This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. The digital revolution was going to kill off physical books and bookshops altogether.
It's true that between roughly 2010 and 2015 the picture for booksellers was unrelentingly grim. Sales of ereaders and ebooks were soaring, as the trade in physical books plummeted. According to the Booksellers Association of Ireland, industry turnover declined by almost 30 per cent in those years.
But books and publishing have been around since they came along to disrupt the manuscripts industry in the 15th century, and they weren't about to be written off. Publishers responded by making book covers more sumptuous than ever. Independent bookshops did their part, grasping that if they were to compete with Amazon, the act of buying a book had to be more than just a commercial transaction. They opened coffee bars, created book groups and made sure their staff could provide knowledgeable recommendations.
As the economy recovered, these strategies began to pay off – either that, or people got tired of Kindles. Sales of ereaders and ebooks peaked globally in 2014, and have been slowing since. In 2017, 11.1 million books were sold in Ireland – up nearly 15 per cent on 2013 – and booksellers’ turnover was up 2 per cent on 2015, to €98 million.
The battle to keep bookshops alive is far from over. The cost of doing business is high, particularly for the country’s 220 or so (according to CSO data for 2015) independent bookshops. Amazon is still driving down prices. Brexit is coming. There have been losses – Cavan’s much-loved Crannóg closed in 2017. And it is still the case that not every county in Ireland even has an independent bookshop, though they usually have an Eason or a Book Station.
Despite all the difficulties of the past decade, Irish people still love books – browsing, choosing, buying, gifting and reading them. A truly great bookshop is where all of those things can happen at once. If you're lucky enough to have one in your community, there are good reasons to support it. Economist Jim Power wrote in a report for the Irish Booksellers Association: "The benefits of local booksellers to Irish communities extend beyond the standard contributions to turnover, GDP, employment . . . These less tangible 'spillover' benefits are . . . important in the context of the overall social, cultural and economic contribution that bookshops make to the Irish economy."
Here are 35 of Ireland’s best indies, and a few honourable mentions. If we’ve missed your favourite, do let us know.
No Alibis, 83 Botanic Avenue, Belfast, Co Antrim
When we asked Twitter users for the best independent bookshop in Ireland, No Alibis in Belfast got more recommendations than any other spot – and it's no surprise. It specialises in crime fiction, but its shelves are heaving with all genres, and you're liable to be offered a cup of tea while browsing them. Dr Katy Hayward sums its joys up as: "Genuine enthusiasm, lovely people, nerdy knowledge, student discount, book & album launches, kind to children & dogs, the kettle's always just after boiling, sassy sandwich boards."
Books Paper Scissors, 15 Stranmillis Rd, Belfast, Co Antrim
Books Paper Scissors, set in a period house in leafy south Belfast, specialises in a curated collection of children's fiction plus fiction and non-fiction for adults.
Sue Ryder Shop, Tullow St, Carlow
Carlow is well serviced for major booksellers, but a hidden indie gem is upstairs in the Sue Ryder charity shop, where secondhand books are organised according to the Dewey filing system.
Scéal Eile, 16 Lower Market St, Ennis, Co Clare
From behind its beautiful façade on Market Street, Scéal Eile combines the old and the new: a painstakingly curated collection of new, preloved and rare books, and a thriving online presence. Not many bookshops can boast their own theatre company either. Another wonderful Clare outlet is The Salmon Bookshop and Literary Centre in Ennistymon.
Vibes and Scribes, 21 Lavitts Quay, Cork
Cork is coming down with indie bookshops, including Bookstór and the Kinsale Bookshop in Kinsale; Gadaí Dubh in Macroom; Kerrs and Coughlans in Clonakilty; Skibbereen Bookshop and Bandon Books Plus. But one whose name comes up consistently is the city's Vibes and Scribes, which has been doing a brisk trade in both new and secondhand books on Lavitt's Quay for more than 20 years. It takes the "vibes" part of its name seriously.
Bantry Bookshop, William St, Bantry, Co Cork
Bantry Bookshop gets a thumbs up from none other than Graham Norton, who reputedly named it his favourite bookshop in Ireland. You'll be tripping over Norton and other authors there during the annual West Cork Literary Festival.
