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Monday 24 June 2019

Town Hall Bookshop closes as owner Henry Cairns retires

Popular historian is calling it a day after 40 years of selling and exchanging second-hand books in Bray, writes Mary Fogarty

Henry Cairns retiring from the Town Hall Book Shop
Henry Cairns retiring from the Town Hall Book Shop
The Town Hall Bookshop

Henry Cairns has curated a treasure trove of books in the town of Bray for the past 40 years, but he has now called time on his career to enter retirement.

The Town Hall Bookshop is closing down, with a charity shop set to take any books left and even the shelving, as Henry embarks on the next period of his life.

'It's a pity that there's nobody to take it over as a bookshop,' said Henry. 'I tried to get rid of it as a going concern but there's no interest at all.' This is despite the fact that paper books made a comeback following an initial drop due to ebooks some years ago.

'We came out the other side of it,' he said. It's a busy little shop and as we speak, a steady stream of customers come in and out, all with different types of interests, looking for children's books, history books, novels, or a chat with the man himself.

'Books are great travellers, they really are,' said Henry. 'I remember getting a book in here once and it was on something like "how to exercise cavalry horses". I opened it and it said... 56th cavalry based in India. Written underneath it was "destroyed" on a date in 1948.

'And then underneath that again, was "rescued 1948"'. Somebody had obviously pulled it out of a pile to be burned.'

The Town Hall Bookshop opened in 1978 at number 73 Main Street, moving to Florence Road after 25 years.

Henry's eyesight and general health have made the decision for him to retire at 76.

'I've been selling books for a long time. I must have sold hundreds of thousands of them,' he said.

It wasn't uncommon on a Saturday morning to see a queue outside the shop in the earlier days. 'They would be mostly third level students looking for novels. But that's all changed now, with the Internet. It caused a real lull about four years ago with Kindle and all that, but it's coming back now.

'Readers do really prefer the printed book,' said Henry. 'They like to feel a book and see it on the shelf. They like to look over and see a title and say "I enjoyed that".

Some of the trends over the years have had unexpected consequences. Henry has had to dispose of many copies of the volumes which were in vogue at different times, including The Da Vinci Code, 50 Shades of Grey, and many dozens of volumes of what is known as 'chic lit'.

'I would throw out maybe six boxes a week, people just don't want it anymore, it just has to go and has no literary value,' said Henry, who sends those items to be recycled.

'I did love reading, although I can't really read anymore.' He does get to immerse himself in a book nonetheless, with the library's 'Borrowbox' service online. 'There are thousands of audiobooks available, it's an absolutely great service,' said Henry.

As a historian, Henry has made a huge contribution to works about the town of Bray under the 'Old Bray Society' publishing umbrella. 'Myself and others started to produce books on local history,' said Henry, mentioning great local historian Colbert Martin who wrote 'A Drink from Broderick's Well' and 'Bridge Below the Town'. In 1985 they reproduced 'The Stones of Bray' by Canon Scott, originally published in 1913.

Then Owen Gallagher along with Henry produced 'A Pictorial History of Bray - The Seafront and its Environs'. There was meant to be just one, but the duo went on to publish 10 pictorial volumes.

'Owen went far and wide around the town collecting photographs,' said Henry.

'We originally intended to do just one book but then people started to bring in photographs and it sort of went on and we produced six volumes, then another four volumes of Pictorial Memories of Bray.

Henry pays particular tribute to Owen's contribution to the volumes. 'He would knock on anybody's door and ask for a photo!' he said.

The volumes illustrate Bray's rich history, including photos of the forebears of families still living in the area.

'People come in me still and take it off the shelf and go through it and would see their own grandparents.'

'They're all out of print now except volume one of pictorial memories. And a book I did on the first world war - Bray historical record.

'In 2016 we did "Wicklow in Revolt" in celebration of the centenary of the 1916 Rising. Unfortunately that's also out of print,' said Henry. He and Owen also released a short illustrated history of Bray, aimed at tourists or people new to the town to give them an overview of its history.

He continues to work on projects, including a collection of local ghost stories. 'The one I'm trying to do at the moment, slowly because of my eyesight, is a little history of Hollybrook House'.

Those who enjoy his work look forward to whatever Henry may have to offer in the coming years, although the little bookshop on Florence Road will be very much missed.

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