Edward Tobin, who has died suddenly of a heart attack in Shropshire, England, seemed to have exactly the right qualities of business acumen and personality for the book trade in which he was a leading and much-loved figure both in Ireland and the UK.
A former managing director of HarperCollins in Ireland, he had taken redundancy from that firm to move to England and the remainder book business in 1999. He set up Aardvark Books (aardvark-books.com) in the beautiful Shropshire village of Brampton Bryan with his business partner Sheridan Swinson, turning an old barn into one of England's best second-hand and remainder bookshops. It had 300,000 titles, a huge online trade and a distinctive sideline as an organiser of food fairs, historic re-enactments and other cultural enterprises.
At HarperCollins, he promoted Irish writers, one of whom, novelist Joe O'Connor, told The Irish Times this week "Ed was a bright and very funny man who loved parties and literary gossip. He had also an immense gentleness and was a tactful, loyal friend to many. His knowledge of the Irish book trade was second to none and he shared his gifts, which were serious, with a self-deprecating wit. A lovely man."
Seminarian in Spain
Tobin had made a long and sometimes difficult journey to this new life from three post-school years as a seminarian at the Irish College in Valladolid, Spain, where Franco's regime, dull food and a realisation the priesthood wasn't for him brought him to London in the mid-1970s and an internship with WH Smith. He became friendly with Harold Clarke of Eason's, Ireland's largest booksellers, and worked for a spell with its subsidiary, Irish Representation.
In the mid-1980s he joined the educational, religious, reference and professional section, known in the trade as “Errps”, of HarperCollins in London, and a brilliant, colourful period followed. He travelled the world, particularly Africa, promoting everything from Bibles to dictionaries, before moving back to Ireland as HarperCollins’s Irish managing director.
A bon viveur, Tobin loved entertaining and being entertained, with visits to his favourite pubs such as the Harbour Bar in his native Bray often with friends in the priesthood, in mufti of course, and to another favourite, the George in Dublin, with other companions.
Tobin’s religious faith remained a constant in his life, despite a personality much at odds with some of the church’s teachings; at his funeral Mass, Fr Gerry Doyle recalled a memorable moment at Lourdes on the Dublin diocesan pilgrimage, when Edward Tobin took part in the readings of scripture under the gaze of the Virgin’s statue in the Grotto before a crowd of 2,000 people.
Tobin's deep Christian faith gave him a noticeable type of serenity. Sheridan Swinson remarks of this that "Ed wasn't complex; he had an incredible sense of himself, had no doubts as to what he was and was amazing psychologically."
Swinson told The Irish Times this week of an incident recently at Aardvark Books where a young man, known locally to be distressed, came "screaming and shouting into the shop" because Tobin had refused entry to the youth's dog. "Ed calmed him down, saying to him 'let me make you a cup of coffee', and, an hour later, the lad was laughing, apologising, weeping. It takes a certain kind of person to be able to do that."
Edward James Tobin was born in Bray, Co Wicklow, the eldest of five children of a CIÉ employee, Christopher Tobin, and his wife, Grace, a window-dresser. He was educated at Presentation College Bray and later at St Mary's College, Colwyn Bay, during a period the Tobin family spent in north Wales. He is survived by a sister, Catherine Sweeney, by his brothers, Christopher, Brian and Andrew, and by nieces and nephews.