The Time Traveller's Bookshop, Skibbereen, Co Cork
Holger Smyth, the German-born owner of the Time Traveller's Bookshop, makes it his business to track down that rare, out-of-print book or ancient map you're after. If a visit to this trove of eclectic and forgotten treasures leaves you feeling inspired to pack it all in to set up your own indie bookshop, you can even take part in one of its bookshop academy courses. Now that's something you definitely can't get on Amazon.
Anna B's Bookshop, Main Street, Schull, Co Cork
Anna B's, which calls itself "the little shop with a big heart" has been serving up coffee and a passion for reading to residents and visitors of beautiful Schull for three years now.
Little Acorns Books, 3-5 Society Street, Derry
This little gem was recommended by the people at No Alibis in Belfast. Specialising in secondhand and some antiquarian books. Also worth a look is Foyle Books.
The Book Centre, Main St, Ballybofey, Co Donegal
The Book Centre stocks everything from children's books to books about the paranormal. It runs a local book club on the last Wednesday of every month. Also worth a look is Four Masters gifts and books, set in a beautiful, imposing period building in the heart of Donegal town.
Gutter Bookshop, Cow's Lane, Temple Bar; Railway Road, Dalkey, Co Dublin
Dublin, like Cork, is spoilt for choice for independent bookshops, with readers' favourites including The Company of Books in Ranelagh, Skerries Bookshop and, of course, the great Dubray Books, which now has eight outlets. Even so, opening the doors of the Gutter Bookshop in 2009, mid-downturn, was a gutsy move, but Bob Johnston proved that people would still buy physical books, if buying them was part of the pleasure of reading.
Chapters Bookshop, Parnell St, Dublin
Chapters has been a Dublin institution since it was founded in 1983, thanks to its knowledgeable staff and enormous range of books and music. If you're a fan of browsing secondhand books, the second floor is your mecca.
Raven Books, 34 Main St, Blackrock, Co Dublin
Locals can't say enough good things about Raven Books in Blackrock, chiefly because of Louisa Cameron's absolute dedication to customer service. She has an uncanny ability to weasel out the book customers want, even if all they have is a vague description of plot or cover. "Once I was in the shop and overheard one staff tell another that a mobility-impaired regular customer was on his way. They were to pick out books for him (because they know his taste) and bring them out to his car," says Aoife McLysaght.
Alan Hanna's, Rathmines Rd, Dublin 6
Alan Hanna's hasn't been quite the same since it lost its long-standing and sadly missed staff member, the beautiful dog Molly. But it's still a wonderful bookshop, with a great children's section and a cute cafe called Bark where, between now and Christmas, you get a free tea or coffee if you spend €20 on books.
Books Upstairs, 17 D'Olier St, Dublin
Happy birthday to Books Upstairs which celebrates its 40th this year, making it Dublin's oldest independent bookshop. It now has a gorgeous tearoom upstairs. An important part of its history was the pivotal role it played in gay culture in 1980s Dublin: this was a place where generations of country men came to get their copy of Gay Community News, a refuge free of judgement and censure.
Charlie Byrne's, Middle St, Galway
Charlie Byrne's is an institution of which Galwegians are fiercely – and rightly – proud. "I walk in there and time just stops," says Stan Carey, one of dozens of people to recommend it on Twitter. With over 100,000 new, secondhand and bargain books, and enthusiastic, well-informed staff, you'd be mad to shop for books from an online giant with this on your doorstep.
Kenny's Bookshop, Liosban, Galway
The family-run Kenny's is a stalwart of the Irish book world since 1940 – and internationally too, through its flourishing online presence. It takes in self-published books and books by small publishers, and offers a binding service. Don't overlook the award-winning Clifden Bookshop in Connemara, loved by locals and tourists alike.
Dingle Bookshop, Green St, Dingle, Co Kerry
A lot of effort goes into curating the collection at Dingle Bookshop, which includes more than 6,000 books, from bestsellers to their own vital titles.
Woulfe’s Bookshop, 7 Church St, Listowel, Co Kerry
Brenda Woulfe had been dreaming of owning her own bookshop for more than 20 years before she finally took the leap 10 years ago. She eagerly recommends books to her customers, and they recommend them to her.
Woodbine Books, Lower Main St, Kilcullen, Co Kildare
Woodbine Books is run by someone – Dawn Behan – who love books, for people who love books. "In an independent bookshop, staff are familiar with every book on the shelves because they have ordered it, unpacked it, priced it and shelved it," says Behan.
