Irish Book Week: writers on their favourite bookshops
Sebastian Barry, Sarah Webb, Hazel Gaynor, Patricia Forde and others share their stories
Sebastian Barry at the Gutter Bookshop in Dalkey: “Our bookshops are the lighthouses for every writerly boat on the ocean. Without them we cannot set sail.” Photograph Nick Bradshaw
Irish Book Week runs from October 17th to 24th. A countrywide celebration of Irish books, authors, publishers and bookshops, Irish Book Week aims to encourage people to chose Irish books, and to shop with their local bookshop, either in-person, over the phone or online.
Bookshops have a social and cultural impact directly in the cities and towns where they are located, as well as supporting the local economy. Along with publishers, they help foster creativity and community and should be a key feature of every Irish town.
“Irish Book Week is a celebration of the wonderful ecosystem of Irish authors, publishers, bookshops and readers,” said Heidi Murphy, chair of Bookselling Ireland. “We have realised more than ever the value of community and supporting Irish, and we are asking people to help us celebrate Irish Book Week by shopping early for Christmas this year in their local bookshop.”
Our bookshops are the lighthouses for every writerly boat on the ocean. Without them we cannot set sail. They are the little churches and heroic temples of our endeavours.
I am still in mourning for Greene’s bookshop (founded 1843, closed 2007) on the corner of Clare Street in Dublin. It became a clothes shop. Noble enough, but I still remember my shock at this sacrilege. When I was at Trinity College in the seventies, my father gave me £10 a week pocket money – it was straight into Greene’s and to the second-hand books housed upstairs.
There I bought Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to His Son (did the son no good, he remained a reprobate) and also Matthew Arnold’s austere poems. I also bought the collected works of the then obscure Elizabeth Barrett Browning, with the astounding verse novel Aurora Lee – what a change these days in her literary fortunes, far outstripping her husband.
I still have all the books I purchased from my father’s bounty. Sometimes I had to walk home from town (to Monkstown) because of course the money was intended for sensible things like bus fares. I think I made the better choice. Nowadays alibris.co.uk, which connects into every second hand bookshop on Earth, is a sort of virtual Greene’s. But every physical, living, radiant bookshop is the very source of the river of literature. May gods, and governments, guard them.
Laureate for Irish Fiction Sebastian Barry is an ambassador for Irish Book Week, and will be participating in a virtual Q&A with Kenny’s Bookshop on Friday, October 23rd. A Thousand Moons by Sebastian Barry is out now, published by Faber
I was lucky enough to grow up in a village with a bookshop. And what a bookshop! It was called The Exchange and it was a treasure trove of both new and second-hand books, run by a kind and patient man called Michael.
The bookshop had a system where you could bring books from home and exchange them for second-hand books. So I visited the shop with a bag full of books every Saturday and left with a new bag of books.
Michael always turned a blind eye to what I selected – ignoring the fact that Stephen King and James Herbert were rather punchy reading material for a young teen (there was a small pocket of time when I loved horror!). There might have been a slight smile or a raised eyebrow but he never once commented on my choices, instead commending me on my appetite for reading.
Sadly The Exchange closed down some years ago but I will never forget Michael and his slightly rickety green wooden shelves. You never knew quite what treasure you’d find on those shelves! I have no doubt that reading made me a writer.
I still love visiting bookshops to this day – it’s a weekly and highly enjoyable treat, especially at the moment when our lives are rather curtailed. Raven Books in Blackrock is one of my favourites and like The Exchange also sells a mixture of new and secondhand books. Its owner, Louisa is kind, patient and highly knowledgeable.
Dubray in Dún Laoghaire is another regular, along with Gutter Books in Dalkey, and there is always bookish chat to be had with the lovely staff in both.
Bookshops are part of the fabric of life. Places where dreams are nurtured and great stories begin. They are the beating heart of any village, town or city. Let’s do our best to support them and keep them open! We’ve never needed them more!
Sarah Webb is an award-winning children’s writer and Ambassador for Irish Book Week. She will be taking part in an interactive webinar on children’s books with fellow author Lorraine Levis, and Trish Hennessy from Halfway Up The Stairs bookshop on Tuesday, October 21st. Her latest book is Animal Crackers: Fantastic Facts About Your Favourite Animals, with Alan Nolan (The O’Brien Press)
I moved to Kildare in 2005, to the town of Kilcullen. Every morning, on the way to drop my baby and toddler to the creche, I drove past a pet shop on the corner of the main street. Over the years, as the boys grew up, I spent any spare time I could working on my first novel. We often walked down to the pet shop. The boys never did get a rabbit.
