Why don't we have a perfect bookshop?
The nearest we have to it now is Lilliput Press, a bookshop and publisher in a charming Edwardian house in the gradually gentrifying Dublin district of Stoneybatter. With its hand-painted signs, wooden facade and books arranged in what must once have been the front parlour, it is full of quirky panache – but it’s small and sells only books published by Lilliput.
Recently it has begun to host cultural evenings, including excellent Listen at Lilliput events – platforms for musical and literary artists of all descriptions “to showcase their work in an intimate and sympathetic environment”.
The Gutter Bookshop, in Temple Bar, is another impressive new Dublin store. Its staff recommendations are impeccable, and it has a rare ability to present books in a way that makes them as irresistible as fine patisserie, but it’s a bit bright and clean to encourage lengthy mooching.
Ideally a bookshop needs a certain tattiness, a lived-in, homely quality, with nooks and crannies to get lost in. Great bookshops are like a wardrobe to Narnia, making browsers lose their bearings, as in Charlie Byrne’s, in Galway, or Strand Bookstore, in Manhattan, with its almost 30km of new, used and rare books.
I have fallen through all sorts of disorientating spatial wormholes at Strand, ending up in sections on vintage pulp, etiquette and magic studies – and even in a department devoted to collating personalised libraries, where you can buy or rent books by the foot.
The nearest Dublin came to bookshops of this breed were Greene’s, beside Merrion Square, and the Winding Stair bookshop, beside the Ha’penny Bridge. Greene’s is long gone, and while the renovated Winding Stair has a fine restaurant, its bookshop is limited.
What we need now is a charming old building in a prime location near the Liffey – not a landmark building that needs to be venerated but an overlooked gem. It should be spacious but warren-like, with separate areas for new and old books and unusual genres. It needs to have small spaces for public readings, for book groups and for launches, plus a cafe that at night turns into a wine and Irish tapas bar.
Realising the dream
Of course, no independent bookstore could afford such a space. City Lights and Shakespeare and Company exist only because the buildings were acquired aeons ago. The only way this dream can be made real is if the building is provided free, or at a peppercorn rent by the State or an ecclesiastical body. The church has always been the great patron of literature in Ireland: without it we would have no illustrated manuscripts, including Trinity College Dublin’s Book of Kells cash cow.