We Sell Books: ‘In some ways, the pace of life slowed as a result and people turned again to books’

We Sell Books: ‘In some ways, the pace of life slowed as a result and people turned again to books’

Cathal O’Donovan owns the Skibbereen Bookshop in Co Cork. It sells books, schoolbooks, art and craft materials and stationery and is located on the main street of the west Cork town.

How long has the shop been in business?

We have been here nigh on 40 years now. Before that, my parents and grandparents had a pub in the same establishment, it had been operating since 1906. Back in 1980, my parents retired and I changed it to a bookshop. At the time I was teaching as well. 

I taught science until 2008 when I retired. I had been principal as well of St Fachtnas, De La Salle in Skibbereen for the previous ten years. I enjoyed every day of teaching.

The shop has been in business for nearly four decades, what changes have you seen over the years?

There have been a couple of recessions, the major one and I suppose two mini ones in the 80s and the 90s.

It is interesting in the sense that in the 90s and noughties, business was moving along handy enough until the crash came and everything took a hammering, the money wasn’t there and survival was the name of the game. 

In some ways, the pace of life slowed as a result and people turned again to books. 

You would wonder, down through the millennia have there been similar situations in history, where people moved back to traditional forms. 


I’d say that pre-2000, local publications would have been sparse enough but after that, there were more community publications because a local confidence surfaced in writing, I hadn’t seen it there beforehand. 

In terms of the art materials, we had an influx of artists and sculptors during the hippie era. That resonated with the local community. 

There are a lot of people interested in painting and arts and crafts. There is a great artistic and literary and cultural potential in Irish people.

What is Skibbereen like to trade in?

The town has improved substantially in the last while — since the arts centre went up, a lot of things have happened, we got a new school, a new distillery, a new flood scheme, the Ludgate [digital hub] and Spearline[software company]. All of those have happened within the last six years and they have contributed substantially to the town moving forward.

The Famine exhibition last year was fabulous it was a great initiative for the town for business and every way, with 25,000 people passing through. 

That helps the locality and promotes its strong cultural, literary andartistic tradition that defines west Cork inaddition to food and all of that. And sport, of course, most recently rowing.

Are you related to the O’Donovan brothers?

I’m not, but I would know the two lads. Did you know there are about 6,500 O’Donovans in West Cork?!

Have you felt the effect of online retail?

There is always competition there. 

If you take Amazon, the multinationals, it’s everywhere. As a small business it is definitely challenging but we endeavour to compete. In an age of European macroeconomics, everything is big and devouring everything small, whether that is farming, fishing or retail. 

We have to be proactive as we can and we strive to provide the best service to our customers and be as personal as we can. We have a committed and engaging staff. If people can’t find a book, we will get it for them.

What is your customer base like? Do you get a lot of tourist trade?

We do get a good old bump during the summer from people on holidays in the surrounding areas. 

People want to relax and read books in the sun, take a bit of downtime and no better place than deeper West Cork.

What books are popular?

Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor and Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry are selling well at the moment. Self-help books are quite popular as well. 

I think they are filling some kind of spiritual void for people. Cassandra Clare is the bestseller at the moment for teen and young adult.

There is a lovely little book for children Where Are You, Puffling? [Erika McGann and Gerry Daly] about a puffin out on the Skelligs. 

Celtic Tales and Myths is another lovely little book for children covering Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Brittany. We also have a reasonably strong selection of history books, which is where my own interests lie, particularly Irish history, from pre-famine up to 1922 or 1923. 

When I was younger, they didn’t go any farther than the famine because of the sensitivities of the time. We are 100 years on now so it is a small bit safer. 

The next three years, there will be a lot of material surfacing, which will be great.

Do you enjoy being a bookseller?

I have enjoyed serving the people. 

I would regard books through the centuries as sacred. A bookshop is an integral part of any social community. 

To use the English term, the high street bookstore, any community would be lost without it. They can only survive with the support of the community.

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