We Sell Books: 'I nearly cried. How could you get to your late twenties without being in a bookshop?'

Helen O’Connell at Bookstór in Kinsale, Co Cork. Picture: Damian Coleman

The Bookstór at Newman’s Mall in Kinsale, Co Cork, is owned by Stuart Gallagher, and run by Helen O’Connell and Heather Maiden. The book sells new and second-hand books. We spoke to Helen O’Connell.

When did the shop open and how did you come to work there?

It opened in 2006 and it was sold to the current owner, Stuart Gallagher, in 2011. He kept it running exactly as it was. We had a manager at the time, and she left in 2013. Heather used to do lunchtimes and I’d do Saturday mornings; we were both available to work more so we job-share now. Heather’s been here over ten years and I’m here ten years in December.

What did you do before you became a bookseller?

I started out doing a two-year bilingual secretarial diploma, then I worked in London, and did Montessori teaching by night there. When I came back to Ireland I opened a nursery school, then I went back to study midwifery in CUMH. I dropped out of that and then wanted a part-time job, the Bookstór came up and that was it, I’ve been here since. I’m from Dublin originally, I met a Corkman in London. He won, and we ended up in Cork.

Kinsale is a busy tourist town, are visitors a big part of your trade?

We wouldn’t be in business but for tourists and our children’s section. We have one book we sell that our rep from Argosy, the Irish wholesaler, says no other bookshop in Ireland is selling. It’s Dead Wake, a book about the Lusitania. 

Don and Barry, who do the historic stroll of Kinsale, recommend it on their walks and then because people pass the shop on the walk they come in and buy it. And we sell a lot of maps, too — the Bord Fáilte office doesn’t sell them any more, so they send people up to us. Our children’s section is huge, and everyone admires it. 

We love it and we expand it as much as we can. It’s threatening to take over the back of the shop but children are encouraged to read by their schools so much now, you hear ‘teacher said to read more’, and we think, ‘yay’. Non-fiction for children is really big, they love all the reference books.

What is local trade like?

We have local regulars who are really loyal. We’re really busy in the run-up to Christmas. There’s a certain cohort who love coming in on Christmas Eve — some people would travel from Fermoy and all sorts of places to Kinsale on Christmas Eve for last-minute shopping. It’s manic. People come in to say their sister or cousin will be in and to have the book ready for them — they’re wrapped with the name on them, ready to go.

How has the business weathered the challenge of online booksellers?

Reading off a screen, I think that threat is gone. The Kindle hasn’t grown or caught on except for people who travel. Most people miss the cover of a book, the photograph of the author and just having it. In terms of ordering books online, you can be waiting for ages for a book from Amazon, and we can get it in quicker from the wholesalers. We do our best. There are people who get everything on Amazon, it is cheaper, but hopefully it won’t dent our sales any more. 

One of the most extraordinary things ever was when an American girl came into the shop, in her late twenties, and she said, ‘I’ve never been in a bookshop before’. I nearly cried. It still gets me. How could you get to your late twenties without being in a bookshop?

What are your big sellers?

The History of Kinsale Harbour by John Thuillier turns over very well. Also Jerome Lordan, who does the harbour cruises, has a book called No Flowers On A Sailor’s Grave [Shipwrecks of Kinsale and Courtmacsherry]. Anything to do with sailing does well. Ron Holland the yacht designer was over last year and he had a lovely book. The Mr Men leprechaun book is one of our biggest sellers. We have it by the till and it sells an extraordinary amount.

What are the rewards of being a bookseller?

I enjoy it, in the current consumer climate I’d hate to be selling anything else.

It’s also lovely to work in Kinsale, with people coming in, having a browse and enjoying the shop. There can be days in the summer though when it’s absolutely glorious outside and nobody comes in because they’re all gone to the beach.

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