Friday, December 7, 2012

Irish Bookstores

by Sheila Connolly

I just came back from two weeks in Ireland, most of it spent in a (very comfortable modern) cottage on a windswept hill in County Cork, a mile from where my grandfather was born.  Parts of my brain and a chunk of my heart are still there, so you may be hearing a lot about it in coming weeks.

I quickly came to understand where the legend of the bean sí, the keening fairy woman, comes from:  the wind was relentless, howling around the eaves.  But the rain held off most days (and guess what:  when it rains, you get rainbows!), and I did all the research things I planned to do, like talking to the local gardaí (police) about the details of a murder investigation.  I guess I'm not your typical tourist.

But one thing that struck me over and over:  the Irish love books.  I spent a couple of days in Dublin, and I took pictures of every bookstore I entered, from large chain (Eason's) to hole-in-the-wall places selling used books.  They're everywhere.  They're well stocked, and they're full of buyers.

What is curious about this is that books in Ireland are expensive.  From what I saw, there is no equivalent of our American mass market paperback (the small format).  Most Irish books are published in what we would call trade format, which is larger and more expensive.  With very few exceptions, they cost ten Euros or more.  That's around thirteen dollars.  Heck, I don't pay thirteen dollars for a paperback.

But the bookstores appear to be thriving, and there are lots of them.  I spent the most time in the town of Skibbereen, which has a population of just over 2,000 people.  It's an ordinary market town, not fancied up for tourists.  I'd live there in a moment—it has great restaurants, an amazing year-round weekly farmers market, a long and occasionally tragic history—and more than one bookstore.


A department of the extraordinary supermarket sells books, along with paper goods and school supplies.  There's another bookstore down the street (note:  there really is only one main street) that has a good selection of new releases.  And there's an incredible bookstore a bit further on, called Time Travellers Bookshop, which sells new, used and collectible books.  My husband and I spent quite a bit of time there poring over titles. I should note that the owner is actually German and does sell over the Internet, and one of his assistants is Scottish, with a Welsh husband; they all opted to settle in West Cork because they fell in love with it.  That should tell you something. So, three bookstores in a town of two thousand people.  My town, population ten times that, barely supports a rack of best-sellers in the local Hallmark store.

It is heartening that a country full of people who are keeping a close count on their Euros still believes that books matter, and that people are willing to pay good money for them. Yes, there are also public libraries, and even at the farmers market there are used books for sale.

One final note, from a mystery writer's perspective:  the Irish do not like cozies.  Believe me, I looked high and low and found no more than a couple of lonely copies of Agatha Christie.  There are some great Irish mystery writers these days, but the majority of them write dark procedurals.  I'm still puzzling over whether that reflects something fundamental about the collective Irish readers' psyche, but overall I'm happy that people are reading.

The first book in Sheila Connolly's new County Cork series, Buried in a Bog, will be issued in February 2013.  It will not be available in County Cork bookstores, even in Skibbereen, which plays an important role in the book.  She may have to deliver them herself.


sex scenes at starbucks, said...

Those look fabulous. I was in No Alibis in Belfast this summer. Next time you go it's worth a trip north just for that store alone. And Belfast, of course, is a great setting for crime writing...

Julia Buckley said...

Sheila, this sounds like a wonderful trip, the cottage and the bookstores especially! Thanks for sharing.

Steven M. Moore said...

Hi Sheila,
My wife and I had a similar experience in Ireland. We also noted their love of poetry and theater (or, should I write theatre?). My website shows some of the pictures we took there.
I'm not familiar with Britain, but neither the Irish nor Scots like "cozies." Maybe we Celts are just natural brooders? One of my favorite mystery writers is Ian Rankin--very dark at times. I tend to be a wee bit brooding in my sci-fi thrillers, and the first mystery I'm working on is definitely going that route.
When we were in Dublin, we went to the Abbey. The play we saw (unfortunately I don't remember the title) was one that couldn't even be shown in NYC (we're too Puritan). It was a brooding drama about murder, incest, and sexual exploitation in a 12th century Irish kingdom. Maybe it's the climate, but like you, we had good weather while we were there!