We talk to Galway institution Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop, which will celebrating its 30th birthday in October, and Nibbies Children’s Bookseller of the Year shortlistee, The Blessington Book Store.
Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop
The Corn Store, Middle Street, Galway
From humble beginnings, community-minded bookshop Charlie Byrne's has weathered 30 years of industry challenges to grow to its current expansive, labyrinthine premises of six rooms over multiple floors, holding upwards of 100,000 books, becoming a Galway institution in the process.
It was founded in early spring 1989 by archaeologist and Galway University student Charlie Byrne as a small market stall. The initial success of the stall enabled Byrne to expand into a fully fledged bricks-and-mortar bookshop, which opened in October 1989, after which Byrne was joined by now long-serving manager Vinny Browne. While the first few years proved somewhat difficult, the foundation of a loyal, book-loving customer base began to take root, and it was the support of these customers which facilitated Byrne’s move to a larger premises in 1995. This location in Middle Street, in the centre of Galway City, is where the shop remains today.
The past three decades have, of course, been a challenge for indie shops with the emergence of Amazon, e-readers, and economic downturns. Yet Charlie Byrne’s has weathered it all, a longevity and success which is a “testament to a loyal customer base” made up of Galwegians, university students from the National University of Ireland, Galway (an institute which awarded Byrne an honorary degree in 2014 for his creation of a “cultural hub” for the city), and visitors to the west of Ireland.
“Charlie Byrne’s is, at heart, a local bookshop,” says book buyer Mike Lydon. “It is this community that makes Galway City such a special place; recognition of which is forthcoming in 2020, when Galway will be the European Capital of Culture—something that we are very excited about!”
For Lydon, a future challenge facing booksellers in Ireland comes in the form of the “spectre of Brexit and the possible economic downturn, for which booksellers in Ireland must rise to counter”. But equally, he says, there are opportunities. Shops must highlight the expertise of their staff, who can tap into broader nationwide trends but also have knowledge of the local community which an algorithim could never hope to match. And, shops must continue to innovate and market themselves to bring the punters in. This year Charlie Byrne’s has introduced a new point-of-sale system, and had its own Indie Bookshop Week where it gave away a €250 vouchers and a Charlie Byrne’s kit that included a tote bag, a fold-out model of the shop and a pair of “much-sought-after” Charlie Byrne’s socks.
The bookshop has long supported local and Ireland-wide writing, and is expanding on this during the current flowering of new Irish talent by promoting indie publishers such as Stinging Fly, Tramp Press, Dorie Press, Skein Press and as well as investing in locally published books. One such example is the self-published book by Galway historian Paul McGinley—Salthill: A History, which is one of the shop’s biggest selling titles in 2019.
Part of tapping into the community is Charlie Byrne’s busy events schedule. Recent highlights include two launches by local poets, and a signing by local-girl-made good Catherine Doyle, whose second Middle Grade novel Lost Tide Warriors (Bloomsbury) is a hit on both sides of the Irish Sea. The shop will also continue running its seven monthly book clubs and its weekly Saturday Morning Storytime in the Children’s Section, as well as maintaining its position as the event bookseller at the Galway International Arts Festival, Cúirt International Festival of Literature, dotMD and the Ennistymon Book Town Festival. All this activicity will culminate in a series of events in October to celebrate the shop’s 30th birthday.
“As we look to our future, we hope to maintain the strong community of customers and staff which has made us what we are today,” Lydon says. “We at Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop were very pleased to be the Irish regional winner of this year’s Nibbie, and are honoured to hold this title throughout our 30th year of bookselling. And, with the help of our wonderful customers and staff, we hope to enjoy many more years of bookselling to come.”
The Blessington Book Store
Main Street, Blessington, County Wicklow
Situated on a strip of land between the Wicklow mountains of east Ireland and the farmland of Kildare, Blessington Book Store—a 2019 British Book Awards Children’s Bookshop of the Year shortlistee—survives with a mission statement to “sell books that are worth reading, make the best coffee, cakes and food we can, and to have as much fun as possible in the process”.
Owner Janet Hawkins believes the shop is popular with visitors owing to its customer service, and says that the thing that makes the shop special is “the people”. “Every customer should leave our shop with something—even if that is just a smile,” she says. “We want your visit to us to be one of the best parts of your day, or one of the nicest memories of your trip to Ireland.”
For Hawkins, the great Irish literary tradition and the support bookshops get from customers means that the retail landscape, and independent sector in particular, is in fine fettle. However, like others in the industry, Brexit is a looming concern. For Blessington, more than 70% of the books it sells come from the UK, and at present Hawkins has “no idea” what will happen when the UK leaves the European Union. “Currently we receive books within three days of ordering them—this could become weeks if there is a hard border in Ireland,” she says, adding that the value of sterling also has a huge impact on the shop. “Three years ago, £100,000 worth of books sold for €140,000, now that £100,000 sells for just €115,000. That change in the currency is really affecting profits and revenue. We have had to work really hard to sell more books to stay at the same income level. If sterling were to fall significantly again, and if there were a recession in the UK and Ireland, we would struggle.”
Despite the challenges, there are opportunities in the market, especially in areas of tourism and heritage. “Worldwide, more and more people are culturally curious and are travelling to places like Ireland to hear stories of the past,” Hawkins says. “Booksellers are uniquely placed to meet this need, sharing their local knowledge and introducing customers to authors they may not know of.”
There have, of course, been many highlights for the shop since launch, including being shortlisted for Children’s Bookshop of the Year at The British Book Awards this year. “The pride in the faces of our team, and in the customers who made a point of congratulating us, was just lovely. Sometimes running a business in the tough 21st-century retail environment can feel like trudging up a mountain with a heavy backpack,” Hawkins says. “Being shortlisted for Children’s Bookshop of the Year was like taking a moment to pause, look at how far we have come, enjoy the view and think, ‘Isn’t life good?!’”
This was written as part of The Bookseller's focus on publishing in Ireland; for more content from this focus, head here.