Brian Caliendo owns and runs Liber Bookshop on O’Connell St, Sligo, with his wife Ailbhe Finnegan.
How long have you been in business?
The premises has been in the family for many years but the bookshop has been here for about 20 years — my mum Nuala started off upstairs with a second-hand bookshop and downstairs, my father was running a café/ restaurant, The Ritz, which was a bit of a Sligo institution. Eventually my dad Frank wanted to get out of the restaurant business as he was getting older. They decided books would be easier long-term so they moved the bookshop downstairs.
Can you tell me more about your family?
My father was born in Sligo, my mother came from Carraig na bhFéar in Cork. My grandfather was Italian and he was living in London and around the time of the war, they emigrated to Ireland and he met my grandmother who was from Dromahair, and they opened the café here in Sligo in the 1940s.
I would imagine there weren’t many Italians in Sligo at that time.
No, it was quite unusual. He settled in very well. Upstairs from the restaurant they had a small ballroom and they used to have dance nights and a gramophone society where they would play the latest records in the 1950s.He got involved with everything and he was quite well-known.
What does the shop sell now?
We still sell a little music, mostly vinyl records. About a quarter of the shop is dedicated to music. The rest is books, all new. We stopped selling second-hand books about 10 years ago.
How did you come on board?
Myself and my wife Ailbhe opened a music shop upstairs about 16 years ago. When my folks retired in 2008, we moved downstairs and took over the books. I used to work in the second-hand bookshop upstairs any time I was off school and Saturdays. I’ve always had an interest in books.
How is business at the moment?
It is quite strong at the moment. There have definitely been a few lulls. When we took it over, we rebranded, modernised a bit, updated the ordering systems. We did some work on the interior as well. We got some funding from James Patterson, the author, who was awarding grants, and we upgraded the children’s section.
How have you dealt with the challenge of online retail?
I would say six or seven years ago, it was looking quite bleak, the Kindle had taken off in a big way. That seems to have found a level at the moment, people are using both or for holiday reads or books that they might not want to keep. But we’re still finding that the same people that are using them are buying books, especially nice picture books for kids or a book they might want to keep.
We’re also seeing a resurgence in people supporting local businesses. They say ‘I know I can get this on Amazon but I prefer to get it from ye’. From that point of view you do have to be very aware of the price points and trying to keep them as close as possible to the online retailers. Customer service is very important and we try to have things happening in the shop, we do children’s workshops, book signings, music events and storytelling. We want it to be a vibrant place that gives something back to customers and community.
What is Sligo like to trade in?
It is improving. There were a lot of closures and businesses moving out in the last recession but it seems to be on the ascendancy again. There are a lot of coffee shops and it is definitely more vibrant. They are upgrading O’Connell St as we speak and it looks like it will be great when it is all done. The Wild Atlantic Way has also been great for business.
What kind of books are popular?
We do a lot of local books and publications. There is a nice new book out by Cormac Carty called Golden Days on Coney Island, which is selling really well at the moment. Things like that people can’t get anywhere else and are of local interest. We have a symbiotic relationship with local authors that works very well.
What is it like to be carrying on the family business?
My mum, who died last year, used to say that my dad would never have left the place if we hadn’t taken it over. He will come in and help out, especially at Christmas time. He’s delighted to see that it has grown and developed and that it is still here. The customers are aware of our history, they come in and say ‘I remember your grandfather and your father’. It is great to be part of the community like that.