We sell books: ‘There’s a book out there that’ll turn the key to a lifelong love of reading’

We sell books: ‘There’s a book out there that’ll turn the key to a lifelong love of reading’
Máire O’Halloran and Nicole Shanahan of the Clifden Bookshop, Co Galway. Picture: Hany Marzouk

Máire O’Halloran co-owns and runs the Clifden Bookshop in Co Galway, along with Nicole Shanahan.

How long have you been in business?

The shop was founded in 1997 by Nicole and Clodagh [O’Neill], and I joined in 1999. Then Clodagh stepped out and I came on board as partner and co-owner about 2002, not too long after. I hadn’t worked in the book trade until I came here, but I was always passionate about books. I can remember being about three sitting on the stairs at home and staring at words in the newspaper, trying to make them work for me. I lived in a house full of books.

Is Clifden a good place to do business?

They call it a market town and it’s known as the capital of Connemara. It’s a busy spot, and always has been. — I was talking to people over from England earlier and they could remember coming out on the old Galway-Clifden train. Clifden always attracted holidaymakers even back in the late 19th century. Clifden also attracts writers, poets, artists, photographers. We always say our bookshop is a cultural destination for locals and visitors alike. Last week was the anniversary of the Alcock and Brown Atlantic crossing. There were so many people from all over the world in the shop — having chats about aviation and history and Clifden’s association with Alcock and Brown, and Marconi, and so on.

What challenges has the business faced?

The downturn was challenging, and we basically had to reinvent ourselves in one sense, and be cautious about what we were ordering — knowing our business as well as we do, we were lucky enough to keep going. We were supported, and we thank people on a daily basis for supporting us as a local independent bookshop. We strive to be different from high street shops, because what’s the point of being the same?

What kind of books do you stock?

We call ourselves a haven for book lovers, and the canopy says ‘the room with the books’ but although it’s cosy, people say we have wonderful titles that they don’t see anywhere else — and that’s our strength. We have stuff as diverse as the archaeology of Irish caves to a massive local history section. Children’s books are also huge. When money was tight a lot of parents wanted to buy their children books because they felt they were meaningful, worthwhile and something for keeps. We always say it’s one of the greatest gifts you can give your child or grandchild, an appreciation of books and a love of reading.

How important is customer interaction?

It’s massive, and that’s why we find people come back, because we can recommend and help — not just Nicole and I, we have two very good staff members. Sometimes someone will come in and say ‘I read this book and I’m looking for something else’, or ‘I’m looking for a book but I don’t know what I want’. Then you have to be a detective and ask what they read last and work out what they might like next. What’s good about bookshops is that we have all these different genres, as opposed to the supermarkets, which are making inroads into the market but are just getting the top books. Each to their own but a bookshop is entirely different.

What are people looking for in a holiday read?

In the summer, a lot of people want light reads, nothing heavy. That’s understandable. You’re on holiday, you’re relaxing at night with a glass of wine, you want to chill out and enjoy yourself without thinking too much.

What are the rewards of being a bookseller?

It’s wonderful to share our love and appreciation of books and literature with people. Our greatest reward would be perhaps setting someone on the road to reading and discovery when it would be alien to them or they’re reluctant. I always say there’s a book out there that will turn the key to a lifelong love of reading, regardless of whether you’re a child or an adult. The other reward is that every day is different. Just the chats you have with people — they love to share their memories or stories, and for us as well you have cars pulling up outside with a first-time author who’s not going through the normal distribution system. They say ‘I’ve published a book, are you interested?’ I’m not saying we take every book, of course we don’t, but if it suits our market and it’s well-written and well-published, we normally wouldn’t say no. It’s nice to foster that.

What titles are currently popular?

Elizabeth Gilbert’s City of Girls is doing well, and Don’t Touch My Hair by Emma Dabiri, Kevin Barry’s new book is also hugely popular.

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