Business Small Business

Sunday 18 February 2018

New chapter for book lovers who became booksellers

Dawn Behan and Aidan Cunnane turned their dream into a busy reality by leaving IT careers to open independent store Woodbine Books

Aidan Cunnane and Dawn Behan of Woodbine Books in Kilcullen, Co Kildare, have it covered for book fans in the surrounding area
Aidan Cunnane and Dawn Behan of Woodbine Books in Kilcullen, Co Kildare, have it covered for book fans in the surrounding area
Joanna Kiernan

Joanna Kiernan

Dawn Behan and her partner Aidan Cunnane, who opened Woodbine Books in a small Kildare town at the end of September, are living the dream.

Following years of planning, their independent book store in Kilcullen, Co Kildare has quickly become a popular spot for book lovers from across the country.

"Kilcullen is a great town because people come from all over to a number of other businesses that are based here like Nolan's Butchers, which is just up the road and Berney's Saddlery and Peacocks shoes," Dawn said. "So people come in to those businesses from near and far away and they have been noticing us and the word of mouth has really travelled fast."

Aidan added: "We weren't sure what would happen at first, but people have come from much further afield than we ever thought they would."

Up until recently the couple, who live in nearby village Calverstown, Co Kildare, were commuting to Dublin every day for work.

"The two of us worked in IT, but the company that I worked for started to make people redundant a couple of years ago. That is when I started to think about what I would do if they made me redundant. There had been lot of rounds of redundancies at that point and they had never rehired anyone so I knew what was coming," Dawn said.

"I thought about getting another job in IT, but I was driving up to Dublin every day and it was a pretty long commute, so I wondered if there could be something else and one of the things I have always wanted to do was to own my own bookshop."

The instability, after 17 years with the same company, inspired Dawn to pursue her dream.

"I did a booksellers' course in the UK because I had zero experience, I hadn't worked in a bookshop or anything before, "Dawn said. "Then I followed that with a 'Start Your Own Business Course' to make sure that it would actually work."

Once Dawn had her business plan set, it was time to find the perfect premises.

"It took a good while to find the premises," Dawn said. "It needed to be big enough for what we wanted to do and we were very keen from the very beginning that it would be in Kilcullen as it is such a nice, vibrant town with a very strong community and it is close to the M9 motorway too."

In total Aidan and Dawn spent two years planning Woodbine Books, with much if the final six months of this spent looking for the ideal location for their store.

"When I was eventually made redundant I got a lump sum, so I used that to fund the store because I decided that it was money that I wouldn't have had otherwise and I would take a chance with it," Dawn said. "It was great not having to go to the bank because realistically if you went to the bank and said you wanted to open a bookshop, they would probably tell you that it wouldn't make money, whereas doing it by ourselves allowed us to do it the way we wanted to do it and it has worked out very well so far."

While there has been some hand-wringing about the future of books in recent years, Dawn and Aidan have found trade to be brisk and customers interested in getting to know their local booksellers.

"We're hoping in the New Year to serve coffee and cakes and that kind of thing, a lot of bookshops abroad would do that," Aidan said. "It helps with the bottom line I suppose, but people also like the concept of sitting back and relaxing and having a space where they can be away from the hustle and bustle for a while and take some time out; that is what we have created here."

A huge part of Woodbine Books' appeal is the fact that it is something of a rarity, a new, independent book store with genuine recommendations and knowledge on hand, that does not just stock the top 10 bestsellers.

"What has been really interesting for us is the fact that people love to tell us what they like and our stock has evolved from that customer feedback," Dawn said. "We are learning as we go along and our customers are a big part of that."

But what of the David and Goliath proportioned battle they face in terms of big name industry competitors, in both the online and physical sense?

"It is almost impossible to compete head on with the online retailers because some of them are selling books for less than we can buy them, but we have some big advantages too," Aidan said. "One huge benefit is that Dawn can provide advice and support. It depends what people are looking for and even if we don't have a book, we will most likely be able to get it faster that they will be able to get it from say Amazon for example, so we are probably a bit more dependable in that sense and people like to support local bookshops," Aidan said.

"We have many people who come in and they tell us that they prefer to buy from us than these bigger retailers because I think towns need more than a place to buy milk or pubs and bookies. It is tempting if you are going for volume to pile them high and sell them cheap and just have the books that you know will sell; Tesco do that and Easons to a certain extent, but if we did it we couldn't compete."

Aidan and Dawn decided early on to stock an eclectic and broad mix of books as well as some specialist and local interest titles.

"We have local history books, which are really popular and you can't get them anywhere and we have a lot of kids books, which are really big because people love to read to their kids and they love to bring them in here to buy their books and have the time and space to choose them," Dawn said.

"That experience is really special," Aidan added. "And often then the child will pay for the book themselves at the counter and they are always very serious about it and delighted with themselves when you hand them their change and their little bag."

According to Aidan, Dawn has always been a "compulsive book collector" and is very much the driving force behind Woodbine Books. Aidan, who took a year's leave of absence from his job in an insurance company in Dublin to help get the business off the ground, is happy to support Dawn's passion.

"I am very much in a supportive, secondary role, Dawn knows more about what writers would correspond with other writers, for example who else you might like if you like to read Donna Tart and that kind of thing and that is hugely important for customers," Aidan said. "This is something that Dawn has always talked about; every time we went on holidays we ended up looking at bookshops and getting ideas for what we would like to do. So it wasn't just something that came completely out of the blue; the house is full of books too."

So where did the name Woodbine Books come from?

"I wanted a name that didn't tie you to one place and my granny used to grow woodbine in her garden," Dawn said. "It had a lovely smell, I wanted to create that lovely, cosy sort of welcoming atmosphere."

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