We Sell Books: ‘It’s lovely to see you are doing something right’

Dawn Behan owns Woodbine Books in Kilcullen, Co. Kildare.

We Sell Books: ‘It’s lovely to see you are doing something right’

Dawn Behan owns Woodbine Books in Kilcullen, Co. Kildare. It sells new books and school books, and won Independent Bookshop of the Year in 2018.

How long have you been in business?

It will be three years in September.

How did you get into the bookselling business?

Well, I have absolutely no background in bookselling. I used to work in IT — for 18 years, from the time I left college, I worked for an American multi-national. It was the usual story, they were having voluntary redundancies and I could see kind of the way things were going, the numbers were getting smaller and smaller. So I just thought, what would I like to do?

It was a nice job, with lovely people, but it wasn’t something that I loved. So when I thought about what would I like to do, books were the thing that I really loved. As well as that, I live in Kildare and I used to commute up and down to Dublin. And I thought it would be nice to not have to get up at half-five in the morning, and to be able to work close to home, in the local town, to give something back to the community. People didn’t really think it would work but I did.

People thought I was mad because Kilcullen is a very small town but I knew that there had to be other people like me out there who would support a bookshop.

What were the challenges in establishing the business?

I spent about two years looking for premises — I thought I was never going to find one. I had actually started to look in other towns around Kilcullen but then I got lucky.

There was a pet shop in the town and one day I was walking past and it had a sign saying that it was closed down. I called in to the hardware shop next door, to see if they knew the story.

They actually owned the building and they let me do basically what I wanted with it, and the rent was really reasonable as well. It worked out really well.

What kind of books do you stock?

We try to keep as broad a selection as we can. We do have the bestsellers and big names but we try not to focus on them too much.

People can buy those titles in the supermarket, they’re not going to go out of their way to come to you, so you have to offer them something different. We try to keep more quirky, niche books — we have a lot of local authors and people who self-publish who ask us to stock their book. We always say yes, because we don’t have anything to lose — it’s something that people are not going to see everywhere, and it helps authors. We’re all struggling together so it’s nice to try and give somebody else a hand as well. We have a big kids section. It’s so important — even people who don’t read will buy books for their kids. Also, kids don’t want to read on tablets or Kindles — they want a picture book, they want to be able to turn the pages, to bring it to bed.

Kids are really avid readers and there are so many absolutely gorgeous kids books out there. The problem is how do you scale back on kids books more than anything? We also have kids’ book clubs on Saturdays — they’re oversubscribed, we actually have a waiting list, it’s brilliant.

Have you felt the effects of online retail?

We haven’t really. Because we’re only open three years we missed the worst of it. I know from talking to other booksellers, they do have people coming in taking photographs of books or saying ‘can you match Amazon prices’ or whatever. We never have that — if people do take a photograph of book, they’ll ask and say they’re only taking it because they want to remember it.

People come in because they like the experience of being able to pick up the books and look through them, and maybe something catches their eye that they hadn’t heard of. Because when you shop online, either you have to know what you want or an algorithm is going to tell you what it thinks you want.

But in the shop, you can strike up a conversation with somebody who works here or somebody who just happens to be in the shop and you go home with a book that you’ve never heard of that’s absolutely brilliant.

What was it like to win Independent Bookshop of the Year?

It was brilliant, it really boosted our profile and brought in a lot of people who didn’t know we were here. Some people will come off the motorway to have a look. It’s like some people read about restaurants and say, oh, yeah, I have to go there, there are people who do the same with bookshops.

This year we were shortlisted, and we were sent on the comments that were submitted by customers — it was nearly better than winning because they are the people who come in every day. It is lovely to see that you are doing something right.

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