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A new chapter: the independent book stores taking on Amazon

The rise of Amazon and e-readers seemed to herald the final chapter for bookshops but print book sales are on the up and independent sellers thriving. They tell Maggie Armstrong why they'll never be replaced by an algorithm

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Meave Ryan, the CEO of The Book Centre Waterford

Meave Ryan, the CEO of The Book Centre Waterford

Des O'Halloran

Des O'Halloran

Charlie Byrne's Bookshop

Charlie Byrne's Bookshop

Harbour Lights Bookshop

Harbour Lights Bookshop

Janet Hawkins, owner of the Blessington Bookstore in Bessington Co.Wicklow. Photograph Moya Nolan

Janet Hawkins, owner of the Blessington Bookstore in Bessington Co.Wicklow. Photograph Moya Nolan

Joan Lucey, Vibes and Scribes, Co. Cork

Joan Lucey, Vibes and Scribes, Co. Cork

Louisa Earls and Mary McAuley pictured at Books Upstairs. Photo: Frank McGrath

Louisa Earls and Mary McAuley pictured at Books Upstairs. Photo: Frank McGrath

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Meave Ryan, the CEO of The Book Centre Waterford

Real books are on the rebound. Not just books, bookshops, as independent booksellers fight back following decades of decline. Figures released this month from the Booksellers Association covering the UK and Ireland show that independently owned bookshops grew in 2019 for a third consecutive year.

And all that talk of print being dead? Print book sales grew again in Ireland in 2019 for the fifth consecutive year, with 12.2m books bought (the highest sales since 2011) and €147.4m spent (the highest since 2010), according to the Nielson BookScan Irish Consumer Market 2019 Summary.

Meanwhile, the growth of e-books has plateaued at around 20pc of the market. The picture is much improved since 2010 to 2015, when Kindles were everyone's shiny new toy and the bookselling business in Ireland was hurtling into trouble.

How this happened is in part because bookshops learned to diversify during the twin challenges of the recession and the rise in online sales giants (notably Amazon, the world's largest online retailer owned by the richest man on the planet, Jeff Bezos). Small local shops undaunted by mega chains and the lure of two-click sales are continuing to open shops, and last year saw the opening of Banner Books in Clare and Halfway up the Stairs in Wicklow.

So people do still want to pick up books and talk to human booksellers. Good news for the survival of communities, but the low price and convenience of both buying and reading on screens won't be beaten so easily.

The only way ahead is surely a balance. Keep ordering up those lovely padded envelopes that fall through your letterbox, keep the Kindle for holidays and Audible to get you through the washing up. But don't forget the thrill of a bookshop, thumbing through real books, talking to a human instead of auto-filling an online form.

Because if we neglect bookshops, we might lose them, several booksellers told Weekend. And they did not pull their punches when it came to Amazon. Here we profile a tiny but tenacious selection who are running the best bookshops in Ireland.


HARBOUR LIGHTS BOOKSHOP, INISHBOFIN

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Harbour Lights Bookshop

Harbour Lights Bookshop

Harbour Lights Bookshop

What do you do when you move home to Inishbofin after 20 years working in bookshops, from Books Upstairs to Kenny’s? You find a wholesaler and open your own.

“I’m trying to make a living from doing what I like,” says Des O’Halloran (pictured below, shop below left). He came back to the island he grew up on to care for his elderly aunt. She died, and De sstayed and renovated the farm shop built by his grandfather in the 1930s. The result is a boutique bookshop shining with new book covers and a second-hand fiction section. There is a loft above the shop filled with books where as a youngster he used to play and read.

There was no bookshop on the island though there were good restaurants and craft shops, and a local population as well as holiday homes and visiting yachts.

“The island gets very busy for six intense months,” he says.

Des opened last June and sold his first book, fittingly enough a copy of The Islandman by Tomas O’Crohan, and from there sold a steady stream of fiction bestsellers. The island is 60 miles from Galway and quiet in the winter so the shop opens its doors in the warmer months and will start its second season this March. There are big challenges to running a shop single-handedly on this quiet outpost of Connemara.

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Des O'Halloran

Des O'Halloran

Des O'Halloran

“People might say isn’t it a bit remote to have a bookshop? It is demanding physical work and the hours are long, and you live modestly. There’s a period in the evening that I find really long, from 4-7.”

But when a new box arrives off the ferry, he can’t wait to see what’s inside. “You learn so much about people’s interests over time you can almost guess the books people will choose when you build up a rapport. You develop an intuitive sense.”


