The shop that could change Ireland

Books@One, a community initiative, has the potential to reinvigorate Irish towns

Books@One is a new initiative that brings bookshops to rural parts of Ireland and helps re-energise main streets and re-connect communities.

 

It’s a wet, wild winter day, and a ferocious chill wind is coming off the mountains near Louisburgh, in Co Mayo. But when I step inside Books@One, on Bridge Street, it is gloriously warm.

The welcome heat is all I notice for the first few seconds. Their frequently opening doors leave so many village shops on a scale from icy to crisp that you’d rather not linger at this time of year. Books@One is the opposite.

While I’m defrosting I notice a lot of things. The big windows, the eclectic offering of new and second-hand books, a hot-drinks station, a sofa and armchairs where people are sitting and chatting, a sign for free wifi, sliding doors leading to a courtyard.

“I associate this bookshop with a spaceship landing, because Louisburgh is so far out there,” jokes its manager, Neil Paul.

This is a community bookshop. The philanthropist Declan Ryan (son of the late Tony Ryan, founder of Ryanair), who set up the One Foundation, has long holidayed in the area. As a contribution to the community he bought the shop’s formerly disused building and established the business with his own money – it opened in August 2016 – which includes paying Paul’s wages. Jane Feighery, who is head of strategy at the One Foundation, says the total cost of setting up Books@One, given Ryan already owned the building, was about €100,000.

Many stories about small rural communities in the past decade have focused on loss: the closure of businesses, the disappearance of a younger generation, the lack of jobs. Their dynamic is in continual flux. The people who live there, for instance, no longer necessarily work there: they commute to bigger towns. Living over the shop is all but gone, as are many of those kinds of shops.

So what can be done to create new kinds of social glue in rural communities?

Shelley Upchurch at story time in Books@One: she moved to Mayo from Costa Rica after reading an online article in this newspaper that Westport had won The Irish Times Best Place to Live competition in 2012. Photograph: Enda O’Dowd
Shelley Upchurch at story time in Books@One: she moved to Mayo from Costa Rica after reading an online article in this newspaper that Westport had won The Irish Times Best Place to Live competition in 2012. Photograph: Enda O’Dowd

Louisburgh – population 434, according to the 2016 census – has never had a bookshop before. Opening one anywhere is a gamble these days. Irish customers are well used to ordering online, or downloading books to devices, neither of which requires a visit to a bricks-and-mortar building. Even in large towns and cities, the future of bookshops is often uncertain. So for Louisburgh to have one seems unlikely. That’s why no one person could have set up Books@One.

Andy Durkan, who is now retired, grew up in Louisburgh; he lives on the edge of the town. “I can count 56 businesses that have gone now. There were five tailors at one point,” he says. “The bookshop has given the place a lift, a vote of confidence, and brought new life to the area. It has integrated with the school, and you have children using it, too.”

“The fact that it is open all year round is very important,” says Janet Durkan, his wife.

“It shows it’s not just for tourists,” Andy says.

Rosarie Tiernan was born and raised in Louisburgh. She grew up in the town’s old rectory, which her family ran as an eight-room guest house in the summer. “I thought Louisburgh was the centre of tourism of Ireland in the late 1960s and 1970s,” she says. “It was mostly English people, staying two weeks with full board.

“Louisburgh was a very vibrant town. You could buy every single thing you wanted. When we were children we didn’t need to go to Westport to shop. There were two drapery shops. The pubs generally sold other things along with drink: shovels, fabric, farming equipment, boots, shoes, groceries. There were enough children in the town to have a snowball fight on two streets, one against the other. There was a library – and still is – but no bookshop.”

Books@One’s premises, “closed for years”, had long been derelict. Tiernan remembers when the shop there sold comics, newspapers, groceries and fishing tackle.

Of the bookshop that is now there, she says: “It was the first, or nearly the first, community effort that was put back into our community that nobody has to pay for to use. You can go in, browse through the books, just sit down for a while. Nobody is asking you for anything.”

