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Una Mullally: Public space must be prioritised for bookselling

Feeding your mind is essential – and reading has helped many battle through pandemic

There is a case for opening bookshops. Surely we can agree on that. Bookselling Ireland previously called for bookshops to be classified as “essential retail”, which of course they are. The pandemic has been good for book-buying, but bad for locked-down bookshops. In Ireland, 13.1 million books were sold in 2020, one million more than 2019. More than 200 million books were sold in the UK last year, an eight-year high. The situation is similar in the US, with 751 million books sold, the best year for print book sales there since 2010.

But just because people are buying more books, doesn’t mean that the independent bookshops we love are the largest beneficiaries of this boom. Remarkably, many people still insist on buying books from Amazon, despite the company’s practices. Book-buying being up, while bricks-and-mortar shops themselves are locked-down, is a gift to the likes of Amazon. Surely it’s preferable to preserve independent bookshops rather than further bolster Jeff Bezos’s wealth?

I, selfishly, unapologetically, want the bookshops to open safely as essential retail, asap

Most cities in Ireland have been slow to ready urban areas for the outdoor living that will be required this summer. That’s not just about public space, amenities and dining, it’s also about retail. There’s no reason why we can’t have bookshops setting out their literal stalls on streets and in public squares and parks. Yes, it would present a small a logistical challenge, but one easily overcome. In the olden times, there were smatterings of book markets in Dublin; in Temple Bar or the little plaza by City Hall on Dame Street. How great would it be to have Books on the Boardwalk? Or Book Parks? Or Books on the Square? I want Book Piers and Book Carparks and Book Beaches and Book Promenades. These are the things we should be considering in order to give local bookshops a boost.

Creativity vacuum

What is essential is in the eye of the beholder and I, selfishly, unapologetically, want the bookshops to open safely as essential retail, asap. We know from the ridiculous debacle over children’s shoes that certain needs and points of view just aren’t very present at a decision-making level in the Government. Some of this is gendered, but a lot of it has to do with a lack of imagination, a creativity vacuum, and an inability to think differently and offer a few safe treats to keep us going.


This lack of creativity looms large in the language Government politicians use to communicate the dourness of the hour. Had the Government the imagination and capacity to communicate with people in a manner that at least felt empathic, human and on our level, people would respond better. But too often, it feels as though we’re being patronised, infantilised or just spoken to in a strange, detached way, very much at odds with how people want to hear information, or even talk themselves.

If we can queue and shop relatively safely for food and alcohol, why not for books?

Many Irish politicians still speak in senior-civil-servant-style riddles to “the public”, unable to escape vocabulary that might be necessary for their workplace but to everyone else is like wading through concrete. Political jargon has made the pandemic even more tedious. This is the language of cohorts, stakeholders, action plans and deliverables, enacting measures, focusing on initiatives, being cognisant of hubs and bodies, as well as centres of excellence, and drafting pivotal White Papers outlining various stratagems delineating a meaningful and complex process, going forward, with an abundance of caution on mature reflection. At this stage, a few new books would really help the aul vocab.

Nourishment and intoxication

I know a lot of people have struggled to read over the past year. Our concentration levels have been shot by the overarching, terrifying context of the pandemic, which you can hardly call a distraction, although it does pull us away all the time.

I’ve just kept reading though. Books have been something to hang on to, in so many ways. I recently started an “urgent” book pile (books that require immediate reading) as an overflow from the “to read” pile, which has towered to close to a hundred in separate piles propped up against the wall of my bedroom, but now needs to be siphoned off in some attempt at prioritisation.

But despite the tsundoku anxiety, if we can queue and shop relatively safely for food and alcohol, why not for books? They’re a nourishment and an intoxication too. A friend and I have similar taste, and during lockdown began to pool our resources, buying books between us that we could then post to each other once we had finished, a two-person book club. He sent me a link to Monolithic Undertow by Harry Sword the other day. “Yes,” I responded, adding that I had blown money I didn’t have on about 10 books throughout the previous week, a compulsion that was now clearly out of control. “Yeah I’m not far behind,” he responded, characterising his own behaviour in this realm as “pathological”.

A couple of days later, he texted me extracts from a zine which sounded weird and compelling, “I’m going to order some bits from his site. I will order you some.” “Yes,” I responded. Here we go again. “In the new world we shall be hungry,” he replied, “but well read.”