Barbara O’Connell runs Schull Books, near Ballydehob, Co Cork, which deals in out-of-print, second-hand and antiquarian books, writes Marjorie Brennan.
For 40 years now.
My late husband, Jack, was from Adare, Co Limerick. We were living in London and we decided we wanted to come back and live in Ireland. That was in 1980.
We settled in West Cork and then we had to work out what to do for a living. I had been a social worker, Jack had been a wine buyer, and neither of those really translated to life in West Cork.
We had always been readers and buyers of books and there were no bookshops in those days that were nearer than Cork in one direction and Limerick in the other. We thought why not, really — it wasn’t exactly a well-researched decision. So we opened a bookshop in Schull in the spring of 1981, that sold both new and out-of-print books.
After about four years, a young American couple came to live in the area and said ‘what we really wanted to do was have a bookshop but you are here already’.
We were getting a bit fed up with the new books side of things by then; you order them, they come and you sell them and that’s it really.
So we decided to split the business and they took over the new books side and we started working from home with older and out-of-print books.
It is quite a different business to being a seller of new books. When you go buying, you never know what you are going to find.
Then when you do find it, you have to research it, catalogue it and price it, then hopefully sell it. It is different work but in the early 1980s there were a lot of book fairs around Ireland and we used to take stands at those. We quite enjoyed that, loading up and setting off for the day.
That way, you gather up customers for a mailing list because you are meeting people from different parts of the country.
So we built up a mailing list, starting doing catalogues and between it all, it was enough to keep us going. I have regular customers, some of whom have become friends over the years. We sit and have a cup of tea while looking at the books. I have a stockroom, attend book fairs and I do mail order catalogues.
They have declined in number somewhat. I’m not sure if that is due to online selling or whether it is something that just had its time. A number of us doing out-of-print and antiquarian books are getting on a bit and we don’t want to be humping boxes about all the time.
But there are still some very good fairs around the country. Just recently I went to the one in Fethard, Co Tipperary, which is run by the local historical society as a fundraiser and it’s wonderful. In its heyday, it got a thousand people through its door. The interest is there, definitely.
I produce a printed catalogue three or four times a year, with a cross-section of mainly books of Irish interest, some general stock and some military history, because that was the subject area that my late husband Jack specialised in and I have tried to carry that on. That mainly relates to Ireland and Irish people in the first World War.
As a business, we are quite well-known for that area so I do have specialist collectors and institutions who buy that material from me. They would comprise academics, a lot of whom are in America, enthusiastic amateurs, or sometimes people researching a relative who is in the Great War and they want to know more, perhaps about the history of a regiment or whatever. Sometimes people are just curious, perhaps the Great War wasn’t spoken about much when they were younger and they want to know what happened.
They range from €10 to about €500 and occasionally more if it is a specialist or rare item. The vast bulk would be under €100. If someone wants something really special, I will take payment in instalments. Not everyone has spare cash, and if they really want the book, I would rather they have it.
When I was sorting the shelves the other day, I found a book of short stories by Colm Tóibín that I had overlooked. It is called The Empty Family and I am enjoying that very much.
In terms of Irish history, I find Diarmaid Ferriter’s books very good, especially The Transformation of Ireland, 1900-2000, which is very interesting.
Also, I am very much anticipating The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel. My copy has been on order since January, I loved the other two.