The unputdownable spirit of the local bookshop

Independent sellers such as Books Upstairs, Raven Books and Kenny’s have proved to be remarkably resilient in hard times, kept afloat by flexibility and the personal touch

For anyone who is serious about reading, the local bookshop is a vital outlet for nourishing their love of literature. It is a place where they can trade opinions, offer informal reviews and seek recommendations that no algorithm could predict.

For this type of reader, buying their books in shops such as the Gutter Bookshop in Temple Bar, Charlie Byrne’s in Galway, Vibes and Scribes in Cork, or No Alibis in Belfast is a matter of principle. They see the bookshop as a crucial part of the publishing chain: to protect it from the bargain-basement business model of book-selling is to protect writers, readers, and the future of books themselves.

Despite headlines about the volatile state of the book-buying and book-selling industry – nearly 50 independent bookshops in the UK closed last year – independent bookshops in Ireland are thriving. While larger bookshops such as Waterstones, which closed its Dublin branches in 2011, faced challenges in the recession that proved insurmountable, independent bookshops have managed to weather the economic storm.

According to Des Kenny, who runs Kenny’s bookshop in Galway with his siblings, the ability of “small bookshops to respond to the local community and changing situation” is a vital part of their strength and key to their survival. “In the larger chains there is a whole system that needs to be adapted and rolled out, but we are more flexible, and we are able to react to the local community and its needs with an immediacy that a larger business just could not.”


‘Conservative cultural climate’

Maurice Earls and Enda O’Doherty established Dublin’s independent bookshop Books Upstairs in 1978 as a direct response to what they identified as a need among the local community. “It was a really conservative cultural climate at the time, and we were consciously trying to introduce books about social issues and sexuality that would not have been available elsewhere. Even the idea of women’s studies or environmentalism would have been unusual then, and that was our goal: to be a literature and society bookshop.”

The shop soon garnered a loyal clientele, among emerging and established writers, but also “people coming up from the country especially to buy books, in a place where being gay wasn’t something untoward.” The shop’s original location was on the first floor of a building on South King Street, but as its customer base expanded it moved to Market Arcade and then College Green, where it settled for the next two decades.

Although the most recent recession posed challenges, the late 1980s, Earls remembers, were the hardest years, because “highly capitalised international companies started selling books for the first time in the 20th century. Of course, the inappropriate rents of the boom and purse-tightening of the recession hit us, but the fact that those big companies started pulling out [of the book trade] actually provides an opportunity for independent booksellers who are embedded in the community in which they are selling. Independent bookshops have a deep engagement with the culture of their city and country and they can reflect that in their stock where an international seller cannot.”

An online warehouse seller can't offer that local touch either, nor can it offer the environmental lure of a bricks and mortar bookshop. It is with this in mind that Books Upstairs moved to a new premises on D'Olier Street earlier this year, incorporating a cafe as well the periodical Dublin Review of Books into its fabric. "A bookshop," Earls concludes buoyantly, "should not just be a functional place but a place where it is enjoyable to spend time, where you can go simply for the experience."

Louisa Cameron, who opened Raven Books in Blackrock in 2008, agrees. “We opened three months before the economy tanked, so we had boom-time rent with a recession income, a less than ideal combination,” she says. The bookshop, which stocks new and second-hand titles, was Cameron’s first business venture. “It’s hard for me to say exactly how the recession impacted [but] it is even possible austerity helped. People without so much discretionary income may have sought out cheaper, second-hand books, or they may have turned to books as an inexpensive form of escapism.”

What Cameron has found challenging, however, is the “impact of readers shopping online”. People rarely consider the “long-term impact of what they perceive to be the convenient and cheap option of clicking the ‘buy’ button,” she says. “There is a fundamental lack of understanding, a disconnect and abdication of responsibility between their actions and the repercussions of those actions negatively impacting other parts of their lives.” In particular, Cameron says, they fail to grasp that the council and employment taxes paid by local businesses contribute towards the fundamental services of the local community, from the provision of street lighting to the upkeep of local parks and libraries.

The local bookshop is also important, she says, because it fosters good old-fashioned real-world relationships. “There is a distinct atmosphere reflective of those who make up the shop – owner, employees, customers – rather than reflecting decisions made in a head office hundreds of miles away by suits analysing data. It is the difference between listening and talking. I get to listen to my customers every day and hear what they want, and because we are small, we have the flexibility to easily adjust accordingly. I know most of our regular customers by their first name. I will text them if a book comes in that I think their five-year-old who is going through a dinosaur phase might like. I will remember the book they ordered even when they don’t. I will know their next book-club book because their friend was just in getting it. I have an accountability that impersonal chains don’t, because my customers are often my friends and neighbours.”

That kind of personal relationship engenders the type of customer loyalty that has enabled Cameron’s bookshop to withstand the impact of difficult economic times. Indeed, she has even expanded; Raven Books moved to a larger premises on Blackrock’s main street in 2011, and business is still going strong.

Kenny’s online and off

Kenny’s Bookshop in Liosbán in Galway has used its local strengths to develop a global online presence that has enabled it to continue operating, even expanding, throughout the recession. The business was established in 1940, and online operations became an integral part as early as 1994, when it became the second bookshop in the world to offer an online shopping experience. They were adamant, however, that they would “try to keep the atmosphere of a small independent bookshop in the website”.

The company’s global interest, however, didn’t dilute its local interests. “It actually allowed us to give the smaller books and local books all over Ireland a global presence,” says Des Kenny. The fact that their bookshop offers book-binding services helps them to offer a distinctive local thrust to their catalogue. “We take in self-published books, independently published books, which have a particular problem getting into the international arena,” says Kenny. “What we can do through the website is make them easily available to our customers in Australia or Japan, where they would never get a readership otherwise.”

While the bookshop closed its High Street premises in 2006 – “the costs of maintaining the bookshop were huge” – the company’s online presence enabled it to survive during the next few difficult years. They reopened as a physical shop in 2008 in a retail park on the outskirts of the city, but their business is 85 per cent online and 15 per cent sales in the bricks-and-mortar shop. Even so, they offer the type of commitment and customer service associated with the independent bookshop.

“When people ring, there is someone who will answer the phone, address their problem and make sure that it is taken care of,” says Kenny. “And it will be someone who knows what they are talking about, who knows that books are more than an ISBN. It is paramount that [someone who sells books] should be able to talk about books, not numbers or figures. That is at the heart of our ethos.”

It’s working: this year Kenny’s celebrates its 75th anniversary with the news that it has been shortlisted as Book Retailer of the Year in the Bookseller Industry Awards.