We Sell Books: ‘We’re very much a cultural hub’

We Sell Books: ‘We’re very much a cultural hub’

Mollie Barrow owns and runs Sheelagh na Gig bookshop on Main Street, Cloughjordan, Co Tipperary, along with Elizabeth O’Shea. Cloughjordan is home to Cloughjordan Ecovillage, a model for sustainable living.

How long have you been in business?

We will be 13 years in business on October 28.

How did you get into the book business?

We were both members of the nascent ecovillage project, it was still very much in the planning stages when I joined in 2003. Elizabeth gave me a call — we barely knew each other — and asked if I would like to open a bookshop. I just said yes, without even thinking about it.

Neither one of us had retail experience, we both worked in office jobs in Dublin and we were trying to work out a way that we could both survive in the countryside. We had records and CDs for the first few years but then MP3s and the internet killed that. We went into it completely blind and made a lot of mistakes along the way but we’re still here 13 years later.

Where are you both from?

I grew up in Florida but I’ve been in Ireland about 30 years, most of my life. I was 20 when I moved back. Liz was a bit of a nomad herself, her family moved around America but she’s originally Irish.

What is your involvement in the Ecovillage?

It’s a very close community, we’re all involved in some way. I’m no longer a member of the Ecovillage — when the banking collapse happened in 2008 I was completely priced out. I had put all my money into the shop and there was no way I was going to get a mortgage.

So I scaled back my hopes and dreams a bit. Because we are here on the main street of the village, we’re very much a cultural hub, so people do seek us out and all parts of the community come in here.

Can you tell me more about the Ecovillage concept?

It’s basically an eco estate within the existing village of Cloughjordan, which has been here forever. It was a Cromwellian village originally and it was also very diverse in religion at a time when places weren’t. So it’s about half and half Protestants and Catholics. It was called Little Belfast at one time because of the diversity. It’s quite a tolerant town and very welcoming to the hundreds of blow-ins who formed the Ecovillage.

Is sustainability a focus of the shop?

Absolutely. We specialise in books on sustainability, permaculture and community resilience in green building. We’re also starting to make a bit of a name for ourselves with radical books as well — on things like climate change, politics and activism, and people are starting to seek us out now because of that.

We sell a full range of children’s books, fiction, non-fiction, cookery books, etc. We have a big second-hand selection downstairs in our reading room. That’s very popular, it’s a bit of an Aladdin’s cave. We’re also a café and we sell whole foods and cleaning products — zero waste toothpaste and soaps and the like.

You mentioned the recession, were there other challenges?

It was an incredibly steep learning curve. We learned from scratch how to run a business. It’s a constant struggle, we’re never going to be millionaires but we get so much more out of it.

We are time-rich for one, spending all these years with our families and not having to take part in the rat race of the daily commute, or put our children in a creche and after-school care. That has made us wealthy in other ways, you have to look at it that way.

What is your customer profile?

We have the best customers in Ireland, they are absolutely loyal to a fault. Most of them would never dream of using Amazon, with all of its issues.

And we do pride ourselves on bending over backwards for them, we know all of our customers by name. We know what books they like so when ordering books we have specific people in mind a lot of the time.

What are the rewards of being a bookseller?

It’s a dream job even when it’s not. It’s a joy to be around books all day long and talk about books with people.

Do you see an increased awareness of environmental issues in the shop?

Every day, absolutely. There are courses done in Cloughjordan on permaculture and resilience and adaptation, so we’re finding people seeking us out after doing those courses.

More and more people are coming to town all the time as awareness grows about our climate issues. There are also tours of the Ecovillage every weekend on Saturday and Sunday at 3pm — they leave from the bookshop.

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