We Sell Books: Taking a co-operative approach to books

We Sell Books: Taking a co-operative approach to books
Arthur Leahy in Key Books at the Quay Co-Op in Cork. Picture: Jim Coughlan

Key Books is a community, not-for-profit bookshop based at the Quay Co-Op on Sullivan’s Quay in Cork. It is run by Arthur Leahy, 74, who is general manager of the Co-Op, and Úna Feely.

How long has this iteration of the bookshop been in existence?

This one has been here for the best part of a year but at the outset of the Co-op, back in the 1980s, the bookshop was a central part.

It partly funded it but it was also there to provide information, it was very much a political bookshop in the beginning.

A few years on, when Waterstone’s opened in town, they tripped up a lot of the bookshops that existed in Cork at the time, because they provided an amazing service across the board.

It was very hard to compete if you didn’t have the funds to purchase books.

The bookshop petered out to a certain extent and the other aspects of the Co-op took over — the whole foods and that.

Why did you reopen the bookshop?

I was always a pathological reader… going beyond just being a hobby. I’m one of those people who has never had a television; reading is what I did.

After a number of years, I had built up a significant library at home, as had a number of friends.

When I reached a certain age, a number of people told me that when I kicked the bucket, they were just going to get a skip to get rid of my books.

So, Úna and I decided to re-establish the bookshop here.

I took a lot of the stock from home so when I look around at the shelves, a lot of them look familiar.

I might pick one up and think this looks interesting and realise I read it ten years ago.

Since then, a lot of people have brought in books and added to the collection.

Tell us more about the original Co-op and your involvement?

I am the oldest member. Lots of people have been involved… it started off as a community co-op.

I think there were 120 members at the outset, that was in 1981.

It was all the odds and sods, political and cultural, around the city who tended to be meeting in small rooms or people’s houses — anti-apartheid, environmental groups, women’s groups, gay groups, we all got together in a building to create a shared resource as people were working with extremely limited resources.

Over the years, with the food section, the shop and the restaurant, it developed into a workers’ co-op.

I think there are about 68 people employed in the Co-op now generally.

What is the ethos of the bookshop?

The idea of the bookshop is that it is run as a community bookshop and any funds that are generated are put back into community organisations or political campaigns.

We take a particular stand — the most significant one being that we don’t stock Israeli products.

We have a very strong supportive energy towards the Palestinian people. It’s 90% second-hand books.

We would like to provide more political books because that is a service that is not being provided, not from our political stance, there is a lack of information in that area.

Are you still a big reader?

Yes, although I have searched for the cure. I can’t argue against reading.

You bring so much of yourself to a book when you’re reading.

Whereas with things like television, it throws too much at you, you can’t engage on a personal level.

You don’t have to either, you can go to sleep and it will still be on.

But a good book will grab you to the extent that you will never forget it.


What three books or authors would you recommend?

There are books throughout my life that have had a huge impact but then sometimes I think if I read them now, would they still have that impact.

One of the books I read approaching adulthood was The Waves by Virginia Woolf.

That had a huge effect, what I would call almost life-changing.

It forced me to look at so many different aspects of my own life.

Another one was a book called The Good Doctor [Damon Galgut]. Also, Ulysses, which is like a lump-hammer to the back of the head — whether you like it or not.

Joyce is so powerful. There would be a whole range of political books, by people like Noam Chomsky.

Books are obviously very important to you:

Books have been the measure of my life. It is really nice having them around here, except when someone buys one — I want to follow them out and tell them to make sure to treat it well.

It is liberating as well to let them go — that sense that you hand them on to people that will read them.

They’re not much good sitting on a shelf in somebody’s house.

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