Word for Word: In praise of bookshops


The letters pages of this newspaper recently carried a cri de coeur from a bookseller after the publication of Sara Keating’s first ebook column. These were followed by Eoin Purcell’s Word For Word column setting out the publisher’s perspective on the future of the bookshop.

It set me thinking from a reader’s chair about the joys of visiting a bookshop and to imagining how terrible it would be if we had no bookshops in which to browse, to read, to converse, to just hang out and, of course, to buy.

Bookshops have always been a refuge and a revelation for me. I make a beeline for them in every town and city I visit, no matter what the language. I recently stumbled across Rizzoli (below), on West 57th Street in New York, for the first time. Located in a beautiful building and specialising in illustrated books and foreign-language literature, it was a haven of calm and warmth amid the cold cacophony of construction and traffic noise outside. I restricted myself to buying the New Yorker , but if I’d had the funds I could have gone mad there.

It’s not just the sight of the books that attracts; it’s the feeling of picking them up, flicking through the pages, admiring the design, the font, the paper. I relish the sensual pleasure of encountering a new book for the first time, the excitement of getting it wrapped and taking it home, unwrapping it and turning the first, crisp page.

There are bookshops I do not particularly like: airport ones, for a start, where the market dictates everything but where one’s vulnerability to persuasion can be at its lowest. I can walk through the purveyors of alcohol and perfumes with my bank balance intact, but, bad and all as the stock in airport bookshops may be, I fall victim far too often to the temptation to buy yet another book to add to the bagful I’m already carrying, as well as my supply of ebooks.

Nor do I like the excuses for bookshops you often find in newsagents in small Irish towns, with limited stock supplied by one distributor and a depressing lack of interesting fiction for hungry minds young and old. Try finding contemporary poetry in any of these establishments and you’ll see what I mean. Of course, there are some gems of bookshops around the country too, and they need and deserve our support.

I’ll admit it’s easier to search online for a title, or click through from reading an online book review, order and pay for it in seconds and have it the next day. But the deferred gratification involved in going to the bookshop on a search, and maybe even ordering and awaiting the phone call to say it has arrived, enrich the experience for me.

Bookshops, especially the independent ones, will not survive if we do not spend our money in them. So, while I look forward to Sara Keating’s advice and information on the wonderful world of ebooks, I will also continue to browse and buy in my local bookshops, consult the staff for advice and buy books as gifts. For me, the click of the mouse or the tap on the screen is for backup only.

Doireann Ní Bhriain is a broadcaster, producer and voice-presentation trainer.