Kevin Gildea: My bookshop is more than a business. Its closure makes me shed a tear

Places like my Brilliant Bookshop are more than businesses: they’re community and cultural resources that every town needs

In October 2020 I opened a second-hand bookshop, just 4½ days before I had to close it for a lockdown. The shop is called Kevin Gildeas Brilliant Bookshop, and it’s in Dún Laoghaire, in Co Dublin. It is soon to close for good.

At the end of August I was given a month’s notice, because the building is being sold. I asked for an extension, however, and managed to get until the beginning of January 2023. So if you want to buy second-hand books, or a building, do pop in before then!

As at a cat or dog shelter, I took in books with no homes to go to, from people clearing out houses because of death or downsizing: books that would otherwise go to the dump

The opening would not have been possible without the help of many friends — a community, if you will. (Thank you, Jaime, Malachy, Jane, Thiago and Tracy.) Which is apt, because a second-hand bookshop, although a business, is also more: it is a community and cultural resource. It is sort of a library, a meeting hub and a refuge for culture.

As at a cat or dog shelter, I took in books with no homes to go to, from people clearing out houses because of death or downsizing: books that would otherwise go to the dump. Most of those who brought books didn’t want to throw the books away, because they felt it was somehow immoral to sentence books to such an end. Yes, I sold books — so it had the arc of a shop, a business — but many came in and searched and found a book, or books, much as someone would go to a refuge and rescue an animal. They would find one that was for them — one that would become part of them.

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Finding a specific volume is very modern journey, one of wish fulfilment and efficiency. Yet the real pleasure of the second-hand bookshop is finding the book that you didn’t know you wanted. It’s not an A to Z you need but a treasure map and a journey as unexpected as the one in The Hobbit. There’s an element of discovery that pushes the boundaries of our worlds of today, where we have instant access to all that we think we know we want — the consolidation of worlds that can become more and more like gated communities of the self.

I spent years on these journeys, but now people brought me boxes of second-hand books. I could do my rummaging for books without having to travel. The search came to me.

Recently, I found an old plan on paper for the layout of the shop — where the counter would be, where the shelves and the path around the shop would be. It’s a wonder that, at one time, the shop existed only as this tentative map. Time erases memory of the jeopardy of the past. The existent presents as the normal, the habit, the taken for granted, and often erases the beginning: the very real possibility that it would never happen, never be born, never become. Thus the importance of revisiting the past via anniversary — watchtowers of the beginnings.

I look from this paper plan — rough pencil sketchings — to the cliffs of books, sometimes precariously tottering, over the narrow paths redolent of some mini Lord of the Rings. Books have grown in number, mimicking the structure of the building, and giving the impression of replacing the building to the point that one could imagine the building as a scaffold ready to be removed, or a cast that could now be smashed, revealing the true Kevin Gildeas Brilliant Bookshop — composed entirely of second-hand books.

I opened the first day and it was great. A happy day. I went in the second day and a quarter of the ceiling had fallen down – thick lime plaster

I sink into the chair hidden away in books, behind books; there is the odd small avalanche as a tiny tower of tomes collapses, as the books express themselves in a desire to escape or embrace chaos. Recently, a customer inquired about a book entitled The Street of Crocodiles, by Bruno Schulz. The book came to mind after I wrote the beginning of this paragraph, which seems to share some of Schulz’s evocations of fetid ecosystems of the inanimate becoming conscious. It is many years since I read Schultz, but books remain with us long after the reading — so they become part of us.

Four and a half days opened, and then lockdown until December — the one month to make all the money. I opened the first day and it was great. A happy day. I went in the second day and a quarter of the ceiling had fallen down — thick lime plaster. There was a giant fan in the ceiling, and every time I turned any of the sockets on, it went on too, creating a very chilly room. I got a friend, a former electrician, to try to sort my problem, which he decided to do by yanking on the fan and, well...

At the time I had had a few years of personal challenges — the endings of many things. It had got like when you are out in the lashing rain and you get so wet that it doesn’t matter any more: you’ve reached peak wetness, saturation. More rain is water off a duck’s back. I had developed acceptance expressed by my new mantra: “It’s okay.” But this ceiling falling in felt like a metaphor for everything in my life for half a day. Then I got it fixed, and I was open for the last half of December, minus the day I had to go into hospital for tests (which turned out okay).

This past year has been financially challenging, and I think that, given the magic of what a second-hand bookshop is, there should be grants for what is more than just a business — it is an important cultural institution. I think every town should have a second-hand bookshop.

The bokshop began as an empty room which I filled up. Soon it will return to an empty room again. Such is the passage of life

I became part of the community on George’s Street Lower, whether the gaggle of dear Dub characters — Frances, Mary and the gang — or the people from the other businesses, like CK, Richard, Joe and Marty from Frewen & Aylward (particularly Marty, whose friendship and advice helped me through many a challenge), Selina and the gang from Fred’s, Jovche, Yres and Faruk from the Natural Bakery, and Errol from the Value Store next door. And Keith for all the chats and printing work. And Eddie. Dave from Book Deals. And, of course, John and Roz, who helped in the shop. And Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, for all its assistance. And Jaime and Stephen, for all the lifts to collect books. And of course Ronan, without whose help I would not have been able to open at all. And all the fabulous people who shopped with me — too numerous to mention. I was part of a community.

When the council pedestrianised George’s Street Lower in the summer of 2021 it provided an architecture for this community. Towards the end of this temporary experiment you could feel the nature of the place change for the better, and when they eventually pedestrianise it permanently it will become a go-to place, joining the seafront and the People’s Park. I very much didn’t miss the loading bay in front of my shop, so often full of vehicles neither loading nor at bay.

Before the shop opened I spent a manic weekend trying to remove the smell from the premises — it had been a fish shop for decades. It turned out to be possibly my greatest achievement

Before the shop opened, back in 2020, I spent a manic weekend alone trying to remove the smell from the premises — it had been a fish shop for decades before. It turned out to be possibly my greatest achievement, because I wasn’t sure if it was possible. I remember at 1am on a Friday night I was tossing cornflower all over the walls of the empty room, I had bowls of coffee grounds all over the floor, along with half-lemons and half-onions, and I remember somebody looking in the window mouthing the words: “What the f**k are you doing?” I looked like a mad artist or somebody trying to create the crappiest winter wonderland of all time. If I can’t remove the smell, I thought, I’ll have to sell three mackerel every day to excuse it.

So, for me, it began as an empty room that I filled up. Soon it will return to an empty room. Such is the passage of life.

One of the most beautiful moments was the day when the sign went up: KEVIN GILDEAS BRILLIANT BOOKSHOP. (The lack of an apostrophe was an aesthetic choice over a grammatical one, but it did get a mention by Frank McNally, to which I responded, in The Irish Times.) I had explained what I wanted to a lovely guy called Ivor. People have ideas in their heads, and then, when the version is rendered by another, there is often a time of accommodation, as you try to deal with the fact that it is not quite what you had wanted but grow to love what is real. Here there was no such process — the sign was exactly what I had imagined. Exactly. It is a beautiful thing to see what you saw in your mind’s eye manifest itself.

So it comes to an end. The end of this story. But as long as there is life there will be a new story. As Elvis Costello sang back in 1983, “Everyday I write the book.” It is time for me to do more comedy and start writing again.

Thank you to everybody who supported the shop. It was one of my favourite adventures. And do remember to support your local second-hand bookshop.

I’ll stop now to shed a wee tear.