Cian Byrne runs the Maynooth University Bookshop and Maynooth Bookshop in Co Kildare, with his father John and aunt Ursula Murphy, writes Marjorie Brennan
My dad took on the Maynooth University Bookshop in 1985, he had previously been the manager and when the shop became available he bought it. Then he realised that the academic bookselling trade is very seasonal and you’re twiddling your thumbs during the summer so he opened the Maynooth Bookshop. That was 1988, so we celebrated 30 years last year. I’m 33, so the bookshops have been around as long as me, I’ve grown up in them. Every morning I’d go to the university bookshop with my dad and sit at his desk before I’d go to school. I’d joke with the staff that I was the boss — some of those staff are still there. Little did I know.
I started in the shop two years ago, I was a data analyst but I was made redundant two years ago. At the time, my Dad had started talking about retirement and I realised there was more to life than working for American multinationals. I had the opportunity to get out, so I took it. My dad is still talking about retirement but I doubt he’ll ever leave, and I wouldn’t want him to. Having someone with over 40 years experience in the business is brilliant. I knew I’d be working with my Dad but I didn’t realise what that would actually mean, and working with him every day is brilliant, an added bonus I hadn’t thought about.
We’d had a website for a while but we probably didn’t focus on it so I took that on and we have relaunched it. We’re very much an independent bookshop, but customer behaviour has changed radically, so while people might still want to shop with us, they may not have the time or they’re used to shopping online. I don’t intend to take business from other independents — I want people from our locality to buy from us online.
The people of the town are incredibly supportive, they really got behind us, we wouldn’t have been around for 30 years without them. There’s a huge hinterland, and not a lot of bookshops in the area. There is obviously a big student population but we’re also a big commuter town, and families are moving back. I recently saw a kind of health survey for towns, and it gave three points for a bookshop, compared to one or two points for a café — a bookshop is something people like to see on the main street of a town.
The secret is not a secret — you can see that high street retailers are trying to recreate what happens in bookshops and other small shops, the ‘customer experience’. The difference is we genuinely care and are interested in what the customers want. I’ve visited as many bookshops as I can in the two years I’ve been here and all the independents I’ve seen are unique. They all have quirks that make them feel different. I was in Charlie Byrne’s in Galway last week and they have lovely bookshelves that are homemade and look brilliant. You wouldn’t see that in a chain store.
I was a massive reader as a kid but fell away from it at university, which happens. I studied mechanical engineering and then did a master’s and I was doing another master’s in UCD when I was made redundant, so I was in university, more or less, for ten years. I have set myself a challenge — which I’m failing miserably — to read 50 books this year. I’m behind but I still hope I’ll sprint to the finish — I might get a week in July to make it up, but I find it hard to switch off completely. When I’m on holidays my wife gives out to me that I find some place where there’s bookshops.
I don’t know if it’s recency bias but it seems there’s a huge wave of fantastic Irish authors out there, from crime to literary fiction. There are new genres being defined by Irish authors, you look at Emilie Pine, Sally Rooney, there’s just so much happening. You’re trying to stay on top of these things and at the same time read out of your comfort zone. Anne Griffin’s When All Is Said was another book that might not have been aimed at me but I’ve never had a book affect me as much as that one.
Yes, the best thing about it is obviously working with books but I also have the freedom to try stuff and if it works, it works, and if it doesn’t you put it down to experience and move on. The flip side is that it’s up to you to make it work. That pressure, I hadn’t really felt it before, but do I regret it? In no way shape or form. I really love it.