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Dublin: 0 °C Sunday 17 November, 2019
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'You meet people at the high and low points of their lives': What I learned when I quit my job to become a bookseller

When she handed in her employee badge, she had an ‘Oh God, what have I done?’ moment, writes Dawn Behan of Woodbine Books.

Dawn Behan

WHEN I OPENED Woodbine Books in September 2016, I had absolutely no experience in bookselling.

I loved books and I wanted my local town to have a bookshop – but I knew the only way this would happen was if I opened one myself.

Kilcullen is very small and opening a bookshop in a town of this size does not make financial sense, so it was unlikely that anyone else would risk it.

However, my intention wasn’t to make a vast fortune, so I didn’t let this put me off.

I was very lucky to have worked as an application developer for a large multinational for 18 years. I enjoyed my job; it was secure and offered benefits including a pension and health insurance. My colleagues were lovely and the atmosphere was very relaxed.

It had downsides, too – the commute from Kildare to Dublin was exhausting and the company I worked for were steadily outsourcing roles, which meant there were fewer work opportunities. For several years they had run regular voluntary redundancy schemes so when the opportunity arose, I applied and was accepted.

 

‘What have I done?’

I’ll admit that when the day came to hand over my laptop and employee badge, I had an ‘Oh God, what have I done?’ moment but that soon passed. 

Now that I was officially unemployed, I needed to figure out exactly what kind of bookshop I wanted to open.

I knew the qualities I liked in a bookshop, but would a bookshop like this have enough appeal in a small town to at least stay afloat?

I spent a lot of time visiting bookshops around the country and taking note of the things they did well. On my travels, I visited Bridge Street Books in Wicklow Town. This is an outstanding example of what a bookshop in a small town should be – it stocks a wide range of interesting books in a cosy setting with helpful and knowledgeable staff, but it
is also an integral part of the community.

This is the type of bookshop I wanted! When my vision for my bookshop started to take shape, I had the far less enjoyable task of sitting down and writing a viable business plan with accurate figures for projected cash flow, overheads, footfall etc.

After a lot of planning on paper, searching for premises, assembling vast quantities of IKEA shelving and ordering several pallets of books, I finally opened my doors in September 2016.

It’s a 24-7 job

Being a bookseller is partly what I imagined it would be, but there is a lot more involved than I realised. People often have an image of booksellers as people who sit behind a counter reading all day, but the reality is very different, especially for independent booksellers.

It is a 24-7 job, because even when you are not physically in your bookshop, you are planning author events, answering emails and Facebook messages from customers, making note of displays you spot in other places that might work well for you, reading book reviews in newspapers – the list is endless.

Apart from having a wide knowledge of books and authors, you need to be friendly and approachable, good with figures, active on social media, have a flair for window and in-store displays, be able to haul boxes around etc. I once had to park a customer’s car that was blocking the entrance to the hardware store beside us while their entire staff watched…

You often meet customers at the highest and lowest points in their lives.

It is a wonderful feeling to help people select books of baby names, especially when they introduce you to the new baby in later when they come back to pick out their first book.

It is a lot more difficult to help people trying to find a book to cope with a bereavement or a serious health diagnosis – they are often still in shock and will turn to a book to help them understand what is happening in their lives.

Sometimes people just need someone to talk to and they feel comfortable enough with booksellers to do this. You also meet weird and wonderful people and you get to know the people in your community.

I find it really heartening to see Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop in Galway, Sheela na Gig in Cloughjordan and the Gutter Bookshop in Temple Bar all celebrating significant birthdays this week while recently opened bookshops like Halfway Up the Stairs in Greystones and Tertulia Books in Westport are providing new and exciting offering for book lovers.

It proves that it is possible for bookshops to survive and thrive in Ireland, with hard work, local support and a little bit of luck.

Woodbine Books is open in Kilcullen, Co Kildare. Irish Book Week runs until 2 November in Ireland. 

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About the author:

Dawn Behan

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