“And when all was said and done the lies a fellow told about himself couldn't probably hold a proverbial candle to the wholesale whoppers other fellows coined about him.”
- James Joyce (Ulysses)
Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the coffee shop, balancing two almond lattes on his forward apt. He gracefully manoeuvred the early morning park denizens, dog walkers, crack addicts, desperate tiktokers, never spilling a drop of his precious nectar and never once missing an opportunity to chance a sale.
“A bookfair here this morning madam. Yes, lovely day for it. Why not check out my worthy tomes? You’re American? I won’t hold that against you. Pick up a genuine first edition Joyce at Mulligans Mobile Bookshop today! The perfect memento of Ireland.”
He skipped off the path and into my still being-assembled tent, whistling in-between gurgles of coffee. “Ah, poor dogsbody, left alone to assemble your stall after driving from the hideous back of beyond.”
“A first edition Joyce?”
“Come now Wally, she’s American. They’re a relatively new country in the grand scheme of things. Anything looks old and valuable to them. Let me sell her a Penguin Paperback Ulysses and see a dream grow in her mind.”
The Dublin City Book Market is a weekly gathering of book dealers and book related stalls under the shade of St Patrick’s ancient Cathedral. It might bring to mind how the famous St Paul’s Book Market looked back in the day, except with more tourists streaming themselves on their iPhones and a greater chance of being mugged by a hipster junky.
There is a long tradition of outdoor bookselling in Dublin. Book barrows and hawkers were a familiar sight along the Liffey for hundreds of years until development cancelled them out of existence in the 1970s. Somehow, both myself and Buck Mulligan, and the other array of booksellers here, have a shared lineage dating back to those itinerant sellers of books.
Mulligan pulls a collected works of Shakespeare from one of the many banana boxes, crammed with books, littered around my pitch. “Shakespeare is the happy hunting ground of all minds that have lost their balance,” he says solemnly. “Better than any antidepressants or ritalin, you know. By God, we are providing a holy service up here my good man. We are feeding the masses with spiritual nourishment. Everything else might hang in the balance, but they can rest assured that we practitioners of this ancient church of binded paper and words will always be here.”
“Did you sell much last week?”
“Sell? Such a relativistic terminology Wally. I spoke to many interesting people. Some purchased, some confronted me with my inflationary prices, one called the Gardai for an alleged inappropriate comment I made. In short, no.”
In this outdoor book market, I can feel the historic legacy of four hundred years of bookselling coursing through my very veins. In the 17th century, the Dublin Book trade was primarily situated along the west-east axis from Christchurch Lane to Trinity College, all within walking distance of todays location in St Patrick’s Park. In the decades after this, book stalls grew along the quays, often selling their stock out of barrows, and the streets of Dublin were full of book hawkers, chapmen and ballad sellers. There was no class division in these markets. The prince and pauper mixed together in a desire for books.
The Book Market attracts every type of person. The canny collector, sporting a crumpled notepad which they use to cross reference their library against our stock, will diligently go through every book, silently weighing its worth against space in their own collection.
The timewaster will wander aimlessly among the stalls, blocking real customers paths, flicking absentmindedly through pages, never once thinking that they are interfering with a person’s business. They usually come from the so-called professional classes; solicitors, planners, and so forth.
The performer will lead an audience, usually a young lady and her friends, around the shelves, identifying books and giving his own expert commentary on its literary value, always gleamed word for word from a Wikipedia article.
“I find the style of Vanity Fair highly indebted to Henry Fielding,” he’ll cry, reading from an iPhone hidden in his pocket. “Thackeray meant the book to be not only entertaining but also instructive, an intention demonstrated through the book's narration and through Thackeray's private correspondence.”
Like the timewaster, the performer will never buy a book.
The eccentric will arrive in a jog, frantically spitting out some insane story, usually involving the religious end of days or a government plot to poison our milk. They too will make no purchase.
Then there is the book fashionista, who will take multiple pictures of themselves around the shelves, profess their undying love for literature and tell you in great detail of the incredible bargains to be had on kindle.
Again, no sales.
No, the only saving grace of the book market is the reader. Those beautiful souls haunted by the written word, obsessively chasing that next profound read.
They come in all shapes and sizes in the cosmopolitan Dublin Book Market. Readers from every culture and every nationality.
“My dear boy, I do confess that every hate crime of xenophobia could be wiped away if they could only lay eyes on these beautiful exotic young readers,” Buck Mulligan shouts across at me, grizzly pieces of a chicken roll running out of his open orifice and down onto his smock.
“I resent violence or intolerance in any shape or form. It never reaches anything or stops anything. A revolution must come on the due installments plans. It's a patent absurdity on the face of it to hate people because they live round the corner and speak a different vernacular, so to speak.”
“Are you making money?”
“Money? Such an irrational way to view the world, Wally.”
“That’s a no then?”
“Every life is in many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love, but always meeting ourselves.”
