During the many years when I lived abroad I used to have a recurring dream. The details varied but the theme was always the same: I was in a Dublin bookshop. Usually it was Eason’s but sometimes Greene’s or somewhere else.
I’ve often puzzled over this. What was my subconscious trying to tell me? Even when I lived in some fairly remote, non-English-speaking places, I always managed to find a bookshop, so it’s not like I was being starved of reading material. The only thing I’ve been able to come up with is the Dublin bookshop offers something you just don’t find anywhere else.
Like-minded people, for a start.
Until you’ve been deprived of it, you can’t imagine the frustration of not being able to have a good old chin-wag with a shopkeeper about a particularly beloved volume. Try this: Go into any Dublin bookshop and ask the clerk about the John Banville detective stories that he writes under another name. “Benjamin Black, is it?” they’ll say, and you can pass a good fifteen minutes or more chatting about how The Silver Swan differs from The Sea.
Try that in an American bookshop. Go on. I dare you.
Now, they’ll be willing to help; eager, even. Americans, bless them, have an innate desire to please. But even if they can answer your question, the response is that no-frills sort of information delivered with the sort of smile we’ve come to expect from the staff of no-frills airlines.
It’s just a job, not a passion. If they were selling perfume or shoes they’d bring exactly the same amount of enthusiasm to the task.
Now, don’t get me wrong. There were some great bookshops in, say, Columbus, Ohio. The staff were helpful and reasonably knowledgeable; the supply of books was perfectly adequate—so long as your tastes ran to the American classics or popular literature. And you could find Ulysses and even, if you were lucky, Edna O’Brien, but Frank O’Connor was a bit more of a stretch. As for Flann O’Brien? What did he write? I suppose we could special order it…
I never thought I’d say this, but I missed being able to read as Gaeilge. Now, I’m not trying to kid you: this isn’t something I’d ever been particularly fond of when I was growing up in Ireland. But when you live abroad, when you are the only Irish person you know (despite all popular misconceptions, there are vast swathes of the US where names like O’Reilly and Murphy are unheard of), sometimes you crave things that were part of your youth and education.
You have to remember, this was before the internet put obscure volumes at our fingertips. You couldn’t just ask for a book of Gaeilge poems in the bookshop, you had to have a title, or at least the name of a poet or an editor otherwise you’d get that polite smile and disappointment that they can’t help. Oh you can laugh, but just wait till you’re in the bowels of Idaho and can’t remember the third stanza to Cill Aodain and you’ll know what I mean.
When I came back to Dublin several years ago, Eason’s was one of my first stops. I used to pass it, you see, every day on my way home from school. To slip in for a few minutes—OK, an hour—before I took the bus home was an indescribable treat. I’ve heard Arab nomads speak as lovingly about their favourite oases. Eason’s was where I bought my Enid Blyton books, and the Biggles stories. Then came Nancy Drew and, oh, the Hardy Boys… Later, it was Dickens and Flaubert and Kafka. Oh my.
I hate to hear of bookshops closing. It’s like the death of a relative. One of the nice ones who never gave you socks for Christmas, but an annual like Jackie or the Beano. I’m still mourning the loss of Greene’s of Nassau Street, where I bought all my secondary school books like Soundings.
How lucky are we, though, that many of our bookshops continue to keep their fingers in the dam, holding back the tide of electronic novels? Tell me what happens when you drop an e-book in the bath. Can one cover your eyes against the sun on a beach? How do you get the author to sign it? True, I’d have been glad of even an electronic Antoine Ó Raifteirí during my exile, but I still prefer the touch and smell of a fat volume.
And we still have The Gutter Bookshop in Temple Bar, holding up the end of the Indie bookshop very nicely, thank you. Or if you want your books with a side of nooks and crannies there’s The Winding Stair on the quays. For great staff, comfy seats and an outstanding selection, you can’t beat Hodges and Figgis. For a good bargain there’s Chapters. What else? Cathach Books for unexpected treats and presents, and the Book Upstairs on College Green for a great selection of Irish literature. Each has its specialities and its unique atmosphere.
The Dublin Bookshop. It’s the stuff of dreams.
It’s debateable, to what extent, bookshops have really woken up to the challenge of online retailing.
They have certainly seen their turnover drop, for a number of different reasons. Some have tried to adapt, offering, for example, more ‘book-signings by the author’, but the response in general seems to have been somewhat anaemic.
While online can continue doing what it does best, there are many things the traditional bookshop space can give the reader that the internet will never be able to provide.
It’s important that these things are recognised and celebrated by those of us who are book junkies!
At the end of the day, it’s not all about price.
People can be observed as they are. The writer can be observed as she isn’t.
You can meet the scribe before she is shelved as ‘signed by the author’ in her own absence, first step on the way to singing the bargain shadowy basement blues@ 4.99 a pop.
You can encounter the books that have been lying in wait, just for you, it seems. These are not the same books others have read, in close proximity to the book you are now holding in your hand.
The other people are readers, just like you. They can have their personal recommendations shaken out of them with just a smile. The vagaries of memory can be set straight (Is that the author of?) there and then, something a computer screen will struggle with.
You can give the tired, overdrawn yet still cheerful bookshop owner a few bills to keep the show on the road, to make the space work for all the things in it that don’t work, way they are supposed to.
You can have a cup of tea or coffee, served up with a smile you can smile back at.
The token of your enthusiasm can be taken away, on the spot, without having to wait for the postman to find you out at work, a wet week later. The book is the book you are getting, not some other book, dog-eared and page-creased because something mechanically-armed bumped into it, in the warehouse.
At readings, words can be heard as a living presence, a force field of energy that isn’t quite the same when it’s served up on CD to the half-engaged ear. The mind can wander and be brought back to itself by a sentence. The listener can erupt onto a road in Rhode Island or hear what is to be placed on a stone table in Vermont, like someone who needs to be woken up, once again, to the story of herself.
You can leave, book in the crook of your arm, into the night, out into the city, with the author’s words still humming as a fresh sound in your skull, and a little something else that cannot be reduced to words: the finetime of hearing another world being brought to you, gratis, on the house we are all inhabitants of.