Joan Lucey is the owner of Vibes and Scribes, which originally opened in Macroom, Co Cork, in 1991. Two years later, she opened a shop in Bridge St in Cork city, which now specialises in crafting supplies, and expanded to a premises in Lavitt’s Quay, which sells new and second-hand books.
How did you get into the business?
I was working in the bank and I took a small redundancy. I had a small son and my marriage had broken up. I was living in the city and the family were encouraging me to come back to Macroom, so I said I’d open a business there. I knew I would have local support and the two things that Macroom didn’t have were a bookshop and a dry cleaners. It was a small shop, 400 sq ft, but within a short time I had opened a second-hand section upstairs.
The people of Macroom really supported me. I really enjoyed it and had a very busy year and a half. I opened a shop in Cork two years later, I remortgaged my house and bought these premises in Bridge St. It was 800 sq ft at first, and then over the years, every time I had a bit of extra money, I extended it. The crafting supply business [on Bridge St] takes up over 5,000 sq ft and the one down on Lavitt’s Quay is about 4,000/5,000 sq ft of books.
What challenges have you faced?
I don’t think I would still be in business if I had stayed in books. There has been a lot of diversification, and there has had to be. But in the last two or three years, there has been a
renewed interested in books, there has been a bit of growth that I thought I would never see. In the beginning, there was next to no competition, then the supermarkets stepped in; even before Amazon, they took away a part of the business. The hardest time was the recession years. We had music here in Bridge St as well as the books. We had to let that go and accept that there was no saving that.
How do you counteract the Amazon effect?
Customer service. I remember one day being in the shop and hearing a couple, he was calling out the ISBN to her and she was putting it into her phone and ordering it. I had to stop myself from throwing them out but I knew that wasn’t the way to go. Instead, I had to bite down and accept this was the way it was going to be. We do a lot of special orders for people — out of print books, and stuff like that. Also, it is important to realise that buying books is an experience, and a hobby. There is pleasure in it, especially when a person can connect with a staff member, or get advice.
Browsing is a key element of the bookshop experience…
Yes, I learned that from the beginning. I used to pray someone would come in and just browse so the shop wouldn’t be empty. I would be so delighted to see someone come in. Other bookshops wouldn’t allow browsers at the time. People knew then that they could just come in and browse, and they started coming in more. It was a relaxed environment to buy in, people weren’t under pressure. That stood to us. It is more fashionable now to be more customer service-conscious. Bricks and mortar have to be because it is the one thing we have over Amazon. There is a connection with our customers.
What don’t people know about running a bookshop?
The sheer weight of books, moving them around the shop. The importance of everything being in the right place.
The demands of keeping everything tidy and dust-free. There is a lot of general housekeeping.
If you don’t love your books, you might as well be in a supermarket. For me, when a new box of books comes, it is always exciting.
Most popular genres?
We don’t have the sort of buying power to compete for the top 20 titles. We don’t necessarily concentrate on those and if we do, we do a 20% discount on them. Children’s, and mind body and spirit, are big for us. We do three for €12 bargain fiction and that is huge. People love our Wordsworth classics, which are reasonably priced. Poetry has grown in the last year; we sold a lot of a book called The Poetry Pharmacy [William Sieghart]. Books on feminism are also very popular.
What books do you enjoy reading?
My favourite book is Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. I read a lot of crime and Irish literature. I love Ian Rankin, Michael Connelly and Elizabeth George, more the old-fashioned crime…. Gone Girl and all of that wouldn’t be my thing.
Do you find being a bookseller rewarding?
Owning and running a bookshop has been fantastic. I love the books side even though I’m not as involved because we have 22 staff and two shops, and the crafting supplies. Books are my first love. At Christmas, when I am on the counter, and I’m chatting with customers about what they like, I still get a warm feeling. I was lucky I found shopkeeping and selling books because it did really suit me. And it was only a fluke. It could have been a dry cleaners and I don’t think I would have been quite as satisfied.