THE BOOK CENTRE, WATERFORD

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Meave Ryan, the CEO of The Book Centre Waterford

Meave Ryan, the CEO of The Book Centre Waterford

Meave Ryan, the CEO of The Book Centre Waterford

The Book Centre in Waterford opened its doors in 1973 following the advice of Maeve Ryan’s mother to her father, who already ran an interior decorations store. “She said there’s no decent bookshop in Waterford, you have to open one. My father did what he was told.”

Within the next five years they had moved to a larger premises on John Robert’s Square, and today they have stores in Waterford, Wexford, Kilkenny and Naas.

“Our ambition is to be the last bookshop standing in the town we live in,” says Ryan (pictured above, who is managing director. They are particular about the locations they have picked. “We don’t want to be in a shopping centre or down a side street, we want to be in the hub of the community.”

Not every shop has worked out — over the years they opened two around the country which closed — though in December they finished an extension to their Kilkenny shop.

“In 2008 when we saw the downturn coming we had to look at every facet of our business. We had to up our game.”

A coffee shop in each store, a loyalty card and an online schoolbooks trade have kept them in business. They also offer things that don’t earn big money but customers appreciate and enjoy, such as a magazine subscription service for older people who can’t get to the shop, handwritten staff recommendations, and a ‘Book Professor’ or personal shopper, who helps young readers find the best reads over hot chocolate.

They sell new books, though their sister shop, Barker & Jones in Naas, has a new out-of-print section. “Books that are very old and unusual and different, some have little inscriptions.”

Their main area of growth is children’s books, while, as a parent of four children, Ryan knew the permanent need for schoolbooks, which sell rapidly online each year for the Book Centre.

Ryan is very clear that she doesn’t simply want people to come in and buy. “It’s important people feel comfortable coming into us to have a look around, that the shop is a safe haven.”

It might not surprise you that a bricks-and-mortar bookseller doesn’t see any reason to support Amazon, though her reasons are the treatment of their staff, reported in recent articles in The Guardian and elsewhere.

“They are on very low wages, they work long difficult days, don’t have benefits, so no, we don’t have much time for Amazon.”

Online retail giants in competition with smaller shops are contributing to the death of the local economy, she believes, making the point The Book Centre sponsors local clubs and schools, unlike the big retailers.

“If you don’t support smaller shops, the local economy will die. People are craving that social aspect of bookshops and people love the smell and the touch of a physical book”.

‘You learn so much about people’s interests over time you can almost guess the books people will choose’


BOOKMART, SLIGO

Opened in 2001, this jewel of the northwest houses about 10,000 second-hand books of all genres and subjects, and recently branched into records (second-hand and first-hand local labels). Kevin Barry, Deirdre O’Sullivan and Sligo band Gulpt have all performed at the poetry night on the first Thursday of every month.

Co-owners Adam Rooke (pictured left) and Donal Adams are community-driven and ethically motivated. Every few weeks they take it in turns to leave Sligo on a train with two empty wheelie suitcases which they fill with books from stores like Trinity Books in Carrick and Belle Book and Candle in Galway. “We both try and use public transport as much as we can,” says Rooke who is a cheerful evangelist for all things second-hand. “It’s more important now than it ever has been to reuse and recycle things. Rather than everything new being shipped across the world — it’s so wasteful!”

Rooke started working at Bookmart in 2009, and his favourite part of the job is when someone asks him to recommend something. “People don’t go into second-hand bookselling for profit. It's a lifestyle and a passion for me. Even if you make no money, if you love what you’re doing that’s all that matters. More than maximising profits is to feel like you’re contributing to the community, that’s what I think about more than expansion.”

“Amazon is as much a bookstore as Instagram is an art gallery,” he opines. “There’s no culture of a bookstore. The thing that really concerns me with Amazon is the way it’s taking away a lot of the culture of reading. Of browsing, interacting with a person who has been there and lived books their entire life. An algorithm can only offer a sophisticated guess as to what a customer wants.”

What does he look out for when buying books for resale?

“It’s the strange and the unusual that I tend to look for first of all.” He likes discovering lost classics (The Green Child by Herbert Read is his current favourite) and says “it’s very hard to resist a beautiful cover. Penguins from the 1960s, old Ladybirds, Vintage American covers”.

He loves the quiet of bookshops and the element of surprise.

“That feeling of finding the one gem on a dusty shelf in the back of the place. The thing you’ve never even heard about or knew you wanted.”


BOOKS UPSTAIRS, DUBLIN

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Louisa Earls and Mary McAuley pictured at Books Upstairs. Photo: Frank McGrath

Louisa Earls and Mary McAuley pictured at Books Upstairs. Photo: Frank McGrath

Louisa Earls and Mary McAuley pictured at Books Upstairs. Photo: Frank McGrath

Even A-lister Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop has a thing for Books Upstairs, stating: “Owner Maurice Earls is not catering to the masses with bestsellers, instead, his edit is for the kind of reader who wants to delve into something memorable”.

