OK, there were actually quite a few words in Jennifer O’Connell’s Irish Times piece on the surviving independent bookstores around the country. In the midst of reading reports of stores closing because of chains, online competition and screen-readers of various stripes, it was a piece of good news. I accept the irony that I was reading an online edition rather than the newsprint version. I bookmarked the piece and went on with my day. Then I began noticing “We Sell Books” – Marjorie Brennan’s regular feature profiling bookshop owners in the Irish Examiner.
And an idea percolated while I procrastinated: for a road trip to each of these stores, not just to see the stores and the towns that support them, but to buy books, as well.
In the years since I seriously downsized my living space, my history has pretty much been haunting used book stores and charity shops, reading and keeping enough books til they became an overwhelming collection, then donating or re-selling them to make room for the next collection. Like any other addiction or disease, you can disguise the symptoms, perhaps even chase them away for a while, but they’re always around. In my case, I’ll admit to some guilt over only rarely supporting an author by buying their book new. I’m generally several years behind best-seller lists of any genre and my new book purchases have pretty much been confined to friends’ books.
If I’m on a mission to support Ireland’s indie bookstores, I’ll need a place to put my purchases. While I’m used to these purges, they’ve been sporadic and never very thorough. There’s always a book that I keep to share with a friend instead of the charity shop. Or the one that I really would like to re-read [and never do].
I still have stacks – months, possibly years’ worth – of reading in various piles around the place. But then I read about one of my target bookstores almost closing until two sisters bought it. And recognized that one of the shops on my list had already closed their location a few hundred yards from my house and had just a single retail outlet an hour away. A week later I learned that they’d closed that one, as well. Am I embarking on a death march, visiting dear ones while they still have a spark of life? Or is the small bit of money I’m spending helping to keep hope alive?
Anyway, it’s time to get off my butt and get on with it – to forget the house cleaning and start writing a journal of sorts, hopefully not a series of obits. Many of these stores I’d been to, others would be new to me.
I’m guessing that one of the reasons for the survival of some of these stores is the size of their communities. It’s the Goldilocks principle. Their town is too small for a chain store to make its numbers work, but large enough to support a reading population that values personal contact over electronic. [And does deficient rural broadband play a factor in this, as well?]. In cities and towns on the chain store radar, indie shops need a uniqueness to survive. I think that’s what I’m searching for – community and uniqueness.
I doubt very much if I’ll be doing the standard interviews and profiles you’ll find in newspapers and regional magazines. No matter what the trade, we’ve all seen the stories of independent business people, perhaps the shop’s second or third generation, serving their community. We need these stories. But we need them in the mass media, not here. My point of view will be somewhat different, once I discover it. Think of how you might look at a church altar through a stained glass window. Depending on where you’re standing, it could have red, blue, green or any other colour tinting. My perspective will be mine, hopefully a fresh one that you won’t see in other media.
I don’t know where the writing will take me, even if I know where the roads will. Some of the towns will be familiar, as will some of their bookstores. Even when I wasn’t buying, I was still haunting them and learning to exercise self-control. But now I’m on a different mission, even if I’m not quite sure what it is. I’m guessing that sometimes these pieces will tell more about me than the bookshops. But isn’t that what blogs are for? Indie bookstores, be warned. I’m on my way.
This piece is just one of a number I’ve written about my long-term love affair with books. If you’d like to see more simply click on the “Books” category below. You can also subscribe, so that you’ll see these blogs as they’re written, as opposed to social media’s algorithms. As the saying goes, if you like my writing, tell your friends. If you don’t, tell your enemies.