Dublin’s different now from the days when it was my second home. And not just because of the Covid lockdown fallout. It’s younger – or am I older? Til the 2008 crash it was a great place for 20-something bankers. Now it’s a great place for 20-something techies. I’ve never been – or wanted to be – a techie or a banker. And it’s been more than a few years since I was 20-something.
More recently, in pre-coronavirus days, my visits have had a purpose, be it theatre, arts or catching up with friends. But it looks like it’ll be a while before the arts lifestyle we used to enjoy returns in a recognizable form. So today’s purpose is city centre books. While they were always part of my life here, today they’re its sole focus.
So what have I found?
Hanna’s on Nassau Street and many other shops I haunted are gone. Eason’s is still on O’Connell Street, but their business model has changed. There’s a lot more floor space with a lot fewer books on display. And they’re selling their building. While a number of my old favourites may have been replaced by other retailers and e-commerce, I was glad to that see some of my old memory-makers are still around. They’re each unique in their own way – and whenever I’m in town I generally find my way into at least one, sometimes two of them.
These are a few of the remaining stores on my pilgrimage to the stores listed by the Irish Times as Ireland’s best independent bookstores. In a city of this size there are many more that would qualify, as well. But – and the thought comes to me to paraphrase Leopold Bloom – is it possible to cross Dublin without passing a bookstore? Unfortunately it’s probably easier now than it used to be. But there are still quite a few – and most likely quite a few good ones that have slipped beneath the media radar but remain cultural touchstones for their communities.
City centre is a different kind of neighbourhood, but it’s still a neighbourhood. Having said that, displays must do more of the talking that staff might do in a smaller community. But you still need knowledgeable, caring people in the aisles, stocking shelves, keeping things clean and helping customers. They’re not just standing at the till waiting for you to come to them. I don’t know about their business models or financials, but I can almost guarantee that these indy shops have more brain cells working and residing per square foot than any chain store.
So…here are my memories and current experiences with some of Dublin’s best. I’m glad they’ve re-opened and look forward to spending more time and money in each of them.
Gutters Bookshop on Cow’s Lane – I’ve been coming here for years and never knew its name until this trip. I knew I could always rely on them for a book of Wilde or Shaw epigrams to use as a quick gift. I’d also buy a “real book” for myself or just kill some time there before going a Smock Alley performance. Please accept my apologies if I ruined any of your inventory with my fingerprints holding remains from Queen of Tarts. And thanks for opening your Dalkey branch – two locations, each with its own personality. It’s proof that you’re real people, not a one-size-fits-all chain.
Books Upstairs on D’Olier Street – When they lived on College Green, Books Upstairs were my go-to bookshop for more years than I care to remember. More than just their books was a wonderful selection of specialty journals and a relief from the streetcorner chaos. I climbed a few stairs, spent some time with their notice board and entered heaven, always leaving with reading material that I’d never known existed before. I returned to Dublin a few years ago to see a Spar in their location. I was disappointed, but resigned. When I began this series and saw their name, I focused on The Winding Stair on Ormond Quay [ https://winding-stair.com/bookshop.html ]. Thank you, Irish Times best shops list, for putting me back on track. The D’Olier location is proof that sometimes bigger can be better. Not only will I be back for the books, but – when the upstairs coffee shop re-opens – its carrot cake. Oh, and the new location brought back another memory: what ever happened to the statue of the usher who fronted the recently-departed Screen Cinema?
Chapters on Parnell Street – While they’ve moved several times over the years, I remember spending hours [and even spending money] on rainy days with nothing else in my diary. When there was nothing new in the museums or the IFI, I’d disappear into Chapters for an hour or so, usually emerging with a bargain or three from their voluminous collection of used books on the first floor. This time around I had a goal: Joseph O’Connor’s Ghost Light. A few months ago I saw The First Pegeen, an absolutely brilliant one-woman show about Molly Allgood, J.M. Synge’s lover. O’Connor’s book takes a different approach to the same woman and I wanted to read it before Shadowplay, his more recent theatre book. Chapters didn’t let me down. The book was in stock. I finished it a few nights ago. Now it’s time to start Shadowplay.
One day, three stores with three different personalities, not a bad way to spend some time. And I’ll be spending equally good times reading my purchases.
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.