Inspiration! The Irish and their Books

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Pamela Jo

Full Member
Oct 26, 2021
Wexford, Ireland
Maybe the Irish will preserve the last bookstores in the New Dark Ages.

Standard of Irish writing 'higher than it’s ever been': Why books will outlive us all​

Despite predictions of their imminent demise, many humble bookshops are learning to survive and thrive, writes Colin Sheridan
Standard of Irish writing 'higher than it’s ever been': Why books will outlive us all

Noreen Collins, bookshop manager, Charlie Byrne, owner, and Vinnie Browne, chief book buyer and events manager at Charlie Byrne's bookshop in Galway city centre. Picture: Colin Sheridan
SAT, 27 JAN, 2024 - 17:40
Colin Sheridan.png
Colin Sheridan

I CAN happily sit in bookshops for hours. Many people say this, I know that, but I cannot attest to their motives. I know only my own, and they are multitudinous; Aspirational escapism. Intellectual hubris. A surrender to silence. Flagrant voyeurism.
Sometimes you plan to go there with a specific novel in mind. Other times, you accidentally wander in, as if slipping into a portal to a parallel universe. An alternative space on a busy city street.
An antidote to the cacophony of capitalism whose omnipresence asphyxiates our urban spaces. You are busy (we are all busy!) but the bookshop — a real goddam bookshop — is both a sanctuary and a literary speakeasy. A democratic space, full of sentiments that both inspire and appall. Right wing propaganda flanked by Beat poets. Communist manifestos mixed with religious texts. Zombie fiction scattered amongst Penguin classics.

The novel has been pronounced dead more times than God. First came the Kindle. Then came AI. There’s been at least a dozen horsemen of the apocalypse in between. But, on the evidence of two thriving independent bookstores on Galway’s storied streets, I’m here to tell you that the bookshop is alive. More than alive, it’s thriving.
Central to that health is ideology rather than commerce. Atmosphere is almost impossible to contrive, and it’s something Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop has in abundance.
I’ve been going there for years and, even now, such is the organised mess of the place, I’m never exactly sure where I actually am in the shop. It’s not disorientation so much as voluntary surrender. The store has many ‘levels’ (levels being a step-up here, a step-down there), and there are a multitude of exits and entrances. There are also at least a thousand books on display — unguarded — outside of the shop.
“Charlie has only one ethos,” store manager Noreen Collins tells me. “Nobody is ever put under pressure to buy a book.”

A customer browsing in  Charlie Byrne's bookshop in Galway. Picture: Ray Ryan
A customer browsing in Charlie Byrne's bookshop in Galway. Picture: Ray Ryan
This confirms two things I’d often wondered about; how the staff feel about the endless browsers and their obscure requests, and, does Charlie Byrne actually exist? Right on queue, like Jay Gatsby at one of his own parties, the man himself appears on my shoulder. Beckettian in stature, I realise in that moment that — despite visiting the store more than 200 times — I’ve never knowingly laid eyes on the man.

Collins laughs at this notion. “Charlies’s a humble man,” she says, “but he’s always here.”
Byrne trained and worked as an archaeologist in UCC, but always wanted to own a bookstore. “I had a stall at a weekend market on Munster Avenue in the 1980s… just selling secondhand books.”
From small acorns, big trees started to grow. “I opened my first shop in a small premises on Dominik St 35 years ago, and things grew from there. When we moved in here, we only had the front of the store, and then we acquired this part, then that part…”
By Byrnes’ reckoning, he has almost 120,000 books in the shop, everything from second-hand copies of Tolstoy to Gum Irish language publications of Robinson Crusoe. He has at least as many books in storage.
The man I always thought was Charlie Byrne, is actually chief book-buyer and events manager Vinny Browne, who’s been with Byrne for all but a few of his 35 years as a bookshop owner. So many times, I’ve observed Browne escort a customer through a maze of books, weaving through the shelves like a spy trying to shake a tail, only to land on the exact title the customer asked for.
If Byrne is the name, does it do him a disservice to say Browne is the face?
“No,” Charlie modestly answers, “it’s the way I prefer it.”
Byrne, Browne, and Collins form a formidable team. The shop employs around 15 people. A love of books may be a prerequisite to work there, but it’s far from the only one.

“They have to be able to talk to the customer,’ says Collins, “listen to what they’re looking for and recommend, if necessary,” before adding, “and always, always remember, nobody’s under any pressure to buy anything.”
Does the browsing not annoy, I ask? “The opposite. It’s part of who we are. People come to this shop because they love books. That’s enough.”
One point of pride for all three is that the bestselling books in Charlie Byrne’s often do not reflect market trends. Inside the door is a ‘Staff Picks’ section, which does exactly what it suggests. Updated regularly, each staff member gives his or her book of the week, with a little blurb on why.
“One of our bestselling books last year was (broadcaster) Jim Carneys book on Frankie Stockwell and Sean Purcell. That was unexpected,” explains Browne, “in a very good way.”
“Tonight, Mansoor Adayfi, a former Guantanamo prisoner, is launching his book here. A couple of months ago it was Jim. That’s the diversity of books,” Brown explains.
Business challenges
So, what do they make of this existential crises literature — and books especially — finds itself perpetually on the precipice of?
Byrne looks at the crash of 2008 as one of the few low points for his business. That, and the departure of another old Galway institution, Kenny’s Books, from the high street. “Their popularity fed ours. We were very sad to see them go” The pandemic, too, was another challenge, but was not without its positives.

“We finally got ourselves a website.’ Byrne wryly smiles.
“You didn’t have a website before 2020?”

