John Wyse Jackson obituary: Bibliophile and Zozimus Bookshop founder

Wyse Jackson gained renown as a bookseller, literary historian and Brian O’Nolan expert

John Robert Wyse Jackson
Born: May 31st, 1953
Died: February 19th, 2020

John Wyse Jackson, who died suddenly last month aged 66, was a bibliophile in the literal as well as the metaphorical sense. When being interviewed by the renowned London bookseller, John Sandoe, for a job at the latter’s eponymous bookshop in 1978, Wyse Jackson recalled some years later that he told his interviewer that “I love books, the feel of them, the texture, the smell of them”.

He went on to work at Sandoe’s for 25 years, becoming eventually a partner in the business, before returning to Ireland with his wife, Ruth Matthews, and their family in 2003. Although by then a writer himself of some reputation as a literary historian and journalist, Wyse Jackson re-entered the book-selling business, this time as the owner and very hands-on operator of his own shop on Main Street, Gorey, Co Wexford.

This new venture by Wyse Jackson was, however, of a completely different kind; dealing in second-hand and antiquarian books, it quite rapidly established a national reputation as a hugely eclectic repository of all kinds of literature, in both English and Irish, across every conceivable kind of subject matter, with a noticeable emphasis on, among other things, contemporary and classic children’s books, Irish history and valuable vintage collectables, arranged in a special room within the shop fronted by an elaborately painted door, specially commissioned by Wyse Jackson from a local artist.

He would regularly engage in "weeding" non-sellers, not by returning them to publishers, but by replacing them in the shop so that they might be more easily noticed

Zozimus Books, as the shop became in time to be called, in honour of the famous Dublin balladeer Michael Moran of the middle years of the 19th century, today houses over 40,000 titles in stock, and regularly hosts book launches by both local and national authors. Such has been the regard in which it is held in north Wexford that Wyse Jackson’s unexpected death was front-page news in Co Wexford’s local newspapers.

Wyse Jackson was greatly esteemed by his colleagues in the business. John de Salbe, one of Sandoe’s controlling partners today, said this week that his former colleague used the word “husbandry” to describe his modus operandi: “John husbanded the books. As far as he was concerned it was an agricultural term [applied to book-selling].” He would regularly engage in “weeding” non-sellers, not by returning them to publishers, but by replacing them in the shop so that they might be more easily noticed, and carefully keeping the stock in alphabetical order.

Wide knowledge

Perhaps crucially, Wyse Jackson knew what he was selling, de Salbe recalling that “he believed that if you saw a book on a shelf, you [the bookseller] should know why it’s there … He was a very, very good bookseller, knowing why he’d got what he’d got,” keeping out-of-fashion writers, knowing that some day someone would come in looking for them.

While in London, Wyse Jackson contributed to several well-regarded publications, including the Sunday Times and the Spectator, and was a founding partner of the Chelsea Press, a small publishing company. A prolific author, his many books included three works on Oscar Wilde; three edited collections of Brian O’Nolan – a particular favourite, whose writing had fascinated Wyse Jackson since his school days – writing as either Flann O’Brien or Myles na gCopaleen); and three remarkable collections of what he termed Ireland’s Other Poetry – the works of little-known or forgotten Irish poets, each illustrated by artist Hector McDonnell; a biography of John Lennon; and Dublin: A Collection of the Poetry of Place, a popular evocation of Dublin locations in verse.

Something of an expert on James Joyce, Wyse Jackson collaborated with Peter Costello on a ground-breaking biography of the great novelist’s father, John Stanislaus Joyce: The Voluminous Life and Genius of James Joyce’s Father, and with Bernard McGinley produced an annotated edition of Joyce’s Dubliners, a comprehensive exploration of the book with notes linked to the text and accompanied by hundreds of illustrations.

Genial colleague

Costello recalled this week that Wyse Jackson had been “a very genial, easy-to-work-with colleague”, whose writing about other writers’ work came from a deep place of caring about and engagement with such literature.

The pair had first met while involved in setting up the first Symposium on Flann O’Brien in Dublin in 1986, where, he said, “the amount of work John had done on the minutiae [of O’Nolan’s life and work] was quite exceptional … a lot of people traded on having known Myles [O’Nolan] but didn’t know the details; John did it as a life-long interest, an entertaining work in itself.”

Some specialist [literary] people are only interested in the canon of about 20 established authors, but John was the professional un-specialist

Costello said Wyse Jackson reminded him of George Russell, the Irish writer known to the world as Æ, because of Wyse Jackson’s “myriad-minded sort of mind, never short of anything to say”, which was reflected both in the wide range of his literary interests, such as his interest in minor writers, and in his ability to have “endless discussions about books that would come into his shop … Some specialist [literary] people are only interested in the canon of about 20 established authors, but John was the professional un-specialist.”

John Wyse Jackson was born in Kilkenny, the eldest son of a well known Church of Ireland clergyman of the last century, who was later bishop of Limerick in the 1960s, and his wife, Lois (nee Phair). He was educated at St Columba’s College, Rathfarnham, and graduated in English from Trinity College Dublin, where he was president of the University Philosophical Society. He is survived by Ruth; his sons, Eoin, Conor, Adam and Daniel; his sister Margery; and his brothers, Peter, Patrick and Michael.