Volumes of books are crammed into Kevin Gildea’s Brilliant Bookshop, on the shelves and on the floor. Beano magazines are strewn next to a Risk board game, while a Brontë classic sits atop a London AZ street atlas.
This is a place where you may have to tiptoe or squat to reach the desired book. Rummaging, says Gildea, is what makes a second-hand bookstore fun and what sets it apart from the clinical scroll of online shopping.
“I think you get a chill out of it,” he said. Discussions were strong in the days immediately following the relaxation of the rules, then quiet when “a deluge of rain” arrived, before resuming when the public got used to the changes.
Customers entering the Dún Laoghaire store chat with Gildea about a first edition copy of Dracula, the Irish football scandals exposed by Champagne Football, and the similarities between Sligo and rural South Africa.
Such a service does not happen online, says Gildea, also an actress, and opened her boutique on Lower George’s Street in the city of Co Dublin “4.5 days before the second lockdown” in October 2020.
We all know that if you don’t frequent these stores and go online, they will eventually have to close.
What prompted him to open a store during a global pandemic? It all happened “in a very organic way,” he says, starting with the car boot sale, then a pop-up booth.
“It was a very scary decision, but I felt I had taken a lot of steps in that direction.”
A few years ago, fears that ebooks would kill paperback sales were overblown, he says: “The book is back. I think that during the lockouts, people reassessed their relationship with their locality and went to support the independents a little more. If this continues, I don’t know.
Eamonn, a new regular, says he missed the smell of a bookstore. It’s a relief for Gildea, who notes that the establishment was once a fishmonger: “My greatest achievement has been to replace the smell of fish with books.”
The return to browsing a physical store since the reopening of non-essential stores is a comfort, says Eamonn, adding, “I really missed the bookstores and galleries more than the pubs and concerts.”
More than 13 million books were sold in Ireland last year, an increase of almost a million from 2019, according to Neilsen BookScan. Sales helped push Irish publishers and bookstores to € 161.5 million, a figure surpassed only in 2008.
But the official numbers may not tell the whole story, according to Bríd Conroy who runs the Tertulia Bookstore in Westport, Co Mayo, with her husband. Some supermarkets and department stores selling essential stationery have not completed their reading book section, although the items have been classified as non-essential by the government. “It really touched us… Unfortunately, it was not a level playing field. It was disheartening.
The first week of in-person sales exceeded what was possible online, which could only cover overhead, Conroy says. Regulars, friends and new customers, including some who travel far and wide, have “really supported” the business. However, Conroy eagerly awaits the return of tourists, must-sees in the heritage city.
“The Amazon Effect” is still a Goliath that independents have to fight against, but people are starting to change, she said. The “shop local” mantra has helped emphasize the importance of supporting independent businesses, adds Conroy.
“People are realizing the benefits of having their stores in their city. We all know that if you don’t frequent these stores and go online, eventually they will have to close. “
At Co Kildare, Woodbine had an “absolutely brilliant” first week of sales, says owner Dawn Behan. A lot of people came to spend Christmas checks “because it was so long ago”.
Books, as a product, are very popular. We heard how important they’ve been to people’s mental health
Customers were delighted to “see the books; they wanted to smell the pounds, and you can’t get that online, ”Behan says.
“The focus has been on pubs and restaurants, but some people prefer to spend time browsing bookstores.”
Behan got creative during the closures to keep the Kilcullen store in the minds of customers, teaming up with two other local stores to host online author events.
“It was something else that could bring them back… The customers have been fantastic. They really went out of their way to support us, ”she adds.
With an online service established in 1994, Co Galway’s Kenny’s Bookstore was somewhat pandemic-proof. Its sales increased in 2020, with a boom and drop in online shopping coinciding with the imposition and lifting of lockdowns, says marketing manager Sarah Kenny.
“Books, as a product, are very popular. We heard how important they have been to people’s mental health, ”she says.
Throughout the pandemic, people have made a “fantastic” effort to buy from Irish retailers, Kenny says. The hope now, she says, is that this shift to “shop more consciously” is here to stay.