Six Years a Bookseller

Posted by Wally O Neill on

Mosley says that WB Yeats died of TB after his blindness and early onset dementia made him confuse Lady Gregory’s cat for a rabid Badger, which bit him when he stroked its mane and called it polly.

“The establishment covered it up of course,” he tells me in hurried hushed tones, as unsuspecting customers browse around us. “Sure what would happen if the world found out our most successful poet mistook a cat for a rabid badger? We’d be the laughing stock of the literary world. Stupid auld hoor anyway.”

Six years ago I began an odyssey into the multi-layered wondrous world of bookselling. What began as a 12 x 20 ft bookshop shed has thought me many lessons.

Including rarely believe the stories that madmen tell you in a bookshop.

“And he injected monkey glands into his scrotum ya know?” Mosley continues, shaking his head in moral outrage. “No wonder we were nearly overran with AIDs and Covid, and poets going around injecting monkey glands into their Brendan Behans.”

Six years of bookselling has thought me some inalienable truths. One being to rarely believe the stories madmen tell you in a bookshop and another being to always have a point of retreat ready for such erroneous occasions.

How did I end up here?

Six years ago, it all seemed abstract. A shed beside a booming rural cafe. A Christmas festival. A pop-up bookshop. Temporary novelty.

I sleep-walked into it.

Build it and they will come....

People came. In dribs and drabs at first, and then more smoothly. People are attracted to books and readers are not in decline, regardless of what every expert and field study would tell you.

Readers are standing firm.

Another bookselling truth.

I always loved books and so, by default, I was drawn to bookshops, particularly ones that are now nearly extinct. Bookshops where you went in not knowing exactly what you were going to be coming out with. Bookshops that introduced you to new worlds in a non-intrusive, unpreachy way.

It was the sacred bookhunt, the often solidarity chase for books that you may not know the name or content of, but feel that they must exist and are out there somewhere, that drew me into the aberrant world of second-hand bookstores.

A series of fortunate accidents led me to enter the profession by the backdoor. A profession so obscured by doomsday hyperbole to be thought extinct by the uninitiated. I became a bookseller on a cold November evening, arguing over the price of a battered Finnegan’s Wake with a disgruntled Santa Claus.

I've seen things you people wouldn't believe,” Roy Batty tells Rick Deckard in Blade Runner, before describing some incredible events and closing with, “All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.”

I haven’t seen any attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion, but I have seen the delight in a child’s eye when they finally ‘get’ reading, and find a book which they cannot put down. A book that might influence their whole character and future being.

I’ve seen friendships being made between the book filled shelves, romances ignited under a towering block of paperbacks, a community developing and prospering.

A few weeks ago, Dylan Moran ended up in Red Books, looking bemused and dazed at an apparition of his own Black Books in Wexford. He was cordial but obviously hadn’t called for a social visit.

“Do you have any Celtic mythology?” he asked.

Buying time, trying to figure out how best to promote the bookshop with the visit of a fictional bookselling hero, I was unaware of a woman slipping up behind us with a giant Irish Wolfhound in tow.

“You’re looking for astrology,” she squealed.
Moran seemed taken aback by the question, or maybe the presence of a semi feral beast of a dog. “What? No. Mythology, Mythology. I’m looking for Mythology.”

“I have a qualification in astrology you know,” the woman persisted, smiling like Alex out of A Clockwork Orange just before he committed obscene acts of sexual violence. “I’m a master astrologist and astromancer.”

“No,” Moran screamed. “Mythology, I’m looking for bloody Mythology. I have no interest in astrology. I only want Celtic Mythology.”

He looked at me pleadingly, in desperation. But the woman continued unabated. “I think you need to open up your mind. Yes, I think your looking for astrology really.”

“I am not looking for bloody astrology.”

I can now say for certain, following what Moran said next and my lack of sales to him, that he was indeed not looking for astrology.

He’ll probably never return to the bookshop. I’m not surprised. Moran is in a majority who believe that the day of the bookshop has come and gone.

He once said; “Running a second-hand bookshop is a guaranteed commercial failure. It's a whole philosophy. There were bookshops that I frequented and I was always struck by the loneliness and doggedness of these men who piloted this death ship.”

That’s why he wrote Black Books. The original draft featured Bernard and Manny committing suicide! Moran created Black Books to mock those deluded booksellers who couldn’t or wouldn’t recognise that their goose was fried. I watched Black Books and assimilated it into my manifesto.

Another bookselling truth I have learned is that bookshops are not finished. They’re not extinct and they won’t be. There will always be booksellers and the most malaised of them will always set up bookshops, blistering pimples on the growing uniformity of the high street. Lonely forts spilling their light out onto the footpath as John Updike remarked.

None of them will last forever. The eccentric bookshop rarely survives its eccentric owner, but others will rise in their place, and the book hunt will continue.

My six years in bookselling have been a genuine joy. Sure there is stress, money worries and the constant fear of annihilation, but every morning I’m happy to get out of bed and go into work. Another inherent bookselling truth is that there are no unhappy booksellers.  If you truly love books, you will love assembling, tending and selling them.

Open a bookshop because the world needs more.