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'Everyone predicted the end': How Ireland's Indie Bookshops are surviving in the Amazon age

Independent Book Shop week starts today, celebrating the great and the good of the indie bookseller.

Image: Jan Woitas DPA/PA Images

WHEN ONLINE BOOKSELLING began to dominate the market in the early 2000s, many were predicting that the bookshop would simply die away.

Now, however, Irish independent book shops are not only managing to survive. In fact, they are flourishing.

Ahead of Independent Book Shop week, we spoke to several independent booksellers on how they’re surviving in the Amazon age, how they differentiate themselves and the joys of a good book.

“Best thing I ever did”

Bob Johnston founded the Gutter Bookshop back in 2009. In a strange quirk, the deepening recession came as something of a benefit when he found his premises at the end of Dublin’s Temple Bar.

He told TheJournal.ie: “In the boom, you couldn’t get a premises unless you paid a fortune. It was just one of those things that I always wanted to do. So I did it. And it was the best thing I ever did.”

Fast forward eight years, and Gutter Bookshop has a loyal following from its shop in the city centre, and its other branch in Dalkey, which opened nearly four years ago.

With an extensive background in book buying, Johnston knew it was essential to offer the customer something just that bit different.

He said: “I knew from the word go that you had to offer something that would slightly differentiate you from the rest.

We have a small shop so we need to be careful what we pick, without being snobby. We have everything from the latest thriller to Beckett, but we simply say no to a lot of stuff. And it works in our favour.

Features like staff pics are always beneficial, Johnston said, with these recommendations usually among the highest sellers.

For Vinny Browne, from Charlie Byrne’s bookshop in Galway, the independent book shop is something of a local institution.

“We’ve a very good, loyal customer base in the city,” he told TheJournal.ie. “But, as well as that, we get tourists visiting us from all over.

You won’t go just anywhere and find this stuff. The main thing is to offer is just such a diverse mix of stuff… People come in and appreciate that.

Tweet by @Mary Esther Judy Source: Mary Esther Judy/Twitter

Maria Dickenson, from Dubray Books with branches in eight locations across the country, also emphasised the community aspect of the independent book shop as a main reason for its unique appeal.

“In local communities, some people have been coming in since they were young, and keep doing it,” she told TheJournal.ie.

She said that buying a book was an extremely personal experience, and people can come across a new book in a shop better than they could online. “A lot of people come in looking for guidance on what to read, and the engaged staff in these shops offer just that,” she said.

“We’ve seen a much more positive energy around the book shop in recent years,” she said.

Everyone had said that we’d all be gone in a few years’ time. But they were wrong.

The Amazon effect

As internet shopping became ubiquitous, books joined music and films in going online, changing the landscape of the industry in the process.

Giving people instant access to books, or delivering it straight to their door, at a cheaper price meant that traditional book sellers faced a unique challenge.

As well as selling physical copies of books online, Amazon led the way with its e-readers as people turned to consuming novels this way in their droves.

Johnston said: “Everyone said that online sales with Amazon was going to demolish book shops, but in all honesty we’ve never tried to compete.”

A full 20 years after Amazon sold its first book online, that process came full circle last month, when the company opened its first bricks and mortar store in New York.

Far from offering the kind of quirky random find you would expect in an indie book store, the books on sale in Amazon’s book shop are meticulously planned and made available based on how people have rated them online.

“It probably says a lot that even Amazon are opening a physical shop,” Browne said.

NY: Amazon brick-and-mortar bookstore opens in New York Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

Occupying a prime spot opposite Central Park, there are just 3,000 different books available in the shop.

However, none of these have received fewer than four out of five stars by Amazon’s online customers.

There is also a “Page Turners” section dedicated to books that – according to Amazon data – customers have devoured in three days or less, and another to preferences of customers in the New York area.

Will cold, hard data act the basis for what books people will buy from now on? Not so, according to the indie booksellers.

Dickenson, from Dubray Books, said that their customers are “really engaged” and always willing to discover new things.

Tweet by @Aileen Smyth Source: Aileen Smyth/Twitter

For Browne, from Galway’s Charlie Byrne’s, the bookshop is a much more intuitive space than going online to buy books. “It’s such a positive experience for someone to walk in here – at any age – and pick something up to read and enjoy,” she said.

“People spend so much time on their devices, staring at screens all day,” he said. “They’re now choosing books more to give themselves a break.

Online cannot replicate the experience of walking into a bookshop and finding something by chance, and we choose our books carefully to allow people to find something they may not have known they were looking for.

Why people go indie?

The aesthetic of an independent book shop undeniably plays a role in the appeal and charm to customers. The idea of finding a hidden gem on the shelves can feel eminently more possible off the beaten track.

Browne said: “We’ve reached peak kindle at this stage. Their sales are going down and physical books are going up.

The indie book shop will reflect the owner’s enthusiasm and interests. We do events that bring the community in, and I think we do it a lot better than the chains. We know our customers and they know us.

charlie byrne 111541 The new poster for Charlie Byrnes, unveiled yesterday. Source: Vinny Browne

Dickenson said: “This week is the 20th anniversary of the publication of the first Harry Potter book. That started a whole generation of people reading, who are now in their 20s and 30s.

These kind of book shops offer a unique space to discover new books. There’s a certain nostalgia element to what we offer, and that pulls people in too.

On the appeal of indie book shops, Johnston said: “I think one of the main reasons is discovery. It’s still very hard to find things you don’t know about online. Here, they see something they didn’t know existed, and we present that in a strong way.

We’re community-focused. We work hard to make it an inviting and enjoyable place to be. That’s all part of it. Book shops will continue to thrive in this way. We offer something you just can’t get online.

Tweet by @Gutter Bookshop Source: Gutter Bookshop/Twitter

What you should read next

Before we finished chatting to each bookseller, we asked them for their recommendations on the newest books we should be reading.

Here’s what they said:

Bob Johnston – Gutter Bookshop: “The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry is a wonderful novel, set in the 19th century. The Underground Railroad from Colson Whitehead is wonderful too. It won the Pulitzer Prize but is such an accessible read.”

Vinny Browne – Charlie Byrne’s: “The Irish literary scene is in such a healthy state at the moment. It’s better now than ever. The likes of Sebastian Barry and Mick McCormack are doing wonderful things. Solar Bones (McCormack) is a fantastic read.”

Maria Dickenson – Dubray Books: “The Power by Naomi Alderman is a fantastic read. It’s set in a dystopian future where women develop the ability to release electrical jolts from their fingers. A forthcoming book that I thought was just brilliant was I Found My Tribe by Ruth Fitzmaurice. It’s about her family, and filmmaker husband who suffers from Motor Neuron Disease. An incredible read.”

Independent Book Shop week runs from today until next Saturday. You can find out more about it here. Today, a book shop crawl is taking place across the country, with participants encouraged to visit as many book shops as possible.

With reporting from AFP

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