It’s hard to miss Mullingar’s Just Books when you’re walking down the street. It’s even harder to leave once you’ve gone through their door.
If the bulletin board full of neighbourhood notices doesn’t keep you occupied, there are always the books. And if you’re not sure what you want there’s always Stella Lynch to help you. She’s been the heart, soul and everything else that’s the store for over 20 years. If she doesn’t have what you want in stock, she’ll order it in for you.
While I was scanning the board, noting some things I’d love to do if I was in town longer, I was also listening to a wonderful discussion of family trees and some books that would be helpful to a customer interested in genealogy. It was clear to me that Stella wasn’t selling, she was helping and advising the woman, making sure she had exactly what she needed for her project. Later, while ringing up my purchase, we talked about the wonderful display shelving that’s such an important part of the store. After turning down a custom offer from a store designer more concerned with anti-theft measures than with displaying and selling books, she found her current shelving in Midleton, near Cork. Two trips later her store was fitted out. Just Books has the feel of a welcoming library in a large house, not a retail fortress.
From there we moved on to the bane of all small family-owned stores – staffing and succession planning. Wearing every hat that needs wearing in a business can be exhausting, even if you’re doing it for love. And, while you may not be starving to death, there’s rarely enough money to hire a good manager, much less quality time to take a decent holiday. So you’re on your own, with a bit of help from hourly employees who’ll hopefully have some of the same love for things that you have.
We were having a wonderful chat. But the good news for Stella is that there wasn’t enough time for us to finish, with two more customers appearing behind me. Stella exudes love for her store, her books and her clientele. But what’s next? In our rambling conversation we talked about the reasons bookstores close – reasons that have nothing to do with mail-order, instant delivery or e-readers. If there’s nobody in your family who wants to take over – or nobody who wants to buy you out – what are you going to do? And these days, in spite of all the reports on the revival of printed books, how many people are willing to take the risk of buying a small local bookstore?
A bookstore isn’t a hardware store, heating & plumbing contractor or any other generic local business. Its inventory and operation are a reflection of its owner. Does a shop have an owner’s personality and feel for the community? Or is it just another cookie from a corporate cutter?
In my marketing days we spoke of the pattern of family businesses. Basically, if a business survived into the third generation, it could survive indefinitely. The second generation was the key. After seeing their parents sell their souls to the business instead of their families, many kids either walked away or mismanaged things while they took the money and ran. If by chance the second generation managed to hold things together or even improve things, the extended third generation family generally had at least one or two members who could institutionalize the business, perhaps with additional locations or expanded product lines.
And if a small business owner has no obvious successor? They close up shop or sell to a consolidator. Many towns have long standing family businesses in name only, owned and operated by an out-of-town group offering business tools unavailable to an owner-operator. Often they’ll sign a management/no-compete contract with the retiring owner. The neighbours see a familiar face at the door for a few years, who’ll introduce them to the new manager. And, more often than not, former owners, used to running their own business their own way, chafe under the rules, regulations and restrictions from out-of-town bean counters who’ve never set foot in the store, much less the town. A good number of former owners never complete their contracts, returning a portion of their retirement money in return for sanity and peace of mind.
I believe there’s a future for personal love and service in the business world. That there are enough of us who don’t quite fit the corporate mold and find a way to make a living doing what we love. But it can only happen when we spend our money with our neighbours, not out-of-town corporations.
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.