the population is becoming more online savvy by the day, so the threat of the internet can't be ignored.

Then there's superstore Borders, which set up shop in Blanchardstown last year. Borders' UK and Irish boss David Roche says his store will turn a profit in the first year having cornered a 3pc market share. That's market share which has to come from somewhere and it will leave more traditional retailers more than a little afraid.

The third threat comes from the supermarkets, most notably Tesco, who have recently embraced discount book selling with such vigour.

Sources say that Tesco's book card has largely been played, with the retailer likely to confine itself to its current collection and unlikely to prioritise a more aggressive books rollout, but the cut-price retailer certainly has an impact on margins for best-selling books, as demonstrated during recent Harry Potter releases.

Even in the face of all this, Butler insists the increased competition does not mean the end of the line for his 200 or so bookseller members.

"It's true that independent book sellers have to improve their own game to survive, but inefficient retailers won't survive very long in any game," Butler says. "If sellers are willing to compete and be customer orientated then there will always be a market in Ireland."

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Tom Owens, books director of book giant Easons, is similarly bullish about the outlook.

Easons has a unique role in the Irish books industry, acting as one of Ireland's largest books retailers, Ireland's largest book wholesaler and a franchiser of book stores.

Accounts recently filed for Easons showed a €5.5m fall in profits, to €8.1m, for 2006. But Owens stresses that the fall-off in profitability came from Eason's UK business and distribution, while Irish retail remained profitable.

"So far 2007 has been a very good year as far as book retailing is concerned," he adds. "Our fingers are crossed as we go into the big one, Christmas, where we'll make 40pc of our book sales. But it's been very good so far."

Owens says Easons, through its role of wholesaler, has seen Ireland's contingent of independent booksellers increase three-fold in the last decade, in contrast with events in the UK.

Easons is pursuing a similarly aggressive expansion strategy on its retail side, with plans to open three new stores -- bringing total numbers to 63 -- before the end of the year. And the company also plans to beef up its web presence to fight the likes of Amazon for online sales.

On future prospects, Owens says people "can't be complacent", but he adds there is still "a lot of room for growth".

Borders, the group responsible for bringing the book superstore to Irish shores, is also remarkably upbeat about their Irish operations.

When Borders UK and Ireland changed hands in September, the company's US parent had just reported a fourth quarter loss of $73.6m, down from a $119.1m profit for the same period in 2006.

But David Roche stresses that the Irish store turned a profit in its first year and would make "a considerable amount of money" in year two.

"Ireland's growing faster than the UK. It's a terrific market and we're keen to expand here," says Roche, adding that he is actively seeking new Irish sites.

So, the good news is, it looks like tales of Ireland's booksellers' sad demise can be filed in the fiction aisle for a little while to come.


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