SISTERS Kate Smyth and Marney Smyth Fischer have recently taken over the Bantry Bookshop, which was also previously run by siblings — Margaret O’Neill and her sister Joan. The shop, a central hub of the town’s annual West Cork Literary Festival, sells new and secondhand books.
You’ve just reopened the shop in the last few weeks, how are things going?
We have been very busy rejigging the shop and it’s proving very popular with customers. We’re having fun, which is the main thing.
How did you come to take over the shop?
We were in doing our Christmas shopping, it was December 18, and we handed over one of the loyalty cards, and Margaret said she didn’t know how long more it would be valid as she was retiring. We went outside and said ‘What, no bookshop!’ We went for coffee and decided we’d talk to her about taking over — and here we are. It was purely by chance, but it worked out very serendipitously.
Tell us a bit about yourselves:
We’re from Dublin originally, I emigrated to Cork about 30 odd years ago and Marney went to the States. Our circumstances changed and we were saying ‘what’s the next ten-year plan’ and we decided to move to Bantry. My background is in archaeology, Marnie’s is in law, so it was quite a mix.
She’s also been involved in publishing, and I also worked in administration, so we have a little bit of everything. Our mum was ill for three or four years and died fairly recently — two weeks ago — so we’ve had a lot of change. Marney’s husband died four years ago, these changes made us think, what are we going to do next?
Why a bookshop?
This bookshop is fantastic. We’re both bibliophiles anyway and it’s in such a lovely location. The literary festival here is also brilliant to have and we are avid fans — it was just a natural progression.
You sound like you both have an adventurous spirit?
Nobody got anywhere by sitting around and talking, you have to take a chance. I did my degree in archaeology at UCC by night when I was in my thirties, and that was also a whole new adventure.
What has been the response to you taking over the bookshop?
It has been so positive. It would have been very sad to see it go, and that was our motivation, because it’s a little gem. A book is a very nice pick-me-up, and not too expensive. It also gives you a view into a larger world, either of the imagination or something practical. The reaction has been wonderful. At one stage we had about 15 people in the shop and we were thinking, ‘mercy, where did they all come from?’.
How is business going?
It’s going well. It’s a busy town, a market town, and it’s got hotels and a lot of tourists. There are also a lot of campsites, which attract people for a long period over the summer, and a lot of festivals. There’s a lot going on, it’s a very lively social scene. People are out and about, young and old. It’s a vital place.
What kind of books have been popular so far?
There’s a lot of interest in books about the Wild Atlantic Way, local history, and local authors. There’s also a lot of book clubs around here, so there are plenty of people reading and recommending books. We have bargain books, bestsellers, crime, fiction, poetry — we’re extending the poetry section — a little history, second-hand and children’s, we’re concentrating a lot on that. It doesn’t take a lot to see ‘oh how this is how it works, this is the stream and how it flows’.
You get the run of the week and the type of books that sell and when — Saturday is a really nice day, there are a lot of people browsing. We have chairs so you can sit down and spend some time reading. Hopefully our customers find it a nice place to linger.
We do book orders as well so if if someone doesn’t see what they are looking for on the shelf, all they have to is ask and we will get it for them.
What do you like most about being a bookseller so far?
Just the reaction of people coming in to say ‘thank God the bookshop is still here’ — it makes me think people still like books, that it’s not just me. It’s also very sociable, you build relationships with people quite quickly and people come in for a chat. It’s about community.
We thought ‘you can’t not have a bookshop’. We probably would have found some way, if the bookshop had closed, of remedying it. It’s not a shop you walk into and you’re expected to buy something. It’s a people thing, definitely, it comes back to that all the time.
This year’s West Cork Literary Festival takes place in and around Bantry from Jul 12-19. westcorkliteraryfestival.ie