Friday, November 22, 2013

Irish Bookstores

by Sheila Connolly

I love to visit bookstores.  You know, the real ones, in buildings.  My family trained me well:  we used to go to Doubleday’s in New York, as a treat, or to Brentano’s in the first mall I saw, in Short Hills, New Jersey (I remember when it was being built, and I used to take the bus there before I could drive).

Alas, too many of them are gone now.  Those that survive hang on by their fingernails, fueled more by the dream of owning a bookstore than by the income they generate. Most indie bookstore owners these days are there for the love of it.

But that’s not true in Ireland.  I know, because I’ve tried to visit as many bookstores as I can.  When I’m in Dublin I usually stay in a hotel around the corner from the Temple Bar, where there are plenty of bookstores, starting with The Gutter at one end, past the radical one (called Connolly’s). Closer to Trinity
College there are a couple of good used bookstores.  Go toward Saint Stephen’s Green and you find one that actually had a section for Cozies (I asked the woman at the register why, and she said, because people ask for them.  Yes!)  Cross the bridge over the Liffey and you have Eason’s, the country’s largest chain.

And it’s not just true of the city.  I spend a lot of time in Skibbereen in West Cork.  It’s a thriving market town with a population of about 2700 people.  (The supermarket and the weekly year-round farmers’ market make me want to weep, they are so much better than mine here.)  Three bookstores, including one that features an array of antiquarian books and maps.  Not just “old” books, either:  the last time I was in there, they had a first edition of a book by the 16th century humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam, in its original binding, and if that wasn’t enough, according to the bookplate it had once belonged to the Dean of Trinity College.  And it wasn’t locked away in a glass case—I held it and leafed through it.


Ireland is a country that cares about books.  And writers as well: Ireland offers tax exemption to artists (who live in Ireland) and who produce “original and creative” work, including books and plays. It must have artistic merit of course, and this is defined thus: 

--A work has cultural merit if its contemplation enhances the quality of individual or social life as a result of its intellectual, spiritual or aesthetic form and content. 

--A work has artistic merit when its combined form and content enhances or intensifies the aesthetic apprehension of those who experience or contemplate it.

There are more details and exceptions, but you get the drift.  The maximum amount an artist can exempt is €40,000, which as of this writing is about $53,000.  I’d bet most writers would be happy to earn that much, exempt or not.

Books are expensive in Ireland.  The mass market format is all but unknown, so there are only hardback and trade format.  The latter usually costs about $15 a book—and yet the stores thrive. One clue that I haven’t been able to follow up on came from a recent conversation with a writer at Bouchercon (he’s English and lives in England, but he writes fiction about American crime), who told me that in the UK and Ireland the government provides some form of subsidy for bookstores.  Would that it were so here!

My own books are not available in Irish bookstores (even the one set in Ireland).  Happily (or unhappily, depending on how you feel about Amazon) they are available through Amazon UK, although that’s fairly recent.  Yes, they will ship to Ireland, but the shipping cost per book is more than the cost of the book itself. Sigh.  The books don’t appear to be available in Kindle format, and I can’t speak to how many Irish residents use e-readers anyway. It’s an imperfect (literary) world. 

But as you read this, I will be in Ireland, stopping at every bookstore I see. 

Coming February 2014




Steven M. Moore said...

Hi Sheila,
Between the pubs and bookstores, I don't know which is better in Dublin! I also enjoyed the Writers' Museum (see my bio page on my website for a pub and the museum) and the Abbey Theatre.
Moreover, I love it that Irish writers from Swift to Shaw to Wilde have poked fun at the British upper crust, but I suppose it's not PC to say that. ;-)

Julia Buckley said...

Wow--makes me want to move to Ireland. :)