Open since 1978, Books Upstairs is now Dublin’s oldest independent bookshop having survived four moves, finally pitching up at its current spot on D’Olier Street. Louisa Earls now runs the shop with Mary McAuley (both pictured above) and Louisa’s father Maurice. “We are always biting off more than we can chew and trying to develop new ideas and projects,” says the bookseller.

“I’m very much invested emotionally in Books Upstairs. It’s not just a job to any of us.” Staff tend to stick around, says Louisa, mentioning Ruth Webster who is behind much of their poetry selection and has been with them 40 years.

Books Upstairs has always pioneered smallscale productions and equality in its selection of magazines and zines. From early on it was a place you could pick up a copy of Gay Community News and today it’s one of the few places short-story lovers can find journals like The Stinging Fly and The Tangerine.

“While it’s not a huge part of how we make a living, we feel like it’s a huge part of how we support the literary community,” says Louisa, adding that it’s no harm when people come to buy a journal and end up buying a book, too. “It’s an ecosystem.”

The same goes for poetry, a form with the added bonus of being “resilient” to new technology. “Poetry is particularly unsuited to any kind of Kindle type experience. Kindle will mess up the formatting and with poetry it’s very important it be typeset in the way it was intended.”

Louisa recalls a “scaremongering” around 2008 when the recession hit and technology started to threaten physical books. “There was lots of good reason to be worried. How could the bookshop survive?”

They moved to D’Olier Street with a bold plan to diversify.

The shop now does good coffee in the light-filled room upstairs and is a venue for weekly free Sunday Sessions with poetry and music. A creative-writing coaching clinic happens once a month and the shop has just launched a used book section upstairs in a labyrinthine room full of art.

“We want to be more than just a place where transactions take place. We aspire to make a contribution to the life of the city, a place where people can meet and their minds could be opened. A lot of people want more than a faceless nameless chain experience.

“When people come here they’re getting an opportunity to engage, pick something up, hold it in their hands before they buy it. Rather than choosing something based on a bit of product information on the website.

I don’t think there’s any substitute for human interaction, or a curated selection that’s been chosen by a human compared to an algorithm.

We can’t compete with a warehouse of never- ending books, we have a limited amount of books but we do choose those books very carefully.”

Louisa sees a future where people continue to read and buy books online while still visiting their local bookshop — she learned this when “superfans” of Atwood came into to buy The Testaments which they had already devoured on their Kindles.


THE BLESSINGTON BOOKSTORE, WICKLOW

Janet Hawkins (pictured below) compares buying a book online to eating in McDonalds.

“You know what you’re getting, it’s standardised and prepackaged. Going into a bookstore is more like eating in Chapter One. You order something recommended and described to you, something you never would have thought of trying.”

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Janet Hawkins, owner of the Blessington Bookstore in Bessington Co.Wicklow. Photograph Moya Nolan

Janet Hawkins, owner of the Blessington Bookstore in Bessington Co.Wicklow. Photograph Moya Nolan

Janet Hawkins, owner of the Blessington Bookstore in Bessington Co.Wicklow. Photograph Moya Nolan

The owner of the Blessington Bookstore believes we’re coming into a “post-online phase”.

“We’ve reached a saturation point in society on faceless interactions and focus on price rather than value. Come into a bookshop and have a chat with the team and your whole emotional and mental attitude towards that book is going to be completely different when you sit down to read it.”

Hawkins is so passionate about books that her children used to tug at her arm every time they came near a bookshop to keep her out of it. Out socialising, she finds herself scribbling names of books on the backs of beermats. “I like hearing what people like to read.”

An accountant by profession, with a degree in English and Philosophy, in 2005 she used a pension fund to rent a small premises in her hometown.

“At the time a lot of traditional booksellers were struggling and finding means to diversify,” she recalls.

In the precarious days of 2009 they took a risk and moved to a bigger premises and opened a coffee shop which thrives today.

“Bookshops enhance communities, they are unlike any other retail outlet,” she believes.

“The online competition is externally very tough, when the larger retail businesses have so much advertising and such a high marketing budget.

“The areas that are less prone to online sales are non-fiction and children’s books. Buying a book for a five-year-old you want them to be able to pick it up and see the colours and touch the pages.” In 2019 they were shortlisted children’s bookseller of the year.

Schoolbooks are another, and Hawkins has come up with a clever rebate scheme for the buying of schoolbooks online.

The shop also runs a local young readers panel. “We get children 8 and 9 to read a book and write a review which is displayed. We always tell parents, leave in the grammatical errors!”

There’s a lot of things you can buy in a bookshop and still buy your fiction online if you want to save a few euro, Hawkins believes.

