Advice for book collectors: get into local and family history

PJ Tynan of Courtwood Books, Stradbally, Co Laois gave up farming to become an antiquarian bookseller


PJ Tynan runs Courtwood Books, in Vicarstown, Stradbally, Co Laois, which specialises in selling rare and antiquarian books, mostly of Irish interest, at fairs and online. His main customer base is Ireland, with Britain and the United States providing around 20 per cent of sales. He also provides a valuations service.

What’s your background?

My background is in farming but at the at the end of the Swinging Sixties – some years after leaving school – I went to work in England. This was quite a change from downtown Vicarstown or a night out in one of Albert Reynolds' ballrooms with a bottle of lemonade and two straws. I spent four years in England and worked at various jobs finishing up in the Royal Mail in New Street, Birmingham. I have good memories – and still have friends – from my time there. Then it was back to farming in Ireland and in 1979 I met and married Joan Graham.

How did you get into the business and why?

I had always read a lot and collected books in a very small way. In the late 1970s Don Roberts opened an excellent second-hand bookshop in Kilkenny and occasionally frequenting it made me interested in a having a slightly better quality of book on my shelves.

He had, among other publications, reprinted Canon O'Hanlon's History of the Queen's County. Having copies left after initial sales, he asked me if I would be interested in trying to sell them, door-to-door, in my native hinterland. As I had never done anything like this before, it was a challenge, but after a short time I got to like meeting people and I think I was relatively successful in a somewhat limited market.


Around this time the Book barrow fairs had been started in Dublin’s Mansion House. I attended a couple of these and was quite amazed by the quantity and quality of books. There was also pleasure in the fact that one could look at these in an open forum rather than the hushed and somewhat intimidating atmosphere of most antiquarian bookshops at the time.

So come 1984 and farming was going badly, or at least my version of it was, and I wondered if I could make some extra cash by selling at these fairs. Don’s advice was to get my hands on a collection of books and give it a trial. So in March of that year I headed off with a motley collection of books. I think I broke even that day and realised that I had found the job that I always wanted. So I gave up farming to become an antiquarian bookseller.

I usually publish two catalogues per year and, though I would like this to be more, it never seems to work out that way. I try to make these catalogues more than just lists of books for sale – something which could be done with far less time and labour but I wouldn’t be happy with that.

I used to attend about one fair a month, but carrying books in and out of fairs is no joke so, as I have grown older, with the wear and tear on my back increasing, I have cut that back to perhaps three or four a year. Book fairs are, with the notable exception of the one in Fethard, Co Tipperary, not nearly as well attended by punters as they used to be.

Career highlights?

Book dealing is more a vocation than a career. Meeting and getting to know a wonderful and various selection of people – fellow dealers and customers – I would never have met otherwise, is a highlight.

What advice would you give collectors/investors?

There is a trend in the book market away from traditionally popular plate-illustrated books about Ireland such as Francis Grose's The Antiquities of Ireland and Hall's Ireland - Mr & Mrs Hall's Tour of 1840 and towards books about county and, in particular, local history. Also because of the huge upsurge of interest in genealogical studies, family histories have become much more sought-after.

What do you personally collect and why?

Books! James Joyce's Ulysses is one of my favourite books. I first read it in England in 1969 when it came out in that splendid Penguin edition with the black-and- white cover. To be honest, I probably only understood a quarter of it at the time, but it sounded good to say one was reading it. But I have returned to it continuously over the years with, I hope, improved understanding. Dubliners is also wonderful but Finnegans Wake is for those with more time than sense because it is, as his brother Stanislaus said, "unspeakably wearisome". So I have collected Joyce and Seamus Heaney. In the last few years, perhaps something to do with age, I have turned more to non-fiction and local history.

What would you buy if money was no object?

Sir William Orpen's wonderful portrait of Count John McCormack. Growing up with McCormack's records, I loved his singing but this picture presented him in a totally different light. Suddenly he became a character out of Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. [The painting was bought by the National Gallery of Ireland at a Christie's auction in London in 2009 for £361,250 – at the time the exchange rate made it €404,600]. I'd also buy one of El Greco's wonderful flaming saints from Toledo – to cover a damp spot on the wall.

What’s your favourite work of art and why?

A sculpture by Henry Moore in Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery called Warrior With Shield which depicts, lifesize, the warrior figure seated on a large wooden base. Almost limbless, he holds up a shield in his one remaining arm in an attempt to defend himself. It has such a vulnerability and sadness, but yet a defiant strength about it that I loved from the first time I saw it. I always go back to see it when I am in the city.


In conversation with Michael Parsons