‘You can’t be relaxed as a customer if the staff aren’t relaxed’

Maeve Ryan is managing director of The Book Centre in Waterford city. The stores sells books, stationery, gifts and more and also has branches in Kilkenny, Wexford and Naas (Barker and Jones).

How long have you been in business?

My dad Sean and my mum Maureen opened the original shop over 45 years ago now, in 1973. It was on Michael Street in Waterford city, then it moved to John Roberts Square about 20 years ago. My dad had a decorating business at the time and he wanted to do something else. My mum had come down from Dublin and thought Waterford needed a decent bookshop. She was an avid reader and she told my dad: ‘You have to open a book shop’, and that is what he did.

Maeve Ryan of The Book Centre, Waterford. Photo: Patrick Browne.
Maeve Ryan of The Book Centre, Waterford. Photo: Patrick Browne.

Are they still involved in the business?

My dad would tell you he is retired but he is still involved really. He is 81 now but I still keep him in touch with things.

When did you come on board?

I am there about 15 years. I did my retail training with Arcadia in Dublin, then I went working and travelling, never thinking I was coming back to Waterford. But I did. I worked on the shop floor for a while and then went into management, which is what I had been doing with Arcadia. That was about 12 years ago.

You obviously have a business brain, do you have a books brain as well?

I consider myself a normal reader, as opposed to my mother or my daughter who would have three or four books on the go at the same time or can read a book in a day. I just have one book on the go and I read for 20 minutes at night. I don’t like to read highfalutin’ books. I read whatever the customer service desk recommends, I’ll read everything and anything.

Tell us more about the shop, which is considered a real Waterford gem:

You could pass it by because it has that small, old-fashioned front. You have to walk so far in before you realise how big it is. Some people take a few steps in and you can see them standing there going ‘wow’. A lot of people come in and take photographs of it because they are so impressed by the decor.

How has business changed over the years?

Not massively, to be honest with you. At one stage, we thought ‘oh my God, what are we going to do?’ Like everyone else, our sales went down during the recession but everything went down evenly and everything has begun to go back up evenly. But books are on the rise a bit, we did really well in the last year or two with books. Magazines have changed, they are more coffee table magazines and they have risen in popularity. People go more for the look than the content really. We like to support local and we do a lot of Irish cards and gifts. Schoolbooks sales have held steady, we thought they would drop dramatically with everyone using iPads but they haven’t really worked and the schools have stopped getting them. We are still here anyway.

How have you countered the Amazon effect?

Customer service is at the heart of everything we do, that is our point of difference. We have a lot of staff who are highly trained in terms of service and product knowledge. We also have our own website but when we get an order from that, we ring the person. We still give that personal level of service.

What are the big sellers in the shop?

Our children’s section is really popular and we have a new teenage section that is really going well for us. They are our customers of the future

My own four kids spend hours there, it’s great.We also have a new gift package called the Book Professor. They will sit down with your child or teen over a hot chocolate and cake, and give advice and recommendations on what books to read. It’s €45, including a keepsake box and €30 to spend on books. We also like to promote local authors, we always do launches for them and give them a good space at the front of the shop.

What are the rewards of being in the books business?

When I worked in fashion retail, it was very fast-paced. Here, you get a lot more time to spend with customers, which is what we are all about. It is all about the atmosphere and a

relaxing environment, and you can’t be relaxed as a customer if the staff aren’t relaxed.

Can you see your children following you into the books business?

I don’t know. When I was younger, I was 100% sure I wasn’t going to live in Waterford, never mind be involved in the business. My sister is six years younger than me and all she ever wanted to do was work in the business — now she is a teacher.

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