An Irishman's Diary
The opening of a new Dublin bookstore is a remarkable event these days. But such a thing happened almost unnoticed last April, when a shop called First Editions slipped quietly into business at No 7, Pembroke Lane. And welcome as it would have been in its own right, the new addition was all the more so because it marked the latest reincarnation of an address that at least two generations of Dubliners may remember with affection.
The Wee Stores, as No 7 used to be called, dealt in groceries rather than books. It was operated for most of its life by John and Mary Harrison, a couple who came from counties Down and Monaghan, respectively. Hence their use of Ulster’s favourite adjective in the shop’s name, although the square floor-footage was every bit as restrictive as implied.
The diminutive premises opened in the 1930s, an era when milk and butter could still be supplied by a dairy located elsewhere on the lane, and closed in the early 1990s, at the dawning of a very different era in Dublin 4.
In between, almost inevitably given its locale, the shop had acquired literary associations. Customers included Patrick Kavanagh and Brendan Behan, although not at the same time. Never mind The Wee Stores, Dublin was too small to accommodate those two writers simultaneously after they fell out.
The perennially hard-up Kavanagh must have been a mixed blessing as a grocery shop customer. He may, however, have turned out to be a good long-term investment for the Harrison family. The well-known grocery concept of a “loss leader” springs to mind. Thus, having lent literary credibility to the shop in an era when it didn’t yet sell books, Kavanagh may at least have been pointing the way forward.
Even so, in acquiring The Wee Stores’ legacy, First Edition’s owner Allan Gregory (who married a Harrison) also acquired the location, and this may be a mixed blessing too. The shop is, in the phrase beloved of estate agents, “tucked away” off Waterloo Road, which is in turn tucked away around the corner from bustling Baggot Street. Being so tucked would be generally considered a good thing, but not for a commercial premises.
In Pembroke Lane, there is no such thing as passing trade. And that may not be the only challenge Gregory faces. I know what he’s up against because, one day recently, I went looking for his shop, remembering only the address. Never having been in The Wee Stores, and unable to recall which of the various Pembrokes in Baggotonia was the lane, I did what one does these days: asked Google Maps.
Which, reasonably enough, directed me to the Pembroke Lane off Pembroke Street, in Dublin 2. Unfortunately, the nearest thing I could find there to a bookshop was a Thai restaurant.
So I gave up, somewhat puzzled, until weeks later remembering that there are two Pembroke Lanes in this part of the city. Or maybe it’s the same lane and, like some of Dublin’s rivers, it just goes underground for a section, before re-emerging half a mile away, in a different postal district.
Anyway, lack of footfall is less critical for a specialist store. And as its name implies, Gregory’s shop deals mainly in first editions and other relatively rare books. So, much as he loves to see casual bibliophiles dropping in, his hope is that the location will become known to those who need to know, eventually.
In the meantime, the shop is at least partly a labour of love. Indeed, much of the stock is the proprietor’s own collection, bought for personal reasons during his earlier career as an engineer. Now, he and his collection are having to adjust their relationship to commercial realities.
The Wee Stores was famous, among other things, for its liberal hours. Long before the concept of convenience shops hit Ireland, it opened from 7am till nearly midnight, 364 days a year (St Stephen’s Day was the usual exception – even Christmas morning was not exempt).
By contrast, the bookshop’s hours are rather more limited: Wednesday to Saturday, noon till 6pm. That’s probably in keeping with the move to a more rarified type of business. The days are gone when No 7 Pembroke Lane supplied bread or milk, or cigarettes sold singly, to Patrick Kavanagh and others. But if you find yourself stuck for a pristine 1965 first edition of Tarry Flynn, or a 1964 Collected Poems, it’s still the place to go.