Thurles: There’s a long table that starts next to the guitars, runs past non-fiction and ends near the children’s books on the back wall. A counter full of colourful knitting yarn separates it from the rest of the store. Two women and a man chat over their coffee, tea and scones. At another table a mother and her daughter are in serious conversation over long-cold cups of tea. A father and his young son enter; the son starts poking through books while his father gets a coffee, a couple of chocolate bars and a glass of milk before settling down with his morning paper. More retirees wander in to join the threesome at the long table. Some nod to the woman at the counter, others just take their seats. Coffee, tea and scones automatically appear in front of the newcomers. The conversation switches from English to Irish with only occasional lapses into non-translatable English vocabulary.
My choice? Read my newly-purchased book over my coffee and scone – or people-watch in what could be a bookstore of the future.
I can read my book anytime.
From the looks of them, I’ll guess that all of the long table’s patrons are old enough to remember men at the bar and women in the snugs. Even with that convention pretty much disposed of by changing social mores, sitting around a table is a lot more conducive to conversation than shouting along a bar. I have mentioned that this is a bookshop, not a coffee shop, haven’t I? The Bookworm also hosts regular meetings of local knitters and stocks a pretty good selection of musical instruments.
Bookstores have always been full of dialog and conversation, and not just between the covers of their inventory. In making their own moves to ensure survival in a digital age are they replacing Ireland’s pubs? The nation’s rural pubs, lifestyle and native tongue are hanging on to withering vines. A perfect storm of urbanisation, changing demographics, new lifestyles and stricter enforcement of drink driving laws contributed to the loss of over 1500 pubs in the past dozen years. In the same time off-license shops increased by over 11% as people opt for drinking at home in front of their video screens. Remember the book, Bowling Alone, about the decline of social interaction? Are we developing a society of Drinking While Home Alone?
Without taking a formal census, I’ll guess that the ratio of coffee shops to pubs is getting closer and closer. But that’s just a fun-with-numbers statistical trick, a symptom of change, not a cause-and-effect relationship tied to the Starbucks invasion that began in 2005.
Many people complain that coffee shops are at a saturation point – not just chains, but the locals who serve a better blend. Serving tea and cakes as well, they’re becoming the new pubs. So it makes sense for bookshops with more square footage and thinner inventories to join the trend.
If you’re not familiar with the concept of The Third Place, it defines a location where real flesh-and-blood analog people congregate with each other in person, not online in a virtual chatroom. You may even want to pick up a copy of Ray Oldenburg’s The Great Good Place. And if, god forbid, you go to Wikipedia instead of your local bookstore or library, you’ll find a decent article, even though I disagree with its points on virtual third places.
Are bookstores becoming the third place of the future, for people fleeing the digitally-enforced isolation that was supposed to bring us all together?
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.