WE SELL BOOKS: 'People working in the shop have so many interests'

John Breen of Waterstones in Cork City. Picture: David Keane.

John Breen has been a bookseller with Waterstones in Cork for 25 years.

How long has the shop been in business?

It opened the doors in July 1988 and the official opening ceremony was in November. I’m with the company 25 years.

How did you get into the books business?

It’s funny sometimes how your life takes a certain direction. I remember a friend of mine saying ‘Waterstone’s are coming to Cork’ and I said ‘What’s Waterstone’s?’ He said, ‘It’s a bookshop where they let you read the books’. So, when it opened, I was curious and I got a part-time job here. I was here until about March 1989, then I went away to do other things. In 1993, they opened the shop in UCC. I had been getting bits of teaching work here and there but I had been unemployed for a while. I decided to try it and ended up staying. I was 10 years in UCC and I’ve been 16 down here. The shop in UCC closed in 2003.

How has the business changed over the years?

It has changed a lot. There was a time when we did a lot of offers, three for two and whatever, but since the change of ownership about seven years ago, it has gone back to being like an independent bookshop that is part of a chain. [The book chain was sold to Russian oligarch Alexander Mamut in 2011 and James Daunt of Daunt Books appointed CEO; last year US investors took a majority stake].

There was a time that you walked into every Waterstone’s and they all looked the same, it’s not like that any more.

How are you countering the Amazon effect?

Online shopping and the Kindle has plateaued to a degree. It made a big impact at the start. Some people will always use Kindles, some people will always love books, some people will do both. There are some people who are just bookshop people. We have a very extensive range which has increased in recent years. It’s also about the people we have working in the shop, they have so many different interests. You have to give good customer service. And also, the idea that sometimes you sell people the gem they didn’t know they wanted when they come into browse.

What don’t people know or understand about running a bookshop…

It’s not all about standing around reading books, it’s like any other business. There’s a huge amount of work that goes on in the background. You are constantly changing things, looking at what you can do better, what books are being promoted. We like to promote local authors as much as we can.

What are your big sellers?

Fiction sells very well, as does children’s. A lot of work has gone into our children’s section. Irish books

always do well here. The Importance of Being Aisling books have been a phenomenon, they’re brilliant. Sally Rooney’s Normal People has been hugely popular, it was the Waterstones Book of the Year, as picked by the staff across all branches. The Milkman by Anna Burns, which won the Booker, also did really well; once a book wins a prize, the sales will go up. Lee Child is also a huge seller.

What are your favourite books?

There’s a book I read many years ago and I have read many times since, which I’ve recommended to many people, it’s called In My Father’s Court by Isaac Bashevis Singer. It’s a memoir of growing up in the Warsaw ghetto at the turn of the 19th/20th century. I am also a huge fan of Terry Pratchett, the Irish crime writer John Connolly, and James Lee Burke, he is a superb writer as well as being a great storyteller.

Do you find being a bookseller rewarding?

I do. If I wasn’t here tomorrow, I would miss not only my colleagues but my regular customers and the people I meet here. I love hearing the conversations the little kids have with their parents. They can be very funny. They will hopefully still be coming in here in 30 years time. As another staff member pointed out to me only this morning, if you go out onto Paul St, and you look at the back wall of the bank, there is a plaque which commemorates the fact that in the 1825, when the author Walter Scott visited Cork, he was sketched in Bolster’s bookshop, which was on the site of the bank, by Daniel Maclise the artist. We don’t have as many bookshops in Cork as we had 30 years ago, unfortunately, but I think there will always be a reading public and there will always be a place for them. I hope we have become part of the fabric of the city.

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