Book lovers return to stores for personalised service - and bookshop smell

‘Shop local’ mantra highlights importance of independent stores, says bookshop owner

Kevin Gildea in his bookshop, Kevin Gildea’s Brilliant  Bookshop, on Lower George’s Street in Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin. Photograph : Laura Hutton

Kevin Gildea in his bookshop, Kevin Gildea’s Brilliant Bookshop, on Lower George’s Street in Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin. Photograph : Laura Hutton

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Volumes of books are piled high in Kevin Gildea’s Brilliant Bookshop, on shelves and on the floor. Beano magazines are strewn next to a board game of Risk, while a Brontë classic sits atop a London A-Z street atlas.

This is a place where you may have to go on tip-toe or hunker down to reach the desired book. Rummaging, says Gildea, is what makes a second-hand bookshop fun and what sets it apart from the clinical scroll of online shopping.

“I think you get a thrill from it,” he says. Trading was strong in the days immediately after the relaxation of rules, then quiet when “a deluge of rain” came, before picking up again as the public became used to the changes.

The customers trickling into the Dún Laoghaire shop chat to Gildea about a first-edition copy of Dracula, the scandals in Irish soccer revealed by Champagne Football, and the similarities between Sligo and rural South Africa.

Such service does not happen online, says Gildea who is also a comedian, and opened his shop on Lower George’s Street in the Co Dublin town “4½ days before the second lockdown” in October 2020.

We all know if you don’t frequent these shops and go online, eventually they will have to close

What possessed him to open a shop during a global pandemic? It all happened “very organically”, he says, beginning with car boot sales and then a pop-up stall.

“This was a big scary decision, but I felt I had made a lot of steps towards it.”

Fears a few years ago that ebooks would kill paperback sales were overblown, he says: “The book is back. I think in the lockdowns people reassessed their relationship with their locality and went out to support independents a bit more. Whether that continues, I don’t know.”

Smell

Eamonn, a new regular, says he has missed the smell of a bookstore. This is a relief to Gildea, who notes the premises was formerly a fishmonger: “My biggest achievement has been replacing the smell of fish with books.”

The return to browsing in a physical shop since non-essential retail reopened is a comfort, Eamonn says, adding: “I really missed bookshops and galleries more than pubs and gigs.”

More than 13 million books were sold in Ireland last year, a rise of almost a million on 2019, according to Neilsen BookScan. The sales helped push Irish publishers and bookshops to revenues of €161.5 million, a figure surpassed only in 2008.

But the official figures may not tell the full story, according to Bríd Conroy who runs Tertulia bookshop in Westport, Co Mayo, with her husband. Some supermarkets and larger shops selling essential stationery did not cordon off their reading book section despite the items being categorised as non-essential by the Government. “That absolutely affected us… It wasn’t a level playing field, unfortunately. It was disheartening.”

The first week of in-person sales surpassed what was possible online, which could cover only overheads, says Conroy. Regulars, friends and new customers, including some travelling from afar, have “really supported” the business. However, Conroy keenly awaits the return of tourists, who are a key fixture of the heritage town.

Shop local

The “Amazon effect” is still a Goliath against which independents must battle, but people are starting to switch, she says. The “shop local” mantra has helped highlight the importance of supporting independent businesses, Conroy adds.

“People are realising the benefits of having their shops in their town. We all know if you don’t frequent these shops and go online, eventually they will have to close.”

In Co Kildare, Woodbine has had an “absolutely brilliant” first week of sales, owner Dawn Behan says. Many people came to spend Christmas vouchers “because it has been that long”.

Books, as a product, have been very popular. We have heard how important they have been for people’s mental health

Customers were excited to “see the books; they wanted to smell the books, and you cannot get that online”, Behan says.

“There has been a big focus on pubs and restaurants, but some people prefer to spend time browsing in bookshops.”

Behan got creative during the lockdowns to keep the Kilcullen store in customers’ minds, joining forces with two other local stores to host online author events.

“It was something else that could draw them back… The customers have been fantastic. They have really gone out of their way to support us,” she adds.

With an online service established in 1994, Kenny’s Bookshop in Co Galway was somewhat pandemic proofed. Its sales were up in 2020, with a boom and dip in online purchases coinciding with the imposition and lifting of lockdowns, says marketing manager Sarah Kenny.

“Books, as a product, have been very popular. We have heard how important they have been for people’s mental health,” she says.

Throughout the pandemic people have made a “fantastic” effort to shop from Irish retailers, Kenny says. The hope now, she says, is that this shift to “shopping more consciously” is here to stay.