Derry’s encircled by medieval walls. Unfortunately, in spite of sincere efforts by quite a few decent locals, there are still people there with equally strong personal walls. But that’s not why I visited. In fact, I’m not even going to presume to discuss Derry’s people and politics today, since even those who’ve dealt with them for most of their lives don’t always agree with each other.
Being an obvious outsider gave me a degree of freedom that I’ll admit to taking advantage of as I wandered around town. My first stop of the day was Foyle Books, presided over by Ken Thatcher.
While I remembered Ken, I had no expectations that he’d remember me from previous visits over the years. He sat at his desk, giving me a civilized amount of time to wander the shelves before offering help. I told him that I had no preconceived notions and was looking for a book to jump off a shelf to find me. We proceeded to talk of shoes and ships and sealing wax [but no cabbages or kings]. After a bit our small talk became real talk. Standing in front of his biography shelf, I mentioned a bio on Dorothy Day I’d passed up in another shop. We both described the book’s cover in the same way at the same time, but he didn’t he have a copy anymore. My lesson was to buy while something is in front of me, since you never know when you’ll have the opportunity again. Absent that book, I resumed my wandering and he resumed his reading. After a bit he noticed me pulling some books from his crime/mystery section. Our conversation resumed and I mentioned my predilection for the genre as a wonderful travel companion. He went back to his own book, letting me search for a bit longer. Then he came over with a crime book from a local Derry author. At home that night I found it was an autographed copy – that he sold to me for significantly less another local store was asking for an unsigned volume.
Ken’s a man who reads people as well as books. He reminds me of a good barman or barista, who may never know your name, but who knows your drinks and habits. As I was leaving with my purchase I noticed another shopper. Ken had noticed her too. When I caught his eye he smiled, shaking his head no. He apparently knew her tastes and habits.
At the other end of my day’s spectrum was Little Acorns. As I came through the door, the owner looked at me and said, “Your order isn’t in yet but I’ve put aside two more books I know you’ll love.” It took me half a beat to realize she was talking to the man behind me.
I consider that not a bad entry to a store whose walls and floors are full of books piled to the ceiling. Oh, and each of its narrow aisles had at least one customer. We all politely nodded to each other as we squeezed by in search of whatever it was we were browsing for in this wonderful cocoon. It felt good to be surrounded by books and booklovers, packed in like sardines – all in the middle of the day in the middle of the week. While squeezing past a mother and daughter comparing an author’s books my memory flashed on the deserted wide aisles of an Irish chain bookstore – aisles made even wider when they moved their displays to reflect their thin inventories.
While each of these two stores had a Dickensian feeling to them, Little Acorn was running at 21st Century speed. Jenni Doherty was talking on the phone while making change for a customer, opening a box of books and moving out of the way of a child looking at a book behind her. Back to checking the box, her phone rang again. “I’m alone in the store right now. Let me step outside” as she stepped out the front door.
I would have loved to stay and chat a bit with her – about the store and the Typewriter Museum she’d just received a grant to open. But the timing just wasn’t right. I’m thrilled that she was that busy. Guess I’ll just have to get back there one of these days.
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.