The Company of Books in Dublin’s Ranelagh village is owned by Gwen Allman. It sells books, cards and stationery.
How long have you been in business?
We are coming up to our tenth year. We opened in November 2009, at the height of the recession. Both my
business partner, and myself were Ranelagh-based. We kind of figured that there was a gap in the area for a
bookshop amongst all the restaurants and so on.
How did you get into bookselling?
We both originally had degrees in English and my business partner, Anne Macdona, used to lecture in UCD. Sadly, she had ovarian cancer and she died in 2014. We were both very passionate about books and reading. We had a little art gallery and cafe, Blue Loft, up on Dunville Avenue and we had thought about doing books… the lease came up and there was an opportunity down in the main village where the old Irish School of Motoring business was, which is where we are now. It was a very attractive premises, with a nice double-fronted look to it and we thought there would be fairly good footfall around the village to support it as well.
What was Ranelagh like to trade in then?
It was a lot quieter, there weren’t as many restaurants as there are now. I have photos from that period which show so many places to let or empty, where businesses had shut down. People were very careful with how they spent their money. But luckily for us, they were allowing themselves the occasional treat of a book. There was room for us to start up and begin to grow in that period.
How is business now?
It has been really good. We have great support in the community. People also seem to hear about us, I don’t know if that is the social media effect — I get people who come in who say they saw us on Twitter or heard us mentioned somewhere. It is kind of flattering that they would make a trip out to see what is a small bookshop. But they would say it is well-curated and well-presented in terms of its selection.
Do you think social media is important in promoting your business?
I think it is important, I think I could be a lot better at it than I am. It is not my strength by any means.
What kind of books do you focus on?
We do a bit of everything but we tend to focus on good literary fiction and non-fiction. We have quite a strong non-fiction readership in the area. If you came in the door, you would probably be surprised to be greeted by books on history, biography, business, economics… rather than a table of bestselling fiction. Deliberately, when we set up the shop, we decided not to label our areas in terms of fiction, crime or children’s because people tend to go to their comfort zones. Our space is small enough that it really encourages a person to browse and discover new things. That has really worked for us.
How have you countered the challenge of online retailing?
The likes of Amazon can be cheaper on bestsellers but there is also a time delay with them. For example, I am selling quite a few copies of Joseph O’Connor’s Shadowplay, which you can only pre-order on Amazon at the moment. It hasn’t been released but I have had customers reading it for the last two weeks. There is not necessarily always a price advantage either. It is a bit of a myth in some respects. I can understand the convenience of online though.
One thing that is frustrating is what is called showrooming [visiting a shop to examine/photograph a product before buying it online at a lower price. Sometimes though you just have to give people the benefit of the doubt, they may come back and buy it. In a small space, it is kind of obvious. On one level, it is a compliment because I have filtered my selection and they are using the shop in that way but it can be frustrating. But sometimes I think if they are prepared to shop online, they should be prepared to do the research online rather than using us like that.
Bookselling comes down to the personal interaction with your customer. It is great to see how much people depend on your recommendations. It is quite satisfying when they come back and say ‘I really enjoyed a book, have you got something else for me?’.
What are the rewards of being a bookseller?
I think it is quite similar to being a reader. As a reader, you are always curious, looking for something new or trying to discover different ways of thinking and new ways of looking at the world. I think bookselling is a similar thing in that you get that because you are in this lovely situation where you are surrounded by all these books that can take you to different places and you are dealing with all kinds of different people and they are telling you about their experiences. Being able to match a book to what they would like to read is great and is very fulfilling on a personal level.