 The exterior of  Charlie Byrne's bookshop in Galway. Picture: Ray Ryan
The exterior of Charlie Byrne's bookshop in Galway. Picture: Ray Ryan
“No. We never did. We realised during the pandemic our customers still needed to be served. We worked every day behind closed doors, filling orders, packing books and bringing them to the post office. We were happy to open our doors again.”
With our official business concluded, I stand in the Irish language section chatting to Noreen Collins. After 15 years managing the store, she has the enthusiasm of a child. It’s utterly infectious.
“I love it. I love the people and I love the staff.”
The Drimoleague native worked in an earlier iteration of the store during her college years in Galway, before moving back to Cork to manage The Collins Bookshop, on Carey’s Lane.
“After working with Con (Collins) I taught for a while and worked as manager of the Cinemobile — Ireland’s Travelling Cinema. Charlie asked me back to manage the bookshop six years ago and I jumped at the chance. I’m so lucky. I love my job, every day is different, and you meet people from all walks of life and it’s so great to be exposed to so many different books and ideas.”
Browne passes by, one last time, a customer trailing in his wake. “Books will outlive us all,” he says. The energy in the store makes me inclined to believe him.
FOUR hours after walking into Charlie Byrnes for a casual chat, I’m off to meet Paul Deacy in The Bell Book & Candle.

“We love Paul,” she says. The collegiate atmosphere around booksellers seems almost too good to be true. I march down to the Small Crane square intent on discovering Byrne and The Bell are fierce competitors, and the camaraderie is all a ruse. No such luck.
“Charlie's great,” says Deacy with the chilled air of a man who just DJ’d an afternoon set at Electric Picnic.
If Charlie Byrne’s bookshop is the beating heart of the Galway book trade, The Bell Book & Candle is its kidneys.
Tucked away between the Crane pub and The Jez primary school, it gives the appearance of a pop-up book store, but step inside, and you’ll discover a world of artistic wonder, both literary and musical.
Shelves stacked with second-hand and reissued vinyl. CD’s. Comics. And books. Lots and lots of books. It’s the type of place you’d do a whole load of damage for €100.

Charlie Byrne's bookshop in Galway. Picture: Ray Ryan
Charlie Byrne's bookshop in Galway. Picture: Ray Ryan
Around the corner from the bookshop is his father’s fruit and veg store — the eponymous Ernie’s. One for the football nerds — in the window of Ernie’s is a small black and white photograph of his late brother Eamon ‘Chick’ Deacy in action for Aston Villa against Juventus. In the background of the photo is the world’s best footballer at the time, Michel Platini. Eamon won a European Cup for Villa before returning home to serve carrots and parsnips to patrons from his brother’s store.
Far from the ultras in the Stadio delle Alpi, Ernie’s shop survived recessions, high taxes, and emigration, displaying a knack for survival and reinvention that clearly runs in the family.

At one stage part of the fruit shop became a discount clothes shop. When that closed it became a secondhand bookshop called ‘The Pennyfarthing’.
“I can’t remember how long it lasted,” Deacy says “maybe a year, but with the fruit shop getting busier the space was needed and the bookshop had to go. Maybe the seed for my shop came from this time even though I was very young.”
Deacy opened the Bell Book & Candle in the mid-’90s but with no great vision in mind. “Initially we sold religious goods along with candles, secondhand books and American comics. My book stock was unorganised and I carried mostly thriller or romance paperbacks. Every book dealer at the time saw an opportunity to dump all of their nonsellers on me and I bought too much of it. Religious goods, secondhand comics, and candles kept me open and like my dad’s shop, help from family and friends kept the show on the road.”
With the emergence of the internet, Deacy lost his comic trade. Sales of religious paraphernalia died away, too. With the shop on the brink, Deacy changed course.
“Over time, I became better at buying stock. With a reasonable knowledge of music, I was able to develop that side of things. My sister started coming in giving me a day off which helped clear my mind. My son helps out now. Having another pair of eyes at the helm brought great changes. Her knowledge of books, music, and organisation brought the shop forward. I had a good selection of cheap books, music sold well, and the shop entered a period of relative prosperity.”
What changed?
“I’m not a great businessman. It took me too long to realise that the school around the corner could be very beneficial. Cutting down on outdated children’s books and replacing them with more modern stock was a positive change. The 2008 recession came out of the blue and at the time it felt like the rewind button had been pressed and the shop had gone back to its very difficult beginnings.”
Like his father’s shop before him, Paul relied on the help of family to keep his business alive.
“I just focused on surviving and making the shop as good as it could be. I went to a few auctions, developed relationships with stronger bookdealers and moved towards a better quality product. I always carried local history and that became another area that had to be developed more. The value for money ethic remained, but I spent a lot of time making sure my shop was different to all of the others.”

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Businesses like The Blue Note, Kai Restaurant, Urban Grind cafe, and new ownership of The Crane Bar next door all brought new customers into the area.
“It took a long time, but slowly the west end of the city became popular again, and people started coming back over the bridge.”
With the digitisation of media and literature, has the Bell Book & Candle embraced or resisted social media?
“My son deals with the shop Instagram page. It’s been a good way to get noticed and it’s nice getting feedback and seeing friends’ and customers' names on the screen. I don’t really sell online but I do post if someone sees something they want on our page. I much prefer face-to-face interaction.”
Like his comrades in Charlie Byrne’s bookshop, Deacy remains defiantly positive about the future of independent booksellers.
“I think there’s a future for shops like mine. The standard of Irish writing and music is very high, I think higher than it’s ever been. Also, with society becoming more conscious of waste, people are less likely to dump music or books. Shops like mine give books and records a new lease of life. Great writers and musicians of the past will remain great into the future. They’ll never die in shops like mine!”

Fantastic Video: Snap Judegement- Popups Lite

Suggestion The Edits You do AFTER Your Book is Accepted