I’m dreaming of better days. I’m dreaming of the places I miss, including beaches and mountains, libraries and bookshops. And in these dreams I often swoop back in time into my lovely bookshop.
In the late 1950s, my two maiden aunts opened a bookshop on a corner of Broad Street in Waterford, near the Savoy cinema. They called it Waterford Books. It was a decent-sized premises, with bookshelves around the walls, stands on the floor for paperbacks and postcards and a counter on the left, towards the back. A similar space on the upper floor was used for stock and, once a year, to display the great numbers of Christmas annuals, those large, shiny hardback editions of popular comics that were much prized by children like myself.
My aunts, on whose behalf the bookshop had been set up by two of their brothers, were quiet, reserved ladies in early middle age. They lived on Barker Street with their mother, my grandmother, 10 minutes’ walk from the new shop, in a terraced house where the rosary was said every evening. My aunts had no experience in retail, books or otherwise, and I had never seen either of them reading. Clearly these circumstances called for a crash course in running a bookshop.
Someone, I never found out who, enlisted the help of Mrs Kenny, well-known matriarch of the Galway book empire of the same name. Mrs Kenny arrived with her suitcase in Waterford and was invited to stay in Barker Street. She spent the best part of a week instructing my aunts in how to turn the canon of literature into a retail project. It cannot have been an easy task. Mrs Kenny was a lover of the arts and an unfailing supporter of young writers; the idea of two ingenue spinsters entering the world of books must have appealed to her.
I was 10 years old when I became a part-time assistant, during school holidays, in Waterford Books. In this role I often found myself behind the counter, dealing with customers and interpreting their requirements, especially for the older of my two aunts, who was substantially deaf. Requests to her for titles were usually met with a polite smile, a signal for me to leap into action.
The shop had no cash register, just a drawer with compartments for coins and notes. Being no mathematician, I struggled at the beginning with calculating the change, something which irritated my employers. After I had given a customer more in change than she had given me, one of my aunts remarked within my earshot to the other: “He doesn’t even look intelligent.”
The sales reps who came to present their lists must soon have gauged the lie of the land in Waterford Books. Safe ground could be found with dignified hardbacks of history or biography. Anything to do with the English monarchy sailed in, as did Boswell's journals, although my spotless aunts could never have imagined what lay between, or even beneath, Boswell's covers. Books by or about figures such as Horatio Bottomley, Lawrence of Arabia and Noël Coward got the nod, as did The New Testament in Modern English. Churchill was a shoo-in.
Irish politics were mainly avoided, particularly if Mr De Valera was involved. My aunts’ father, my late grandfather, had been John Redmond’s friend and election agent and had squarely laid the blame for Redmond’s untimely death in 1918 on Dev.
It was harder going for the reps when it came to selling in fiction. Hardbacks, in dust jackets that mainly stated the title and author in large letters, looked respectable. Paperbacks, on the other hand, other than Penguin paperbacks, had begun to put vivid illustrations on their covers. Pan paperbacks were particularly prominent in this regard, and had engaged artists adept at presenting young women in various challenging poses, often with their clothes either torn or partly missing. Nowadays these covers wouldn’t cause a nun to blush, but back then in Waterford, with their teasing images of thighs and low bodices, they flirted with the boundaries of delicacy.
I recall one such presentation – I don’t remember the title of the book – to my hard-of-hearing aunt, in which the cover showed a rascally man wearing an eye patch with his boot on the back of a scantily dressed young woman, preventing her escape.
“This one is doing particularly well,” said the rep loudly.
My aunt stared at the cover, and then at the rep, as if she had just been made an indecent proposal.
High on my aunts’ list of unsuitable targets were the novels of Harold Robbins and Ian Fleming, whose reputations preceded them and whose racy covers spoke for themselves. The younger of these two innocent ladies once confided in me that she had finally braced herself and read 79 Park Avenue by Robbins, a novel about a New York madam. When she had finished the book, she told me, she burned it in the fire grate in her bedroom.
Committee on Evil Literature
In their defence, my aunts had grown up in an Ireland where every book was filtered through the Committee on Evil Literature, a stalwart body set up by Kevin O'Higgins in 1926, and which laid the groundwork over the following 40 years to defend Irish public morality from the likes of Proust, Faulkner, Hemingway, Freud, Dylan Thomas, Shaw and Beckett, to mention just some. In this light, my aunts' commitment to a new bookshop, a vector for sensual indulgences, can be seen as heroic.
Christmas then, as now, was harvest time for bookshops, and I was put in charge of the upper room where high stacks of annuals took up the floor. For a solitary child this was heaven. When I wasn’t being interrupted by customers who had irritatingly made their way upstairs to buy an annual I could spend my time alone, my head stuck in Kit Carson, the Topper or Roy of the Rovers. What I now remember most vividly is not the stories in those annuals but the smell of glue.
Nothing I had experienced up to then could equal sitting peacefully in my lovely bookshop, opening a brand new Beano annual and running my nose up the binding. Once opened, and sniffed, the book seemed to lose its potency, so I reached for another. There were hundreds of them. I had the best job in the world. Today I do the same with glossy magazines, no longer just for the hit, but for the memory.
Waterford Books has long closed, but right across the lane from where it stood, in a leap worthy of zoonosis, the Savoy cinema is now the Book Centre. It's a great, enthusiastic bookshop, with book-laden galleries facing the wall where the big screen once showed Glenn Ford riding through girth-high Montana snowdrifts.
Over the years I’ve been in bookshops all over Ireland, and beyond, and read from my work in many of them, but in my dreams I am always in my lovely bookshop.
Peter Cunningham’s new novel, Freedom Is a Land I Cannot See, is published by Sandstone Press next week.