In 2014, several “first novels” later, I became a published author, and two years later, that pet shop became a bookshop. Woodbine Books had arrived. From the very first time I stepped inside and met the new owners, I knew it was a very special place. I’m sure the building knew it was meant to be a home for books, not goldfish and guinea pigs.
In 2017, I held my book launch for The Cottingley Secret at Woodbine Books. It was their first book launch, and for a book inspired by a hoax about photographs of fairies, it could not have been more magical. Bookshops like Woodbine are the hub of any community lucky enough to have one. Now, more than ever, we need to treasure them.
Hazel Gaynor’s novel The Bird in the Bamboo Cage, published by HarperCollins is out now. Three of Ireland’s favourite independent bookshops Antonia’s Bookstore, The Maynooth Bookshop and Woodbine Books, will present A Tale of Three Indies with Hazel Gaynor on Thursday, October 22nd.
We often don’t appreciate what we have until it’s gone. When bookshops closed at the end of March I was offered a reminder of this universal truth. For the past few years, I pushed myself towards the finish line of writing my first book by visualising it sitting on the shelves of the nation’s bookshops. The dream was on the verge of becoming reality when the country went into lockdown, just two days before my first launch.
For the three months that followed I embraced the world of virtual book launch events while wondering when I might get to see my book in stores. Since the country re-opened I’ve made it my business to visit as many bookshops as possible and I’ll soon reach number 40 on my list.
In these bookshops, I’ve experienced something much more important than seeing my book on the shelves. I’ve encountered vibrant hubs rich in community, conversation, and story. I’ve heard staff offer a comforting ear to lonely elders, recommend uplifting reads to anxious parents, and join customers in sharing stories of love, loss, hardship, and hope.
The experience has reminded me there is much more to bookshops than meets the eye for our bookshops are lighthouses for connection and imagination. In an increasingly virtual world starved of meaningful human connection, bookshops should be celebrated and supported like never before. I for one won’t be taking their existence for granted again.
Ruairí McKiernan is a Lahinch-based author from Cavan whose bestselling book Hitching for Hope: A Journey into the Heart and Soul of Ireland was released just as Ireland went into lockdown in late March.
LAURA ELLEN ANDERSON
I had the pleasure of visiting Dubray Books, Blackrock in November last year, and the memory shall stay with me. The staff were so warm and welcoming, and the space was cosy and well stocked. I think it makes such a difference when a bookshop goes out of their way to make a visitor feel at home. I was even given a beautiful little notebook to take away with me as a thank you for hosting a school event. It was such a kind gesture!
Dubray Books go out of their way to create a personal and unique experience for every reader, and the staff have a real passion for helping one to find their next magical adventure. Thank you, Dubray Books, for making my experience at your shop so positive and memorable – I hope to visit again one day!
Laura Ellen Anderson is an author and illustrator of children’s books. Amelia Fang and the Trouble with Toads, the seventh in the Amelia Fang series, is published by Egmont.
My first book was out. A modest offering for young children but it was my first book and, to me, it was the most significant thing that was ever published. We were on a family trip to London and I made straight for Foyle’s on Charing Cross Road. The shop was busy with tempting titles on all sides but, true as an arrow, I headed for the children’s section. I searched under F. I saw Anne Fine, Cornelia Funke and Elinor Farjeon but there was still no sign of my own masterpiece.
Putting on my most innocent face, I approached the bookseller. Did they have a copy of Frogs Do Not Like Dragons? I asked, brightly. She tapped on the computer with long red nails.
Do you know the publisher?
Sorry. I don’t. I said.
And the author’s name?
I frowned. Forde maybe?
More tapping with the lovely nails.
No nothing under Forde. Am I spelling it correctly? F.O.R.D?
Could you try Forde with an e maybe? I asked, helpfully.
She had another go and then her face lit up.
It is Forde! she said, Patricia Forde. Frogs Do Not Like Dragons. She bustled over to the shelves and with great satisfaction pulled out a copy. Just then my 10-year-old son, James, arrived beside us. I saw it happening in slow motion. James looked at the book, looked at the assistant, looked at me, and opened his mouth:
That’s the book you wrote Mam! She wrote that book! he said to the assistant proudly, pointing at me, in case there was any doubt.
Why is there never a hole in the ground when you need one?
Award winning children’s author Patricia Forde’s new book To the Island was published by Little Island last month in collaboration with Galway 2020 European Capital of Culture.