We Sell Books: ‘I was the first person to serve a customer that first morning in 1988’

We Sell Books: ‘I was the first person to serve a customer that first morning in 1988’
John O’Connor in his bookshop in Kenmare, Co Kerry.

John O’Connor is the owner of the Kenmare Bookshop, located in Shelbourne St, Kenmare, Co Kerry. It sells a range of new books.

How long have you been in business?

We have been open since 1988. The bookshop was started by my late mother, Ann, at a time when the economy wasn’t as vibrant. It was a bold move when you think about it. Initially the shop sold antiques and books but she found the book trade was a bit more beneficial income-wise so she went fully into books a couple of years later.

How did she get into bookselling?

She was born in Cork and lived on the Rochestown Road, then later on married my father, who was a doctor. She was very sporty, so maybe different to what you’d expect from a person opening a bookshop. When she was young she played hockey for Ireland and tennis for Munster.

When she married my dad, they lived in the UK and Canada, where I was born, then came back to Ireland in the mid 1970s, when a property came up for sale in Kenmare, the old bank. My father had his eye on the house and decided to buy it — for £37,500, which was a lot of money back then.

My mother had raised three children, me and my two brothers, so I think she wanted to stay busy, she liked challenges, and she opened the bookshop.

When did you become involved in the bookshop?

I was the first person to serve a customer that first morning in 1988. I’ve done a number of other things since — I’m a qualified accountant — but I was on the first shift that first day. I spent some time in the early noughts as assistant manager, to learn the ropes under my mother’s tutelage.

Unfortunately, both my parents died in 2006, so I took over the running of the shop. I have great help from the staff, some of whom have been with us for a long time — I can’t say enough about them. As the phrase goes, ‘Ní neart go cur le chéile’, and we pull together very well.

How have you countered the challenge of online retail?

There are so many ways you can buy books now — online, on an e-reader, in supermarkets. While you may have to pay more in a bookshop, I think people respect the fact that they’re supporting a local business. It’s not a huge amount more either.

A lot of people like bookshops because of the range of books they can see and touch, and a lot of people come in for the smell of new books, which is interesting. I think statistics have shown the uptake in e-readers is slowing down a little too. In terms of customer service, we will try to source any book for customers, new or second-hand.

The most obscure item we were ever asked to order was a sword. It was for a white witch, and was a bit outside our purview. It was the only order I never tried to fulfil, we had to draw the line somewhere.

What is Kenmare like to trade in?

It’s very cosmopolitan and we also get a lot of visitors. But even indigenous to Kenmare there’s a lot of German, Dutch and English people and outside the tourist season there’s a strong market.

We have a lot of customers who aren’t worried about the language barrier, they’re well able to speak English. Recently the town celebrated Bastille Day, for instance, which was a great idea — that’s all been made possible by KMEG, the Kenmare Marketing and Events Group.

We have a lot of international customers and they spend well — it’s been a bit shy with British tourists this year, they haven’t travelled as much. It may be the effect of Brexit, and the pound is quite weak against the euro as well.

What have you learned from being a bookseller?

The late [Senator and businessman] Feargal Quinn put it best in the title of his book Crowning The Customer. Making the customer feel special, that’s the important thing — that they have a smile on their face when they leave the bookshop, they have to feel they were well-treated and that they’re welcome back any time.

Those are very important aspects. I love being around books, and getting books that people like, that’s the key to success. The bookshop is a really small space but we get a lot of compliments for the range we have, and we’re delighted when people say ‘you have a lovely shop’, that means a lot.

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