Neil Paul, the manager, who is 58, has been living in Louisburgh for 17 years with his wife, Brid Conroy. They had been living in London, took a wrong turn on a road en route to visiting friends in Castlebar, and ended up looking at the derelict schoolhouse in Louisburgh. They put an offer on it that day. Paul commuted to London to work as a lighting engineer on the Harry Potter movies.

He was considering going to Belfast, to work on Game of Thrones, when a friend told him about an ad in the Mayo News. It was from the One Foundation, advertising for a manager of a bookshop that didn’t yet exist. (The shop’s name is a reference to the name of the foundation.)

“I went up to Dublin for the interview in May 2015,” he says. As he tells it, nobody was quite sure what the job would involve, or how the bookshop would serve its mandate as a community hub. “The community sense was the number-one goal,” Paul says. He got the job. “Our goal is to break even.”

'The bookshop isn’t just for very booky people. It’s becoming a focus for events and activities'

The bookshop has been designed so that it has the flexibility of the simple “black box” at the heart of many newer local theatres. A central island is on wheels, so it can be moved to make room for 30 or so chairs for film-club nights, or gatherings too large for the room on the far side of the courtyard. Two book clubs meet in the shop each month. A large sofa and two beautiful art-deco armchairs almost always have someone sitting on them.

The self-service hot-drinks machine serves tea, coffee and hot chocolate for €1.50, or €1 for students. The shop stocks both new and donated second-hand books. Paul also orders books for whoever wants them – as he does while I’m there for Marian Kilcoyne.

“I can come in here and order the books I want now, and have done on many occasions, instead of ordering them through Amazon,” she says.

What has the bookshop brought to Louisburgh? “It’s taking advantage of something that was waiting to be blown open,” she says. “It was the right place, at the right time, with the right person to run it. The bookshop has so many strands. It’s a hub, for sure. It’s social; it’s intellectual. It’s welcoming, like an oasis. You can come in just for a coffee and flop on the sofa and look out at the rain. What keeps people coming back is the attitude from the people who work here. Neil and the staff are a very significant part of its success.”

At the far side of the little courtyard are a table and chairs where people can sit in summer (and an incongruous gold-painted Statue of Liberty). It’s a small and pleasant second space, with books, beanbags and another sofa. This is where most of the children’s books are shelved, where a story time takes place each Saturday, and where various creative-writing workshops take place, all free.

Linking in with the local schools (two primaries and one secondary) and getting teachers’ support was part of the community remit. “We ran a competition with primary-school kids to design bookmarks for the shop, and there was a prize of book tokens for the best ones,” Paul says.

At Halloween 50 children squashed into the space for spooky seasonal stories.

The person who volunteers her time to run story time is Shelley Upchurch, a Texan who moved to Mayo after reading on irishtimes.com that Westport had won the Irish Times Best Place to Live competition in 2012. “It’s true!” she says, laughing. “I had been living in Costa Rica, and I wanted a change. I googled ‘best place to live in Ireland’ and found the article.”

Upchurch bought a house in Louisburgh, in a country where “I didn’t know a single person when I got here first.” When the bookshop opened she volunteered to do help. “I went from knowing nobody to knowing practically everyone,” she says. “Whenever I’m out getting groceries, or gas, the kids will all call out to me now.”

The writer Geraldine Mitchell, who has lived locally for 17 years, says that for her the bookshop has “changed the dynamics of Louisburgh. I do creative writing here with the kids from the secondary school. There are a lot of writers who live around here, and the bookshop is a social network for them. But the bookshop isn’t just for very booky people. It’s becoming a focus for events and activities.”

The space that hosts the children’s books is also used for meetings. The normal charge is €20, although “if it’s a meeting of a charitable group, such as the hospice, it’s free”, Paul says.

The bookshop also hosts musical evenings, as well as readings by writers, both local and those with higher profiles: the award-winning local novelist Mike McCormack has come back to read here.

