I realize it was just a few weeks ago, but it seems like a lifetime – or maybe just a different lifetime – ago. Before social distancing gave me time to start reading all the books I’ve been buying.
I left the house on a road trip to three towns I’ve never seen. My prep? A map and an old Irish Times article. All I knew is that I’d be visiting some bookshops, each with a single sentence of praise in the IT list of Ireland’s best independent bookstores.
Any more homework would have ruined my experience. On a journey like this, if you do your research ahead of time, you’re seeing life through other people’s eyes. That’s not always a bad idea, but many times I like to see things for myself first, then [maybe] compare my experience with others. Being listed among Ireland’s best was good enough for me. Now my mission was to see if my tastes and experience match those of the Irish Times writer.
Is my life totally reliant on serendipity? Of course not. There are a number of pubs, cafés and restaurants who would greet me with a nod when I walked in and have the usual in front of me while we chatted about everything under Ireland’s sort-of-sun – except my order. I hope that these people will still be there when we return to whatever will pass for the new normal.
Sometimes I wonder if being that predictable is good for me.
On the other hand, a lot of my life’s enjoyment comes from serendipitous surprise. I still remember a free afternoon in Madrid where I decided to kill some time in El Prado – to discover a travelling Michelangelo exhibit. And then there was a weekend in Amsterdam – intended to be museum free – til we saw posters for a Banksy exhibit at the Moco. I’m looking at a framed piece from it right now. I’ve lost track of the unplanned and unexpected people, places and events who’ve enriched my life.
While this particular tour will end in a bit, I’ve discovered a pattern that I’ll repeat on return journeys to some of these places and on trips to new ones: Take the slow, scenic way to get wherever you’re going. Feel free to stop, see and smell whatever catches your fancy. Particularly if it’s not on your planned itinerary. Spend some time and money in a good local bookstore. And don’t forget to get recommendations to the best local restaurants – from the locals, not a guidebook. Spend an extra day or two in town so that you can eat in each of them.
So, besides books, what did I find this time?
A chance to fulfill an almost forgotten promise. A queue out the door to a used bookstore. And a young woman returning from London to run a bookstore in a town of 8000.
My first stop wasn’t on my list. I was looking for New Ross Books and met Eimear Clarkin, who’s returned from London to take over the store, renaming it Creywell Books. The day I was there she was over her eyeballs in children’s books – sorting the remnants from school holiday invasion of young people and their parents. She was also adding new inventory to both her children’s and adult shelves. While an old Raleigh Bicycle sign still hangs over the front door, there’s been a bookstore on the premises for a few years, with Eimear receiving a wonderful welcome from the old store’s departing owner. In a community-oriented personality-driven business it’s nice to see the old owner fill his FB page with compliments and best wishes for the new one. And it’s even nicer to see a young person, part of the so-called digital generation, invest their life in the ink-on-paper analog world. https://www.facebook.com/creywellbooks/
And to remind me that there’s still a future in analog, ninety minutes up the road, in Greystones, Halfway Up the Stairs opened its doors a few months ago, full of new books aimed exclusively at young people. While I didn’t stop in because I really know nothing about – and I’m not in the market for – children’s books, I think it’s wonderful that they’ve been getting an excellent reception. http://www.halfwayupthestairs.ie/
But I did take the short drive up to Gorey, where I found a queue out the door at Zozimus Books. I was very impressed – til I realized it was lunchtime and it shares space with the Book Café, which is apparently one of the more popular places in town. My first thought? Any town that supports its bookstores and locally-owned restaurants is a town worth living in.
Since every table was full, I wended my way back to the store where Althea gave me time to browse and eavesdrop on other customers [“I skipped dessert so I could buy this book.” “I want something for the kids to read while we’re talking.”] Anyway, after seeing me wandering the wonderful maze of shelves, Althea approached me with a few questions about my interests and a librarian’s knowledge of her inventory. And what an inventory it is. I saw collections of authors I’d long since forgotten and binding styles that took me decades into my previous lives. She guided me to some appropriate places, where I recognized many, many books from my past. If this is their buying taste I could move in nearby and spend lots of time [and money] here.
And here’s where I’ve discovered it sometimes pays to do your homework. Tonight I discovered that John Wyse Jackson, the owner, was a writer with a very focused view on running his shop. If I’d planned ahead I would have made a point of coming to the store during some slow hours on a day he was working, just to chat and listen. Unfortunately I won’t be able to do that, since John left the planet on February 20. https://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/people/john-wyse-jackson-obituary-bibliophile-and-zozimus-bookshop-founder-1.4212768
I’m hoping that this wonderful store carries on in his absence so that I can return for their selection and to eat another great meal at Book Café. And at a couple of more good restaurants recommended by my B&B owner. http://www.zozimusbookshop.com/
Next stop: Wicklow, after a calming drive through the Wicklow Mountains. Narrow roads, rolling fields and grazing livestock balanced my brain’s oversaturation of people, books and all their words. And when I walked into Bridge Street Books that little voice in the back of my head reminded me of a long forgotten promise. How often do you listen to that voice in your own head? The one that says turn here, look at that, try something new? And how often have you paid attention to it and actually followed its suggestion?
Anyway, my voice reminded me of the promise I made to myself when I didn’t buy the new Jane Harper novel months ago in Bantry. [ https://jpmaney.com/guilty-leaving-you/ ] My brain – that filter that constructs logical reasons for doing what we want to do anyway – told me that I’d been reading enough “literature” in the past few weeks and needed a good crime novel to balance my life. And who am I to argue when both my mind and heart agree with each other?
So…after wandering the store, picking up and putting down other books for logical reasons [read budgetary reasons here] I found a copy of The Lost Man and went to the till. The woman there told me she had another copy with faded cover and damaged back from sitting in their window display. I said I’d be reading its contents, not its cover. She took €3 off the price. I saved money and she saved a book from the bin. And by the way, Bridge Street Books is another award-winning shop that’s well worth your time. You’ll find them online at https://www.bridgestreetbooks.ie/
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.