Bookselling has existed since at least 300 years before Christ. Now here we are, the devolved descendants of noble bibliopegists, leaving our besieged bookshops on the day of rest to hawk our literary stock in outdoor stalls. Following a tradition that has almost been airbrushed out of Irish history.
“It is as painful perhaps to be awakened from a vision as to be born,” Buck Mulligan mutters, perhaps reading my mind.
The creation of the Library of Alexandria in that golden era and the popularising of reading and learning by characters such as Plato and Aristotle led to a boom in the trading of books. Towards the end of the Roman Republic, a trend for personal libraries led to a similar growth in book dealing.
Islamic cities such as Damascus and Baghdad saw a high trade in books. The spread of Christianity also contributed to the growth of bookselling as demand grew for the gospels and missals.
“The movements which work revolutions in the world are born out of the dreams and visions in a peasant's heart on the hillside.”
Johannes Gutenberg invented the world’s first commercial printer in the 15th century revolutionising the volume, variety and demand for books. At the time one Venetian Bookshop owner claimed that Gutenberg’s invention would destroy the book trade and meant the end of the bookshop. He promptly closed up his shop for good.
In the 16th century, The Bouquinistes of Paris appeared on the banks of the Seine selling second hand and antiquarian books from their stalls and using the ancient emblem of a lizard staring at a sword to identify themselves. Perhaps this flag was a representation of the David versus Goliath battle they raged against state and religious domination, or perhaps it was purely defiance against all who would question the legitimacy or longevity of bookselling.
“People could put up with being bitten by a wolf but what properly riled them was a bite from a sheep.”
Napoleon later saw the importance and potential danger of bookshops, introducing a license for booksellers and forcing successful applicants to swear an oath to the regime.
Napoleon was right to worry. Bookshops became places for free thinkers, societal dissidents and dreamers to loiter in, talk and spread ideas. Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company on the Rue de l'odieon in Paris was a legendary meeting place of the great thinkers and outcasts of the day, from Ernest Hemingway to Enza Pound to Scott Fitzgerald. Beach even published the first edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses and stood by him when it was banned in his own country.
The original Shakespeare and Company closed in 1941 after they refused to serve an officer of the occupying Nazi forces. A new shop bearing the name was opened by American George Whitman in 1951 and quickly attracted literary refugees like Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Henry Miller, James Baldwin and Sebastian Barry.
In 1953 Lawrence Ferlinghetti opened City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco. Notable library eccentrics and geniuses like Charles Bukowski, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Jack Kerouac frequented the store which became a birthplace for ideas and stories. Ferlinghetti almost went to prison for printing Ginsbergs “Howl” when no one else would touch it for fear of obscenity charges.
But that was then.
Shortly before Covid, a century old bookshop in Barcelona was bulldozed away and replaced by a McDonald’s.
In 2005 there were over 4,000 bookshops in the UK. Within a decade that number had fallen to 987.
Twenty years ago Amazon sold their first book online. Since then the kindle has become a household item and Book chainstores, who undercut many independent bookstores into oblivion back in the 80s, have strained to stay relevant by introducing onsite cafes, Wi-Fi Hotspots and putting huge pressure on publishers to only print their niche favourites, blockbuster thrillers and summer chiclit. In today’s world of accountants measuring a bookshelves potential value and chainstore financed book reviewers, it’s unlikely that the likes of Hemingway, Dickens, Austen, Woolf or Behan would even find a publisher if starting out now.
“Introibo ad altare Dei,” Buck Mulligan screams into my ear. “You’re in a world of your own old boy and a girl trying to give you money for the Ginger Man. Luckily I ran the change out of her hand like a dog drives the fox to ground, ya fearful jesuit.”
“Are we puritans making a stand against the erosion of the noble trade and the vocational act of selling books Mulligan? Or a bunch of fecking lourichauns?”
“How dare you Sir. Far from lourichauns I was reared.” Mulligan seems to have taken the hump, retreating to the back of my stall where a bronze head of James Joyce is carved into the old brick wall.
“When one reads these strange pages of one long gone one feels that one is at one with one who once… What in the name of Jaysus was Joyce talking about? Rarely did anything that man write make a damn bit of sense. I’d say the syphilis had eaten into his brain and drove him stoned cracked.”
“Steady on Mulligan,” I tell him. “That degenerate cur is a national treasure and has always been since he safely died away in exile.”
“If we can market a half blind fella with a watersports fetish to the tourists, we can surely preserve bookselling in this nation Kinch!”
Phantasmal mirth, folded away: muskperfumed.
Mulligan spat suddenly and excessively on the head of Joyce and began to polish his bronzed cranium with his favourite nose rag. “The blessings of God on you Joyce, ya sex crazed heathen.”
When I’m laying awake at night, racked with worry and guilt, I call upon that eternal image scorched into my mind for solace.
“What incensed him the most was the blatant jokes of the ones that passed it all off as a jest, pretending to understand everything and in reality not knowing their own minds.”