The Maynooth Bookshop, 68 Main St, Maynooth, Co Kildare
Owner Cian Byrne fulfilled the idle daydreams of many when he went from being a data analyst to running a bookshop. In his case, he had a head start – the Maynooth Bookshop had been in the family for 30 years, and taking it over was a natural next step.
Khans, James Street Gardens, Kilkenny
Khans is loved by locals for its reasonable prices and good selection. Kilkenny has a Book Centre too (see under Waterford).
The Reading Room, Bridge St, Carrick-on-Shannon, Co Leitrim
Carrick-on-Shannon's The Reading Room is owned and run by "the brilliant Orlagh who is welcoming, friendly, totally up-to-date and so well read – highly recommended," says Frank Smith on Twitter. In business since 2006, it has a packed calendar of events
O'Mahony's Books, O'Connell St, Limerick
O'Mahony's Books was founded in 1902 on O'Connell Street by JP O'Mahony, grandfather of the current owner Frank – which surely makes this the grandfather of Irish indie bookshops. In its current incarnation it extends to 25,000sq ft, with branches in University of Limerick, Tralee, Ennis.
Roe River Books, 77 Park St, Dundalk, Co Louth
Roe River Books began life as Carrolls Books in 2007, specialising in schoolbooks. Since 2015, it has broadened its range to include all kinds of books, from the latest fiction to graphic novels.
Books@One, Bridge St, Clooncarrabaun, Louisburgh, Co Mayo
It's hard to choose just one great indie bookshop in Mayo – other favourites include The Castle Bookshop in Castlebar, McLoughlins and The Bookshop in Westport. But Books@One gets a lot right: it's a community bookshop with a wide selection of new and preloved books, airy premises, great coffee, and a busy calendar.
Antonia's Bookstore, The Gate House, Navangate, Trim, Co Meath
Antonia's is serviced by a dedicated staff who will happily order a book for you if they don't have it in stock. It has everything from classics to schoolbooks. Also worthy of a look is the Forever Amber gift and book store in Ratoath.
Midland Books, High St, Tullamore, Co Offaly
Reliably beautiful window displays, obliging staff and extensive collection of books, stationery and gifts.
The Book Lady, Boyle, Co Roscommon
The Book Lady claims to be Ireland's smallest bookshop, but what it lacks in square footage, it makes up for in clever use of space, with books piled from floor to ceiling.
Liber, 35 O'Connell St, Sligo
When you ask people to recommend their favourite Irish indie bookstore, it won't be long before somebody mentions the brilliant Liber, which sees itself as more than a shop – it's a hub for local artists. A family business run these days by husband and wife Ailbhe and Brian Caliendo, it stocks everything "from cooking with surfers and foraging for seaweed" to vinyl and CDs. And lots of Yeats.
Bookworm, 1 Parnell St, Thurles Town, Co Tipperary
Going strong since 1993, this gorgeous bookshop and cafe has more than 2,000sq ft of books and musical instruments, and is a hub for events and community groups. Also recommended is Sheelagh na Gig in Cloughjordan.
The Book Centre, 25 John Robert Sq, Waterford
Saturday mornings in the Book Centre, browsing books and drinking coffee, while the kids poke around in the extensive children's section, have been a Waterford institution since 1971. Friendly, knowledgeable staff and four floors of books and schoolbooks in a converted cinema make this a must visit. (Full disclosure: the writer had her first job in the cafe there in the 1990s, but service has greatly improved since.) Sister branches in Kilkenny, Waterford, and Barker and Jones in Naas. Reader's Choice in Dungarvan is another popular spot in the county.
John's Bookshop, Athlone, Co Westmeath
John Donohoe has been selling antiquarian, used, rare and new books since 1997 in this tiny, but well organised, Tardis. Just Books in Mullingar is another favourite: locals love owner Stella's great recommendations and speedy turnaround on orders.
New Ross Books, New Ross, Co Wexford
The jaunty paintwork on the façade of New Ross Books extends to its witty presence on Facebook (@newrossbooks). Selling secondhand books and children's book at knockdown prices, it's famous locally for its €1 sales. Zozimus Books in Gorey is also worth a visit.
Bridge Street Bookshop, Wicklow Town, Co Wicklow
The handsome, family-run Bridge Street Bookshop has been doing a thriving business since 1999. Awarded the Best Bookshop in Ireland by The Irish Times in 2014.