Charles Darwin never said survival of the strongest, he spoke of survival of the fittest, meaning those best able to deal with change and adapt to their environments survive. Have you seen many dinosaurs walking down your street today? When was the last time you used your neighbourhood blacksmith?
Let’s spend a minute or two with the business side of bookselling. Yes, we’ve all heard how instant delivery of real books and even faster delivery of e-books are destroying the business that many people have entered for love, dust allergies and back strain, sacrificing careers of wealth and fame. But it’s the people who know how to adapt to their environments who’ll still be here when e-reader vendors go out of business in the next dotcom bomb, taking your library with them; and crowded misguided drone-filled skies delay your deliveries. For these stores, merchandising is more than simply selecting stock, it’s their service, the strength of their personalities, and their ability to connect with their community.
Within less than two hours’ drive of each other are three book shops conducting business in three very different environments.
Sligo’s Liber Bookshop probably has the best window displays I’ve seen anywhere – and I’ve spent more years than I care to remember in retail, selling quite a few different products. I recall setting up sample windows and sending photos to chain store locations identifying which stock numbers should go exactly where for exactly how long. When you’re paying peanuts you usually don’t get employees with the skills or enthusiasm to promote each week’s featured items.
Liber’s windows are among the most eclectic and enticing I’ve seen anywhere. They show a love and imagination that’s rare to find. Naturally they devote a section to Sligo’s major industry, WB Yeats. And a few months ago local author Kevin Barry occupied a place of honour at least as large as WBY when his latest, Night Boat to Tangier, was long-listed for the Booker Prize. What makes them different? They add themed props to the usual pile of books. They have a sense of humour that catches eyes of people walking by on the footpath. After all, what’s a window display but 3-D clickbait. If it gets you into the store its done its job.
And once I was in the store, where I was going anyway, I found the same attention to visual detail spread over several levels. Oh, and I bought a book, too. Being Various. Why? Well it was sitting in a display of books by Irish writers, was a collection of short stories I could pick up and put down at leisure – and probably most of all, because its dedication page honoured Belfast’s No Alibis Bookstore.
And have I mentioned that I’m not alone in my praise for Liber? They were named 2019’s Bookshop of the Year in the Irish Independent Retail Awards competition. While I’ve rambled on about their display skills, you can find out more about their wonderful level of community involvement online. Or, if you’re anywhere near Sligo, put your head in the door!
Ballybofey’s Book Centre didn’t have to deal with window displays, because there aren’t any windows. I walked down a long corridor to enter a wonderfully eclectic mix of everything ink and paper that a community of its size needs. While the first display that caught my eye was their poetry, I wound up buying Colm Tòibìn’s Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know. I finished it in three nights. Find it. Buy it. Read it.
But before spending my money, while I was wandering and wondering, I squeezed by a mother and her pre-teen daughter discussing a book the persistent, whinging, girl just had to have – because her mother was buying one, too. The woman handed me the book and gave me an eyeball while telling the girl that she was simply holding it for me because it was the last copy in the store. I thanked her profusely for saving it for me and said I’d be leaving it on the counter with my other purchases. The woman at the till, taking it all in, smiled as she said she’d put it aside. The mother and daughter left. I’m sure that the older of the two returned later on. An incident I don’t think you’ll find in many larger towns. [Note: I visited them a few weeks ago. I rang the other day to check a detail and found their phone was no longer in service. I hope this is a technical – and not a business – problem.]
I have no idea what percentage of Donegal’s economy comes from tourism, but I’m guessing it’s a significant number. While walking along Main Street casually people-watching and window shopping I passed right by the Four Masters Bookshop without even realizing it. Let’s face it. It’s nearly impossible to get lost in Donegal. So I crossed the street to The Diamond and began to look around. I saw the store, staring me in the face. How’d I miss it? Simple. They’d trimmed their window for tourists, not me.
Inside, surrounded by people packed elbow-to-elbow, I saw a nice mix of books paired with the assorted gifts and knickknacks that are so important to those from far away. I’m guessing that the show band music over the sound system was aimed at these same patrons. And after spending a lot of time in tiny owner-operated shops around the country, I was impressed by its wide aisles, popular novels and a decent discount table. But what also caught my eye were two things that are unfortunately becoming all-to-necessary these days: The no photos signs on the shelves to discourage shoppers sampling in-store before ordering online; and the nice girl at the till tightly taping shut my bag containing How Many Miles to Babylon, an old retail trick to discourage shoplifting. I stepped aside and realized she was well-trained, doing it for – and to – every customer. Sure it’s a sign of the times, but also a sign of what you need to do when your location and merchandising keep your store packed with people.
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.