She loves best the moment when a customer comes in and says, ‘I loved that book you recommended’.

It gives her joy to finding a book for the daughter whose father is battling with depression, as it does for a man with dyslexia who says he didn’t like to read but he loves motor racing.

“Books are about sharing stories and finding other pieces of the puzzle of life and putting them together. Bookshops bring colour and diversity and passion and vibrancy to the whole area of reading.”


VIBES AND SCRIBES, CORK

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Joan Lucey, Vibes and Scribes, Co. Cork

Joan Lucey, Vibes and Scribes, Co. Cork

Joan Lucey, Vibes and Scribes, Co. Cork

This Cork City gem was born in 1991 when Joan Lucey (pictured) took voluntary redundancy from the bank and opened a small book shop in Macroom. Her son was four and she had recently separated. “This was me putting my life back together,” says Lucey.

“I grew up on second-hand books. My father was a great reader, and my sister used to go to town and bring back a bag of books for us. We never considered first-hand books, we were always minding our money.”

She got helpful advice from Willie Kinsella of the wonderful (and successful) Chapters in Dublin. Within a few years she had remortgaged her house to buy a premises on Bridge Street in Cork City. “The 800 sq ft, expanded to 5000 sq ft. Every time I made money, I put it back in.”

Soon she was able to open a small second-hand bookshop on Lavitt’s Quay. What has kept her trading in books is her complementary trade, online and in the stores, in fabric, wool, yarn, haberdashery and upholstery supplies. Making clothes is a sustainable activity, same as reusing books, Lucey notes.

“In the 1990s you could hardly get inside the shop, it was such a social place. Once you got into the early 2000s you knew Amazon was already hitting. The writing was on the wall, it was always going to get more difficult.”

She figured out that books such as bestsellers would be grabbed by multinationals and this meant she had to find her own biblio-niche: art, architecture, design, gardens and erotica. They still buy second-hand books for cash or store credit.

“I’ve always been delighted when any customer comes into the shop, they don’t have to buy anything. I just love to see them browse,” she says. “They could stay as long as they like.”

A teenage book club, an adult book club and a bargain book club all happen in the shops, as well as Sunday children’s reading, poetry readings and events and talks such as the recent talk from Mary Robinson on climate change. Last Christmas, they “blind dated” a book chosen by staff and beautifully wrapped with the first sentence printed on the paper.

A bibliophile who tends to count people on planes reading eBooks, Lucey says her friends know not to tell her if they are reading on a Kindle. “I’ve regarded e-books as my enemy,”


CHARLIE BYRNE’S, GALWAY

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Charlie Byrne's Bookshop

Charlie Byrne's Bookshop

Charlie Byrne's Bookshop

It would be a crime to visit Galway without stopping by Charlie Browne’s on the Cornstore Mall (winner in 2019 of the Best Independent Bookshop in Ireland at the British and Irish Book Industry Awards). This warren of rooms wall to wall with books and helpfully furnished with comfortable chairs has been going since 1989 and gets bolder each year.

Its collection of 100,000 books include second-hand, remaindered and antiquarian books as well as new titles.

“People come in and see books they don’t know they want until they see them,” says the well-known manager Vinny Browne (pictured right).

Part of the success of the bookshop has been its position as a platform for artists and readers.

Launches and signings, talks and lectures, musical performances, radio broadcasts and festival events all happen, while six book clubs take place monthly in the shop including a travel-writing book club, a children’s book club and a book and film club run in collaboration with the Palas cinema.

Families pack into the children’s reading at 11am every Saturday. Browne hopes that younger readers will learn to “relish the experience of getting lost in a book, something that will stay with them for the rest of their lives”. Customers range from President Michael D Higgins to every writer living in the west to Star Trek: Voyager actress Kate Mulgrew.

This all makes it hard to believe it when Browne says that 10 years ago there was a feeling in the business that booksellers faced the “end of days”.

“Music shops were going to the wall when CDs declined and disappeared, camera shops were wiped out by the digital revolution. People didn’t know if bookshops would be next. But the codex of turning over pages, the transferral of knowledge from writer to reader, that’s been around since before the bible, it’s hardwired into how we communicate.”

“The browsing experience is important to people as well as being an effective way to battle the online retail giants,” says Browne. “You make your business competitive by giving people experiences that are tactile, visual and in the moment and you can’t replicate that on your phone or sitting at home on a keyboard. If we don’t support local shops we won’t have them anymore. Charity shops, pubs and bookies — that is all that will be left if we don’t support local independent retailers.

“For an existing technology to be replaced by a new one the existing technology has to be cheaper and better. Reading online is cheaper, but it’s not better.”

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