Indie bookshops are safe harbours, brimming with ideas and active minds. They are places to pause; to reflect; to make friends – or even to find a job. But what do bookshop owners and staff love most about their work? Why do they do what they do, what are their fondest memories and who do they love to see at the door?
Brid Conroy and Neil Paul are the co-owners of Tertulia in Westport, Co. Mayo.
We see our bookshop as a shared social space. Our mission to make a positive contribution to the way the world thinks. We believe everyone’s stories matter. We value the books we sell and we value the stories of all our customers. We never know who will come through the door. We had Bram Stoker’s great-grand-niece in one day and we sold her Dracula which she had never read. I love when someone asks whether we have a copy of a book and somehow I know it is the author and I say is it your book? And their smile when we have it in stock.
Our Harry Potter corner is a draw for fans. The squeals of delight when visitors realise Neil worked on the movies and they have a real-life connection to the stories. We’ve had a whole hen party squeeze in for a photo. Or kids will just sit inside and read. It’s a beauty to behold. We hosted an event – a day in the life of Harry Potter as part of Westival in 2019 and 250 people showed up. It was amazing.
This year we did story time for local pre-schoolers’ summer day trip. I started on my high chair with them on the couch and the floor. By the end, they were crowded around me, leaning on the book, asking questions, laughing, enjoying the magic of the stories.
We have a kids’ bookclub and as I listen to their engagement with the books, I am heart-warmed and so optimistic for our future. They are incredible. If we can make a difference to just one person’s life it is worth it.
And the books, I will never tire of opening up a box of new books and taking delight in them, putting them on the shelves, watching who buys them. Books are a means of engagement on so many levels; what are you reading lately, what do you normally read, would you like to try this one? We just had a couple from Malawi in, sharing stories of their life there.
We host a Philosopher’s Hat Club online monthly where we get to explore some of the deepest questions of life. We have a writers’ group also, helping others to explore and write their own stories.
We take delight in talking to authors about their inspiration and watch when our customers too are inspired. We have a young man with special needs who comes in weekly to put labels on the books for us. We have invited Jim Power, the economist, and Jane Suiter, the political scientist, to talk to us about social sustainability and the Citizen’s Assembly. Books are like little pieces of light being sent out there to the world. That’s why we do what we do.
Tertulia is running writing workshops for families and children at this year’s Westival - Westport Music and Arts Festival, running October 26th-31st. Book tickets at westival.ie
John Ryan is the second-generation bookshop owner of Midlands Books, Tullamore, Co Offaly
The bookshop in Tullamore was started by my mother in 1989. My parents moved back from London and bought a retail premises with an apartment above in which they lived for the first few years. Growing up, some of my most vivid memories revolved around the bookshop. There was a book festival in Tullamore in the early ‘90s. As a young child it was great to spend an evening in the back of a pub with my Fanta and Tayto listening to Roddy Doyle or Joseph O’Connor while helping my mother sell books.
Buying a book for a child from a local bookshop is overwhelmingly positive. It won’t rot their teeth, doesn’t take electricity, won’t destroy the environment, it will keep them away from screens and technology and it won’t be ready for the bin in a few weeks. As I was writing this, I overheard a conversation where a little boy couldn’t decide between two Michael Morpurgo books. His mother said ‘just get both’ – and he responded with a hug. That’s €15 well spent by his mother.
It is rewarding for us here to be able to recommend books based on what we have read – and we are just as likely to say, ‘you know what, I didn’t think it was great’. A word of warning, though – if you love reading, working in a bookshop is not just sitting down and reading books. There’s usually too much work to be done.
David Torrans is the owner of No Alibis, a quirky independent bookstore in Belfast, selling books for the past 25 years. His resident children’s literature expert John has written this piece:
We’re quite lucky here in No Alibis that most, if not all our customers, are very nice. From the silent browser who lingers by the shelves for half an hour before emerging at the till with their cherished new find to those seeking recommendations for family and friends, the variety of customers is what keeps any bookseller on their toes.
Lots of customers stand out. We have had many book lovers who have been coming here since we first opened our doors. Young men and women who have grown with us, matured, kept us going through lean times. One customer had such good taste that we had to hire him, while another started coming on Saturdays, buying a succession of great books – she now works every Saturday in the shop. But if you want to know who our favourite customer is, we would have to say ‘our next one’!
In the heart of Cloughjordan, Co Tipperary is the Sheelagh na Gig bookshop, run by editor Elizabeth O’Shea and glass artist Mollie Barrow
Every customer is different, so I don’t think it’s accurate to say I have a favourite. It’s probably better to say what is delightful and leaves me smiling.
Teenagers who come in, browse and buy a pile of books. This is wonderful because reading drops off around age 12, even among bookworms. Secondary school, activities, friends, phones - it all reduces the amount of reading done. We have one teen customer in particular who buys fiction and non-fiction. That’s rare! I love to see them come in.
A parent who lets a young child pick a book for themselves, even if the parent isn’t keen on the topic. Everything a young child does for themselves is skills development, including selecting that book featuring poo or tractors or unicorns. It also encourages the child to continue reading!
Last, I’ll say the customer who asks us for special orders. We specialise in finding difficult-to-get books - it’s fun - and customer orders also bring our attention to great books we might have missed. It’s really helpful, and we can have some really interesting conversations about authors and topics.