Jess McCarthy is originally from the southwest of England and owns and runs Midleton Books and Fermoy Books in Co Cork with her husband Ronan.
We opened Midleton in 2001, 18 years ago this year. We were in a smaller premises and in 2003, we moved up the street to a bigger premises and then we opened in Fermoy a year after that.
Our background is not in books at all. I had a psychology degree and I had only just graduated, I was 25. Ronan came from a computer and marketing background. His parents moved from Cork city out to east Cork and they just said, ‘You know what Midleton is missing, a bookshop’. So we thought about it for a bit and then thought ‘Let’s just do it’.
We had no retail or bookselling experience, no English degrees. And here we are, 18 years on. I’m 42 now so that is nearly half my life, which is amazing.
That is a good story. I was at Newcastle University and I had a jazz band. The drummer was from Cork and he always said if you ever come to Ireland, you must look us up, obviously thinking we just wouldn’t do it. Me and some girlfriends were going around Ireland in my van and we rang him up from Dungarvan and said we were on our way. He recruited a few pals and one of them was Ronan’s brother and that is how we met. My van was a Toyota Hiace called Clara and that is what we named our daughter.
We were fairly new in the trade when the boom happened and that buoyed us along, so then when it started to get a bit harder, we had an idea of how to do it all. You do have to work harder but you’d be amazed at how loyal people are. It really has been heartwarming. We have people ringing us up from somewhere else, with a book in their hand, saying can you order this in for me? It’s not to do with price or anything, they just want to buy it from us.
There has been a big sea change in recent times — people realise that if they go online for every book then the day they go to the main street to buy a book for their kids, the shop won’t be there. People don’t want to keep giving money to Jeff Bezos [Amazon owner]. You do have to work harder. It’s not even e-readers or things like that, it is one-click buying online. All the books we sell are brand new, they have to be released in the last six months or they are in all the charity shops. Marie Kondo is making everyone clear their shelves.
I remember looking at her book when it came out about four years ago and thinking, ‘Hmm, this is quite interesting’. Then I got to the section about books and she basically said nobody needs more than about five books, you probably only read about four pages, so pull them out and stick them in a folder. I remember thinking, ‘Who is this person?’ and I stopped reading it. Then she got a show on Netflix and now everyone is Marie Kondoing their house. It is a shame because it is devaluing books a bit because charity shops can’t even take them now. So there is little value put on back catalogues.
Kids books are always huge and I absolutely love them. The shop in Midleton has a narrow corridor and it just opens out into children’s books all around. When kids walk through, you can hear the intake of breath, it’s fabulous. There are fads — those weird adult colouring books that were in a few years ago, stuff like that will come and go. Biography is big, current affairs. We sell pretty much a bit of everything, we try to be as broad as possible. For a new book to do well, it has to either have a big push from the publisher or word of mouth behind it. Things like the Rick O’Shea book club are great. Ryan Tubridy is also a great champion for books and local bookshops as well. I’ve had people screech to a halt outside the shop and run in to buy whatever book he is talking about.
I am completely in love with fiction, which is terrible. I should broaden my horizons. I like historical fiction, when it is very well researched and you feel like you might learn something. I also love the kids’ books… we have three children, 11, 13, and 15, who all love books. They think the shop is their own personal library, it is very nice for them. It is amazing to think of all the distractions out there and kids still love reading, they come in and buy books with their own money and ask for books for Christmas. We get a lot of grandparents wanting to buy books instead of Easter eggs or people who want to give book tokens instead of communion money.
We have a very different kind of approach. I am big at the chatting and reading all the time. He is at the business end, he ends up having to do the accounts and all that, poor thing. We complement each other very well, neither of us are treading on each other’s toes but we are also sharing something, it is lovely to be able to work like that.