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'Amazon's an off-licence, and we're your local pub': How Ireland's independent bookshops staged a surprise comeback

We meet the people running great indie bookshops in the age of the Kindle.

Source: Marrowbone Books

SINCE THE ADVANCE of Amazon, Book Depository and other online booksellers, people have been predicting the demise of the humble bookshop. Across the country, however, independent bookshops are bucking the trend and proving naysayers wrong.

Over the last few years, Dublin’s bookshop landscape has been enhanced by the likes of Gutter Bookshop and The Company of Books. Byzantine book emporiums like Charlie Byrne’s in Galway and Chapters in Dublin have continued to thrive. Specialist and secondhand bookshops have begun to pop up with greater frequency.

This year alone has seen several secondhand bookshops open, among them The Last Bookshop on Dublin’s Camden Street, Marrowbone Books in The Coombe and Key Books in Cork. So what does it mean to be an indie bookshop owner in 2017 and is Amazon as grave a threat as it’s made out to be?

Please don't buy these books.

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In May of this year, Brian Flanagan and Lily Power opened Marrowbone Books in The Coombe. It’s a secondhand bookshop that specialises in literary fiction, but also stocks nonfiction, plays and poetry. You won’t find The Girl on the Train there, but you may stumble across a yellowed copy of Joan Didion’s The White Album.

“Generally we avoid the big bestsellers, because, frankly, there are plenty of charity shops around where you can pick those up so they never sell the best for us.”

A secondhand bookshop selling obscure literary fiction is a unique proposition, but that’s precisely what enables them to carve out their own niche and compete.

“We’re a cosy little space in the Coombe where you can hang out, browse, find a nice dog-eared paperback of Mr Norris Changes Trains and read the first chapter before buying it for €4,” explains Flanagan. “That’s not what Easons is going for.”

Easons and Amazon are off-licenses, and we’re your local pub. There’s room for both.

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Across town, another secondhand bookshop by the name of The Last Bookshop has opened on Dublin’s Camden Street. The shop is run by a husband-and-wife duo, Alan and Mary Warnock, who incidentally met in a bookshop.

“He, as a customer asking for some impossibly obscure title and I, the assistant, pretending I knew what he was talking about,” explains Mary.

They have been in the book business for some time now, having previously run an online bookshop as well as a bookshop in Ranelagh.

“It was there that we came to realise that what we wanted was to provide a different kind of bookshop – one where the customer would be able to browse happily, to come across titles which interested him or which he had lost or found difficult to find,” says Mary. “Serendipity, if you like.”

Like Marrowbone Books, the owners of The Last Bookshop believe that rumours of the bookshop’s demise have been greatly exaggerated and that there is still a keen appetite among voracious readers for physical bookshops where they can browse and discover hidden gems.

The likes of Amazon or The Book Depository are not putting independent bookshops out of business. Neither is Kindle. As Stephen Fry said ‘Kindle affects books as elevators do stairs’.

“It is a wonderful boon to us when someone does find something special to them whether it be an old school textbook or a first edition.”

The uptick in indie bookshops can be partially attributed to the recent economic downturn. For instance, The Company of Books opened in Ranelagh in 2009.

“During the recession, people weren’t treating themselves to nights out, but they did return to reading,” says co-founder Gwen Allman. “Since the recession, people have become more conscious of shopping locally, whether that be in a bookshop or a craft butchers. They appreciate the convenience, the service, and the value to the local community of having a vibrant retail presence on its main street. ”

Allman says running an independent bookshop comes with its challenges. For one thing, there’s a perception that indie bookshops are more expensive, which Allman states isn’t necessarily the case.

“We know that price is important to our customers, and rather than discounting the bestsellers and putting a premium on other books, we try to be competitive across our range,” she says. “We believe we offer good value.”

Where bookshops like Marrowbone and The Last Bookshop offer a different shopping experience to bigger stores, indie bookshops like The Company of Books are more susceptible to being pushed out by chains and online sellers.

However, Allman believes they, too, can compete once they play to their strengths.

“Two areas where indies have an advantage over the chains or online is in our responsiveness and our expertise,” she says. “We know our customers. When I’m choosing titles for the shop, I bear certain customers in mind to make sure their reading interests are represented, where they wouldn’t necessarily match my own.”

Every day I’m asked for book recommendations, for a customer’s own reading or for a gift for someone. Reading tastes vary so it gives me great satisfaction when a customer returns looking for another recommendation. You can’t get it right all the time, but it’s good to know you’ve earned their trust.

For her part, Allman believes Dublin bookshop scene is in rude health.

“American visitors have often remarked to me how wonderful it is for Dubliners to have so many bookshops on our doorstep,” she says. “Their communities no longer have them, and they are forced to buy their books online whether they want to or not.”

However, Mary Warnock of The Last Bookshop thinks the city can do better when it comes to alternative offerings.

It has been said that a city can be judged by its second-hand bookshops and if this is true we are not doing too well. I mean, how many coffee shops does one city need?

In other words? Lots done, more to do.

Long live the bookshop.

More: The story behind the ‘Headache Well’ signs in a north Tipperary village>

‘It’s a little museum full of wonders’: The magic of Levis’ Corner House in Ballydehob>

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About the author:

Amy O'Connor

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