“Know when to fight and when not to fight. Avoid what is strong and strike at what is weak. Know how to deceive the enemy: appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.”
- Sun Tzu (The Art of War)
Ho Chi O’ Leary has developed a system of bookselling uniquely designed to combat lockdowns, inflation, wars and Amazon. A distinctive series of hit-and-run's, under-pricing in vast quantities and Tet offensive-marketing. Ho Chi O’ Leary is the architect of guerilla bookselling.
Covered in camouflage of pulp paperbacks, antiquarian ephemera and oak biscuit crumbs, he networks his way across the country, plotting and planning, buying and selling, hitting where defences are weakened.
“Your problem is complacency,” he tells me, urging me to take the steering wheel so he can make a call. “Too much food. The Viet Cong only gave their men a handful of rice each day. Yes, a handful of rice and handful of bullets. That’s efficiency.”
We cross county borders, straying onto back roads and unimaginable boreens, always alert for the sign of good books for sale or active readers searching for their next literary fix.
“You see, until you can dig a foxhole out of the ground with your bare hands, live in it for four days on nothing but worms and rain water, before jumping out in front of the first potential punter you see and selling him or her a pristine copy of Chaucer, you’re not really a bookseller.”
Ho Chi O’ Leary never rests. He is on the march seven days a week, three hundred and sixty-five days of the year. The long march.
“The problem with booksellers these days is a lack of hunger. You need to be hungry to have the drive to sell books. You need to know that you are only ever one sale away from total starvation. You need to appreciate that only a Dickens or Austen stand between you and the bare claws of unleashed anarchy. Pass me that sandwich if you’re not going to eat it.”
The whole secret lies in confusing the enemy, so that he cannot fathom our real intent.
Ho Chi O’ Leary takes us across mountains, through dying market towns, into the heartland of the orphaned gentry and industrial wastelands of urbania, always vigilant, always selling.
“The people who talk about the book trade are not really the book trade. Chain-stores, hipster coffee hawkers with books on vegan candle making, charity rare book experts, even Amazon itself, will all pass into the night. But the trade will continue. Underground. Unperturbed. Like the Viet Cong.”
“Booksellers like us?”
He looks me up and down, taking his eyes off the road for an uncomfortably long period of time. “Like me. Maybe not you. You’re a charlatan.”
“Mystify, mislead, and surprise the enemy. That’s what Sun Tzu said.”
We eventually fall upon an incredible collection, flush with rarities and gems, shunned by the gleaming shelves of establishment bookstores. A lost treasure.
“This will do,” Ho Chi O’ Leary says. “For now.”
We load the van quickly, splitting books, arguing, bartering, scheming.
Ho Chi O’ Leary leaves me outside the shop, surrounded by boxes of exquisite books, the very wealth of knowledge, the seeds of culture. I feel overcome with a euphoria. Bookjoy.
It’s an almost religious epiphany. A deep connection to the book world and the hundred thousands tomes in my store.
And then the Cyclist rides his bike up on the footpath beside me and breaks the spell.
“Wally, you have to give me sanctuary. I accidentally sent compromising pictures of myself to the wife of the Wexford Triads. Now the Wo Hop To are hunting me down. I’ll have to move into the bookshop for the next few weeks. Have you any bacon in the fridge? I get hungry when my life is threatened by Chinese transnational organised crime syndicates.”
“In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.”