An Irishwoman's Diary

When two or more book reviewers are discovered in animated conversation they are unlikely to be exchanging opinions on the latest…

When two or more book reviewers are discovered in animated conversation they are unlikely to be exchanging opinions on the latest novel or biography. A far more popular question is the disposal of review copies - who is buying them and how much are they paying?

Book reviewers, it is generally assumed, must have wonderful libraries, constantly topped up for free, courtesy of the job. Some do, but not those who, like myself, live in a small house with limited storage space. Had I kept all the books I have reviewed over the past 15 years, I would be living in the cupboard under the stairs, barricaded in by massed stacks of hardbacks.

In the old days I used to pack the review copies off to a book dealer in London known as Gaston. By return would come a sterling cheque representing one third of the cover price. Such generosity now seems prodigal. It was no surprise when Gaston suddenly went out of business.

It was then that I discovered Gerald MacSweeney and the Lee Bookstore. This great Cork institution, down on the quay between the Opera House and Patrick's Bridge, has been a home from home for generations of Cork bibliophiles, most of whom, luckily for Gerald, were buying books rather than selling them.


Browse for hours

The Lee Bookstore was the archetypal second-hand-cumantiquarian book shop, a dusty book-lined room where customers would browse for hours among the treasures. Two big free-standing cases held secondhand paperbacks, while around the walls the specialist categories awaited investigation: Irish literature, history and topography, poetry, theatre, ballet, gardening, cookery, sailing, fishing, theology, art and architecture, travel and exploration. Note the past tense. By the end of January The Lee Bookstore as we know it will be no more.

Gerald MacSweeney is, with many regrets and apologies to his regular customers, closing his Cork landmark and relocating to his home in East Ferry near Midleton, from which he will continue to trade as a more specialised book dealer. No more paperbacks or general fiction, no review copies. The business will consist of engravings, maps and prints, books of Irish interest and, to quote Gerald, "exciting, collectable books".

The Lee Bookstore was founded by Gerald's father, Liam MacSweeney, in 1943, and moved along the quay to its current premises about 15 years later. It has always been a part of the family's life, as Gerald recalls: "Books were my father's passion, and we were brought up with books. As young children we were often in the shop. Our mother would park us there if she was going shopping, and later on, when we were at school, we would wait there for a lift home."

On leaving school, Gerald went to art college, heading for a career in design. In 1969 his father, a reserve in the Army, was called up, and Gerald took over the running of the shop - temporarily, as he thought. However, he found it so congenial that he simply stayed on.

"Often people come back who've emigrated years ago, and come in to say hallo," Gerald says. "They see the shop exactly as it was, and assume that I am my father, and remark on how kind the years have been to me."

Genial host

For many people the purpose of a visit to the Lee Bookstore is as much to see Gerald as it is to browse among the shelves. He entertains like a genial host, introducing customers to each other if they happen not to have met thus far, and constantly adding to his own vast acquaintance:

"I've met a huge number of friends through the book shop. They keep returning, and you get to know their interests and their personalities. Book lovers have a very gentle disposition. It's been very restful, running the shop."

I doubt if there is a booklover in Cork, if not Munster, who has not spent time in the Lee Bookstore. I always allowed half-an-hour for browsing on a trip to the city, which would often turn into lunch or coffee with Gerald himself, or one of his many customer-friends: Peter Murray, Robert Nye, Sean Dunne, Gerald Goldberg, John Montague, Richard Wood, Molly Keane's daughter Sally Phipps, Hurd Hatfield, Stan Gebler Davies, Garret Barden, Vera Ryan, Katherine Beug - to name but a few at random. Living and dead, the list is eclectic and seemingly endless.

Gerald reports that his shop was regularly used as a place for unloading visitors: house guests were dropped off to browse for two or three hours while their hosts went about their city business. "In the old days there was a coal fire. Country people would come in with their wolfhounds or Borzoi, and the dogs would throw themselves on the floor in front of the fire. One person had pugs who would walk around snorting, holding each other's leads.

Fit of madness

"I remember once during an electrical storm, the lights went out, and one customer pulled his sword-stick on another. He had to be dealt with quite firmly. It was not a literary dispute, or anything romantic, just a fit of madness in the sudden dark."

With the departure of the Lee Bookstore, Cork loses its last remaining antiquarian book shop, and the last of what Gerald calls "the old-fashioned, dusty, general, browsing, second-hand book shop".

After a final city-centre lunch with Gerald it was time to unload my batch of review copies. There may be no dusty, antiquarian book shops left, but the book trade is thriving in Cork. Just north of Patrick's Bridge, the brightly-lit, cheerfullypainted Vibes & Scribes sells new books, bargain books, second hand books, CDs, cassettes, and videos. It has just opened an in-house coffee shop, with a real fire, and Mozart on the sound system. But I doubt that, in the event of a power cut, I will be challenged by an eccentric with a swordstick.