The Indie Bookshop

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Tom Muckian

One of the pleasures of owning a Bookshop is witnessing the reaction of people when they ask you, “what do you do for a living”. The reaction is seldom indifference. When I say, “I own a Bookshop,” most people react with a “Really? That must be so cool” sort of response. Occasionally you get a perceptive “Gee, that must be tough?” Most of the time, however, the response is positive, even from people who then proceed to tell you that they love to read but just don’t have the time. You also get a fair number of people who tell you that they would love to own a bookshop, or at least, work in one and I imagine most of them mean it too.

What they don’t realise is that owning a bookshop is not so much a career choice as a vocation. Independent bookshop owners certainly aren’t in the business for the money. For anyone lucky enough to own or run a bookshop however, the rewards are immense. There is probably no better embodiment of “life work balance”. It goes without saying you need to love books and to love reading. I make a distinction here because reading, like not reading, can be a habit. While I might occasionally have slipped into the habit of not reading, I never stopped loving books, the touch the feel, the smell of them. Like most book lovers I’ve bought many more books than I’ll ever read. Owning a bookshop means I’ll never have to worry about buying too many (although my accountant might disagree).

Roe River Books is my second stint as a bookshop owner. First time round the imaginatively titled Dundalk Bookshop opened in 1987. Before that I’d worked in civil engineering and when recession bit, rather than emigrate I used my meagre savings and redundancy to open a bookshop. Unfortunately I was never able to generate enough financial momentum to get the stock level to a point where I could see a viable future. After 5 tough but enjoyable years the shop lease was up for renewal and I had a decision to make. Extend the lease and go again for another 5 years or go back to engineering which was picking up again after the recession. I sold my soul. The lure of a regular weekly wage, paid holidays and sick days was too much to resist. I closed the shop in 1992. I was relieved, but sad at the same time, and fell out of love with books for a while.

Fast forward to 2007 and I’m a self employed planning and design consultant. A client of mine has just bought a property and wants me to survey the building. The property houses Carroll’s Educational Supplies, an institution in Dundalk where generations of children have bought their school books. My client informs me that he really only wanted the building and that, most likely he’ll be selling the business on after the summer season. I half jokingly say to him not to sell it without talking to me first and two cups of coffee later, I’m back in the book business.

I was immediately aware of the difference. Bookselling is just a much nicer thing to spend your time doing. The Celtic Tiger years had turned civil engineering into a rat race. Aided in no small part by the advent of the mobile phone, you were never “off clock”. I was glad to be back. I knew it would never pay as well. That didn’t matter, I had a bookshop again. A school bookshop admittedly, but I could change that in time.

roe_river_books-small

It worked, to a degree. Then the recession hit and things began to stagnate. I became uncomfortably aware of the unhealthy parallel between my ownership of bookshops and recessions. Still we maintained the school trade and increased turnover in the first year. Turnover, though, levelled off and while we had some success with general books, developing this side of the business has been much slower than I would have liked.

Despite the difficulties it’s still a wonderful life. 15 years later the book trade is a significantly different place to the one I closed the door on in 1992. The net book agreement is gone, supermarkets sell books as loss leaders, the e-book has arrived and Amazon are doing their best to make sure that just about everybody buys everything, books included, from them. Video shops and record shops are all but gone. Many chain bookstores are also gone (Hughes and Hughes have opened and closed twice in Dundalk since 2003), but independent bookshops are still here.

Independent bookshops survive because they aren’t just about financial transactions. They are about books, obviously, but also about people, people who write books, people who read books and people who like being surrounded by books. They don’t just want to sell you books to make money; they want to sell you books because the books they sell are worth reading.

It looks like my second bookshop has survived a second recession. High street retail may never again be what it once was thanks to on-line retail but I’m optimistic about the future of the shop. The next phase will see it rebranded as Roe River Books to coincide with the launch of our web page next month. The Amazon River is the longest in the world and it’s on line namesake seems to want to take over the world. The Roe River once held the record as the shortest river in the world so in choosing its name, its bricks and mortar namesake may be accused of a lack of ambition. I like the idea of being the polar opposite of that on line giant. I like to feel that we’re just as important. We may not have every book in print but we might just have the one you need.

(This article first appeared on writing.ie)

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