This World Book Day, Ellie O’Byrne talks to Cork booksellers about the future of their businesses and the role of bookshops as physical spaces at the heart of communities.
Grassy notes, with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla, over an underlying mustiness.
No, that’s not the description of a rare vintage wine: It’s the odour of old books, according to UK scientists working on last year’s ambitious “Smell of Heritage” project, which aimed to analyse the smells of old books and create a “Historic Book Odour Wheel”.
When e-books first leapt onto the market a decade ago, many heard the death knell of the print book. Tremors of alarm greeted the news that in the UK, physical book sales fell by 22% between 2008, just after the release of Amazon’s Kindle, and 2013.
Nooks, Kobos and Sony e-readers joined the melee: The popularity, portability and convenience of e-books were beguiling increasing numbers of readers.
However, physical books are about much more than the words written on their rustling pages. They are tactile, beautiful, collectible, of sentimental value and, of course, with a distinctive odour that develops over time. Also, no-one can delete your books. In 2009, Kindle came under fire for remotely deleting, irony of ironies, George Orwell’s seminal Nineteen Eighty-Four from its users’ devices.
Now, global book sales are on the up again, and Ireland is no different. The €131m Irish book market was, in 2016, up by 9% on sales for the previous year, while 2015 had recorded a 10% rise, according to figures from Nielsen Bookscan.
The turn-around has come late in some cases. The announcement last month that the 101-year-old independent book shop Liam Ruiséal in Cork City is to close was met with dismay. The iconic shop had faced increasing competition from online booksellers and retail chains, the family said in a statement.
Joan Lucey is the owner of Vibes and Scribes, one of Cork’s two remaining independent booksellers.
As well as selling second-hand books and bestsellers, she has carved out a niche in art and architecture books. She has two shops in the city, with one specialising in arts and crafts supplies. This year, she celebrates 25 years in business. She says pressure from global online giant Amazon is now the main threat to small, independent sellers, who need to keep on their toes and adapt to compete.
Amazon, with global sales of $178bn in 2017, is hoovering up readers and is responsible for a big chunk of the return to print. If Ireland follows the US, we could see 50% of independent bookstores close, as the US has in recent years.
“Unfortunately, unless you can find ways to diversify and compete, you get knocked out of the business. We’ve known that for quite a while,” says Joan, who admits there have been times when her book business has been buffered by her accompanying arts and crafts trade.
“But there is a pick-up in the book business in the past year. People are coming back in again. We have our own specialist areas where we can still sell cheaper than Amazon: We run three-for-12 offers that more than compete with Amazon’s prices.”
It’s not all about the bottom line. Click-to-buy may be convenient, but the experience of browsing in a shop, encountering titles they aren’t likely to seek in the digital realm, and the social engagement of interacting with staff and other customers is, in Joan’s view, irreplaceable to her
customers, and an experience worth treasuring.
“It’s an opportunity for people to come in and interact,” Joan says. “In this day and age, that’s so important. People are living such busy lives, and shopping used to have social interactions in it as well. Sharing the joy of reading is so important.”
This World Book Day, Joan will host a day of child-centred events, such as face-painting and readings to foster the next generation of readers. She also hosts a popular monthly book club for adults.
Recommendations from staff who are themselves passionate readers, in-store book clubs, events for World Book Day: The community-based physical space of a book shop is more than the sum of its parts.
In fact, even Amazon has now started opening physical bookstores: Seven have sprung up in the US within the last three years. It’s even speculated that the giant may be a prospective buyer for the Waterstones chain, which is set to come up for sale with a price tag equivalent to €230m, following a turn-around couple of years and a predicted 15 new UK stores to open in 2018.
However, for Joan, small and local has a vital role to play in any cityscape, and, competitor or not, she felt the closure of Liam Ruiséal keenly, as a loss for Cork.
“It takes away the atmosphere and the culture of the city,” she says. “Any city with real charm, like Paris or Rome, is full of small businesses, as well as chains. We need to be careful here in Cork that we don’t lose that, and there’s a sense of trust and accountability with a local owner.”
As well as the impact of globalisation on customers, Joan is very concerned about the impact on
“For most of my life in the book business, publishers had control. Now, there’s less money for small publishers to support their writers and to publish diverse books and genres. If you speak to publishers, that’s how they saw their role: To develop and encourage new talent, as well as established authors. Writing is a lonely business. Yes, people can self-publish now, but there was a lot more support for writers before.” Just a few streets away from Vibes and Scribes, Waterstones Cork’s events organiser, John Breen, is preparing for World Book Day, with a morning reading by children’s author, Pádraig Kenny, and afternoon readings for teens and adults.
Waterstones Cork marks its 30th year this summer, but it’s a milestone John is less enthusiastic about celebrating amid Ruiséal’s closure.
“It was a tragedy,” John says. “My personal view is that the more bookshops you have, the more it’s an indicator of a healthy reading public. To see any shop that’s been around for 100 years close is a terrible shame, and every business that closes in the city centre is another part of the character of the city that’s gone.”
Although Waterstones is a large UK chain, John says the independence afforded to them under management has allowed the shop to embed itself in Cork culture. Upcoming events will include Cork’s own Catherine Ryan Howard reading from her latest novel, The Liar’s Girl. John has been working in Waterstones for well over two decades, having spent years in their UCC branch before returning to the St Patrick’s Street store in 2003. He also did part-time work in the St Patrick Street shop when it opened back in 1988.
“I had just graduated from UCC and I remember someone saying, ‘wow, Waterstones is coming to Cork’, and I said, ‘what’s Waterstones?’ and he said, ‘it’s a bookshop, where they let you read the books!’
“I think there was a certain amount of trepidation in those days about such a large chain coming to Cork. You can’t be a faceless corporate; you have to be a part of the community,” John says.
“With all due respect to the internet, we have very experienced staff who are readers themselves, with varying interests. They are passionate about books, and give recommendations. You can’t replace that, in my view.”
As with Joan, John’s focus on World Book Day is in getting children into bookshops to engage imaginations and set them up for a lifetime of enjoying reading. He says the future is in good hands.
“Sci-fi, fantasy, literary fiction, graphic novels: Kids are still reading, there’s no doubt about it,” he says.