A love letter to bookshops, by Kerrie O’Brien
Bookshops have been pivotal in my life. If I hadn’t developed a love of reading I might not have gone to college and I certainly wouldn’t be a writer
Kerrie O’Brien: When I was 25 I lived in Paris for a few months and on my last week there they asked me to read at Shakespeare and Co. I was totally broke by then and the reading ended up being on my birthday and they took me for dinner that night
Kerrie O’Brien: What I loved about these bookshops was their intimacy. People don’t open independent or secondhand bookstores to make money – they do it because they love books and they love talking to people about them. The conversations I had with these booksellers stayed with me for life
I went to a reading in The Village Bookshop in Terenure a few weeks ago. A small, beautiful independent bookshop I hadn’t been to before. It reminded me of my Irish Writers’ Centre days – hoping people would come, hoping you haven’t put out too many chairs, hoping you might sell some books, washing the wine glasses afterwards, locking up late. The miraculous nights when I was lucky enough to sit in the presence of Leland Bardwell, Paula Meehan, Sebastian Barry, Matthew Sweeney, Seamus Heaney.
More importantly it reminded me of how bookshops have been pivotal in my life.
If I hadn’t developed a love of reading I might not have gone to college and I certainly wouldn’t be a writer. Bookshops made this possible. In the summers I used to go with my mother to the various places she worked and spend the day in second-hand ones – mainly the Readers Bookshop in Dún Laoghaire and the old damp basement of Chapters on Abbey Street. They would let you exchange books so I could basically read as much as I wanted and, back then and as a young kid, I found they always had a much broader and more obscure collection than the libraries.
What I loved about these shops was their intimacy. People don’t open independent or secondhand bookstores to make money – they do it because they love books and they love talking to people about them. The conversations I had with these booksellers stayed with me for life. There’s a certain magic to these moments – like when a man excitedly put a freshly published copy of Cloud Atlas in my hands in the tiny Books On The Green in Sandymount. You get a similar thrill when you recommend an incredible book to a stranger in work or a friend and know that they will love it. When I finish a really great book I usually want to stand on a rooftop screaming OHMYGOD EVERYONE HAS TO READ THIS NOW. I’ve never had such in a feeling with regard to films, art, music or even food – always books.
I will always remember the moment I picked up life-changing books, ones that changed my world view or simply changed me. Opening the first few pages of I am David by Anne Holm in the Readers Bookshop in Dún Laoghaire; the Collected Poems of Anne Sexton in a crazy secondhand bookshop in Salem; Love Alone by Paul Monette in Another Country in Berlin; A Moveable Feast by Hemingway in Shakespeare & Co.; Franny & Zooey by Salinger in the Waterstones in Jervis Street; Birthday Letters in the bargain basement of Hodges Figgis.
Or finding treasures. Being in Skoob Books in London and being led down steps and through underground corridors to a huge sealed room full of vintage orange Penguins and finding a rare collection of George Orwell’s essays. Discovering a first edition of Salinger in Alabaster Books off Union Square.
I remember when I was 17 spending a whole day upstairs in the old cafe of The Winding Stair when it still had red gingham oil cloths and you would literally trip over dusty books all over the place. I sat drinking cheap mugs of tea by a window looking over the Liffey. My mother and I had been in a small car crash in the snow a few days before and instead of going to school I spent a day in a bookshop reading the Aeneid. I remember the brightness of the winter light and feeling glad to still be alive. It doesn’t surprise me that of all the places I could have gone that day I chose to go to a bookshop.
I think of how many are gone. The Rathmines Bookshop; Dandelion books on Aungier Street; Greene’s on Clare Street; The Exchange Bookshop in Dalkey. The awful day I went to Dún Laoghaire and realised with horror that Readers Bookshop was gone. I never got the chance to tell the owner how much that shop had meant to me. I’d never even considered that it would ever close down.
Bookshops have also been hugely important to me as a writer. I will never forget the kindness of Ruth Webster in Books Upstairs when I brought out my poetry chapbook – not only did she sell it without hesitation, she promoted it, continuously ordered more and paid me. When I was 25 I lived in Paris for a few months and on my last week there they asked me to read at Shakespeare and Co. I was totally broke by then and the reading ended up being on my birthday and they took me for dinner that night.
I cannot stress the importance of independent bookshops for literary magazines and small presses. The same can be said for Charlie Byrnes in Galway; Vibes & Scribes in Cork; Banner Books in Ennistymon and many more across the country.
I think there should be more camaraderie than competition in the book trade. For example, did you know that Alan Hanna’s in Rathmines sells mystery books wrapped in brown paper and string with an elusive description so that the book itself is a surprise? Or that the Gutter Bookshop in Cow’s Lane and Dalkey can source you books that are out of print? Or that if you have your own bookclub Dubray Books will give you a discount on your purchases and are excellent at ordering signed copies of specific books? Did you know that you can combine your loyalty cards in Hodges Figgis and still use your really, really old ones? Did you know that there’s a beautiful independent Christmas pop-up bookshop open on 47 Drury Street run by 12 independent Irish publishers?
I work in a large bookshop and I love it. But my main concern above all is that books are made accessible to people of all ages. As well as bigger shops and libraries, I feel that secondhand bookshops and small, independent, suburban ones such as Raven Books in Blackrock, the Rathgar Bookshop, the Village Bookshop in Terenure and countless more are vital for communities.
So please keep buying books, keep reading them, keep talking about them and recommending them to others and make an effort to support your local bookshop, wherever it may be, so that we can keep the magic going.
Kerrie O’ Brien is a bookseller and writer from Dublin. She is currently writing her debut collection of poetry, which will be called Illuminate. Visit www.kerrieobrien.com for more