In August Paul organised a book festival, which brought many people to the town, and which it’s hoped will become an annual event. Two anonymous donors contributed €2,000 each, which covered the cost of the festival.

The next-door premises has also been acquired. At present it houses a recently acquired book printing and binding machine. They are still figuring out how to use it, but this will all be part of the community-bookshop enterprise. Also in this building will be a cafe, to open daily from St Patrick’s Day 2018.

Neil Paul (left) manager of Books@One, Louisburgh, Co Mayo: “The community sense was the number one goal.” Photograph: Enda O’Dowd
Neil Paul (left) manager of Books@One, Louisburgh, Co Mayo: “The community sense was the number one goal.” Photograph: Enda O’Dowd

John Groden, who runs the Country Kitchen restaurant on the same street, admits that he is “not a devotee” of books. “When the idea of a bookshop in a town this size was being bandied around there was this feeling of, Are they crazy?”

Yet Groden now uses the bookshop. “I’m not part of their target market, and yet it’s brought me in, too. You can swing the door open and come in and have a coffee and a chat. It’s a social hub, and you get all the news,” he says. “The biggest thing is that I don’t feel compelled to buy something by coming in.”

Groden’s business has also benefited from the presence of Books@One. “We’ve done finger food for a lot of the events here,” he says. “Footfall is definitely bigger in the town. Louisburgh is much more of a destination than it ever was, and attracting local people, not just tourists coming for the Wild Atlantic Way. We get a lot of people coming out from Westport, for instance.”

Across the road from the bookshop is the Solas craft shop and gallery. Everything stocked in the shop is by 40 or so craftspeople from Mayo. Solas opened this summer, in a premises that had been closed for several years. There had been a craft shop in the town previously, but at a smaller premises.

Anthony O’Brien and Jane Williams have the beautiful upstairs gallery space at Solas. O’Brien says that for their opening exhibition they borrowed a projector from Books@One to show an accompanying short documentary about women potters in northern Nigeria.

“Books@One has brought a whole new kind of visitor to the town,” he says.

“The proximity of this location to Books@One was a big attraction,” agrees Dolly Temple, who, along with Susan Steward, manages the craft shop, when I ask if the bookshop has sparked a cluster of similar businesses. Next door to Solas, Louisburgh Music School, run by Michael Quinn and Pauline Graham, also opened this summer.

Caroline Healy, who has been living in the town for three years, works part time in the bookshop and rents the apartment over it. “If you think of rural Ireland you usually think of fields and cows,” she says. “You don’t think of a bookshop. I think it has added a major buzz to the town. There are loads of artists, and writers, journalists, potters, stitchers and makers, living around here.”

Nobody points this out to me while I am in Louisburgh, but the new community hub that Books@One has offered the town is radically different from most traditional gathering spaces in rural Ireland. It is neither a pub nor a sporting organisation, and so offers a different experience of socialising. Everyone I ask says they think this would work in other rural communities, too.

Back in Dublin, Jane Feighery of the One Foundation says their long-term goal is to have such a Books@One in every county. They are working with other philanthropists, in Ireland and abroad, who may want to contribute to the place they originally came from. “How do we maximise impact, and how do we measure the success?” she says. They are still figuring that out, all the time looking to how the Louisburgh bookshop is doing.

Every bookshop will need to break even sooner or later to be sustainable, but the rough idea is that €100,000 in initial capital will be needed to set up each one.

“We’re looking for people who might be interested in running these bookshops,” Feighery says. “The right person is key, as is finding the right communities in which a bookshop would best work. It has to be a place that doesn’t have a bookshop already, as we don’t want to be in competition with anyone, and it has to have a school. After that it could be anywhere.”

Books@One is an inspirational social experiment with the potential to transform communities long used to loss rather than gain. It will be fascinating to see where the next shop opens, and the impact it makes.

Would your community benefit from having a Books@One bookshop? If you live in a town or village without a bookshop, please let us know where you live and what a community bookshop could bring. We will publish a selection of the responses. Email rboland@irishtimes.com

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