‘The Harry Potter revolution was a huge boon to reading’

Vinny Browne and Charlie Byrne in Charlie Byrne’s book shop in Galway city. Picture: Ray Ryan

Vinny Browne is manager of Charlie Byrne’s in Galway, one of Ireland’s best-known independent bookshops.

How long has the shop been in business?

It opened in 1989; we are in our 30th year and will be having a bit of a celebration later this year. It grew out of a market stall run by Charlie, the owner, who was an archaeologist and had been in college in Galway. There was a small premises on Dominick St and we were there for about two years. I joined about 1990. We moved up to Middle Street in 1992 and our current location in 1995 and we’ve been here ever since. The shop has grown organically from that small beginning. We have added on little bits each time, and expanded into various premises that became available here in the Cornstore. In a way, we grew up in tandem with the whole cultural explosion that happened in Galway.

How did you get into the books business?

I was in college in Galway, and like so many people, I really wanted to find some way to stay here. We were quite a bookish family, my father was a big reader. I always had a huge interest in books and I did a BA in English.

I was delighted to join at the early stages and to grow up with the shop myself.

How has business has changed over the years?

It has changed in lots of different ways over 30 years. Children’s books are a big part of our business now. The Harry Potter revolution was a huge boon to reading. There were very few Irish children’s writers when I was growing up. Now there are are so many Irish writers writing Irish stories for children, it is a different world. There are more people reading now than ever before. The Kindle/digital thing has come and gone, that is not a problem. That looked like it might really affect the business but it hasn’t done so.

The Kindle just doesn’t do the job… if any technology is to replace an existing technology, it has to be better than it, and it isn’t.

People spend so much time on their screens, it is really important for people to have an experience that is away from that. The main thing in terms of business is the internet — people still love their books but they can buy them from Amazon and other online retailers. It is very hard for bricks-and-mortar businesses to compete with the pricing structure that is online because they don’t have to pay the business costs, they are run from a warehouse in the middle of nowhere.

How do you counter that?

Looking after the customer. Making the trip into the bookshop an experience. Those things cannot be replicated online. We also try to key into the social and cultural aspect of the whole book world. We have book launches all the time, things like book clubs, story time for kids. The shop is a kind of a meeting point and cultural centre as well as a bookshop.

I think people are aware of the fact that if they don’t support shops like ours, our towns and the cities will all be the same as everywhere else. It is a really important message for people to realise — if they are buying online, they are cutting off that local element. It is so easy to buy online and it is hard to blame people, but they should be aware of it because they won’t like the results.

What are your big sellers?

Children’s books are very strong. We like to promote quality Irish fiction and there is a lot of local literary talent, like Mike McCormack, Alan McMonagle, and Lisa McInerney, who are all customers of ours, so we are delighted at their success.

There are fantastic Irish published books out there, a great example of which is the Atlas of the Irish Revolution, which is getting another twist now because of the television series.

What are the rewards of being a bookseller?

For anyone who is interested in reading and writing, to be surrounded by readers and writers is a great privilege. The interactions I have with people every day are unique and wonderful. It is a great compensation for coming to work.

What are you reading?

Diarmaid Ferriter’s The Border, which is extremely topical. I also read Fintan O’Toole’s book on Brexit [Heroic Failure]. There is an almost instant literature of Brexit, it is interesting how writers have responded to it so quickly. To have a Diarmaid Ferriter book that is under 200 pages is quite an achievement.

Has a social media presence helped your profile and sales?

It is really important. Sometimes I struggle with it but there is a response when you put stuff up, people will come in and say they saw this or that. People on social media also like to get behind a book they have enjoyed. It is also a positive way to use social media, rather than the grazing and rabbit-holing that can happen with the internet.

Interview by Marjorie Brennan

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