Bob Johnston: my 10 years in the Gutter
The owner of one of Dublin’s most popular bookshops celebrates a decade in business
Bob Johnston with award-winning Irish author Lisa McInerney
On November 3rd, 2009, The Gutter Bookshop on Cow’s Lane in Temple Bar opened its doors as Dublin’s newest independent bookshop and sold its very first book, the somewhat apt Where’s Wally Now?
Opening an independent bookshop in the middle of a recession and at a time when everyone was predicting the imminent death of both physical books and physical bookshops was certainly an ambitious move and I think many people believed we’d manage to stay open about six months – in fact, one anonymous internet troll gleefully told me as much – so it is rather nice to be here, celebrating 10 years of The Gutter Bookshop in 2019 with not one but two thriving bookshops and having established ourselves as part of Dublin’s literary scene with a huge number of events, bookclubs, author readings and book festivals under our belt.
When I graduated with my degree in literature and history in 1994, I hatched a plan to open my own independent bookshop-cum-cafe in Stoke-on-Trent with my best friend Ruth. She insisted that we call it “RuBob’s” which I argued would sound like a downbeat wine bar, but nevertheless I undertook an evening “run your own business” course accordingly and wrote up the business plan. Thankfully, RuBob’s never quite made it off the ground and instead I went to work for a large local independent bookshop where I learned the ins and outs of the bookshop business.
From there I went on to work with chain bookstores Dillon’s and Waterstones, transferring from London to Dublin in 2000 to help run the Waterstone’s store in the Jervis Centre and then to look after events and promotions for Waterstone’s on Dawson Street. After a couple of reluctant years back in the UK, I returned to Dublin ready to open my own independent bookshop. I very nearly signed a lease for a place on Parliament Street, and then for another just off Temple Bar Square but neither felt quite right and boom-time rents were prohibitive. I ended up managing the Hughes & Hughes bookshop in St Stephen’s Green for a while before moving to their head office as a book promotions buyer.
In 2008 Ireland’s big recession hit retail businesses hard and book sales through the Hughes & Hughes airport shops crashed dramatically along with passenger numbers. Suddenly I was working a four-day week in a struggling business but it also meant that I had time to work on my own bookshop plans again. When an empty retail property came up to rent on Cow’s Lane in Temple Bar at a recession-rate rent I decided that I needed to have a look. It was a truly beautiful space but passing footfall felt low. I did some hard thinking and despite my initial doubts I decided it was “now or never” and signed a 10-year lease in September 2009. We then had six weeks to build our new bookshop.
It’s hard to remember those first few weeks now. I do remember many sleepless nights worrying about what I had taken on and what would happen to the staff if we failed. I remember the first week’s takings being half of what I’d envisaged in my business plan and thinking I’d probably made a terrible mistake. I also remember the man who came in on the very first day we opened to tell me that we couldn’t call ourselves The Gutter Bookshop because we were “bringing down the tone of the neighbourhood”.
But I do also remember all the goodwill from everyone I knew in the Irish book trade, from our friends and family, and from our new neighbours on Cow’s Lane. I remember author Emma Donoghue passing by and knocking on the window as we unpacked the boxes of books to tell us how lovely it was to see a new bookshop opening in the area, and I remember so many people coming in to us in those first few fraught weeks to tell us that they wanted us to succeed and that they would come to buy their books from us.
We started our bookclubs and events programme in January 2010 and soon became a popular spot for book launches due to our large open floor space. We were then asked to become festival booksellers for Dublin Writers Festival (now International Literature Festival Dublin) and for the Mountains To Sea Book Festival in Dún Laoghaire.
In 2013 we were asked to sell books at Dalkey Book Festival and then to provide Dalkey with a pop-up bookshop for Christmas as their beloved local bookshop, The Exchange, had closed a couple of years previously. That pop-up Christmas bookshop proved to be extremely popular with locals in Dalkey and has never “un-popped” so, somewhat unplanned, The Gutter Bookshop had suddenly expanded to two branches.
Ten years on and we run a full events programme with launches, readings, children’s storytimes and six popular bookclubs across the two shops. We are official booksellers at eight different book festivals and employ six staff.
What I never expected from opening an independent bookshop was how many wonderful friends I would make along the way; so many Irish writers and book people have not only supported the bookshops with fantastic events but have also become great friends, willing to lend us a helping hand and give me much-needed hugs when I’m ready to collapse from exhaustion.
In 2017 we were awarded Independent Bookshop of the Year UK & Ireland at the British Book Awards and in 2018 we were able to purchase our retail unit in Temple Bar, ensuring that we would be able to stay as a permanent fixture on Dublin’s literary scene for as long as people chose to buy their books from us. Our second decade is bound to bring us a whole set of fresh challenges to face, but for now, we may have spent 10 years in the Gutter, but we are most definitely still looking at the stars.