We Sell Books: 'My father had his book and his pipe, he was in heaven’

Brenda Woulfe owns Woulfe’s Bookshop in the town of Listowel,Co Kerry

We Sell Books: 'My father had his book and his pipe, he was in heaven’

Brenda Woulfe owns Woulfe’s Bookshop in the town of Listowel,Co Kerry.

How long have you been in business?

I opened in 2006, I’m in my 14th year now.

Why did you become a bookseller?

It was something I always wanted to do — I’ve been a book-lover all my life, since I was a small child, encouraged by my mother. I’m sure she thought I’d never go to such extremes. I made three attempts to open the shop and on the third one, I said to myself ‘Brenda, you’re getting to an age now, if you don’t do it, you never will’.

That was it, I just did it.

What did you do before you bought the bookshop?

My family had a pub and restaurant, The Horseshoe, in Listowel, and my brother had it.

He sold it in 2005 and when he came down to tell me, I said do you have something to tell me because I have something to tell you.

He thought I would be devastated but I told him ‘I’m opening a bookshop’. So it all worked out, nobody was upset.

My other brother Jimmy was the mid-west correspondent for the Irish Examiner, he’s retired now.

You were a bookish family so?

Always. Both my parents were book people.

My dad had a hotel, the Marine Hotel in Ballybunion, and I remember always during the summer, if he had to go to Limerick or Tralee, he would go to Hurley’s [Tralee] or O’Mahony’s [Limerick], and he would have a big pile of books stacked up on the floor to be read during the winter.

He would sit down on a stool in the bar at night, just the one light on over his head, with his Black and White whisky and soda. He had his book and his pipe, and he was in heaven.

Listowel has a strong literary reputation, with Writer’s Week and as the home of authors such as John B Keane and Bryan MacMahon…

Yes, there is a real love and understanding of books here.

I remember in the pub as a child,listening to two men talking, this is back in the 1960s, one of them had come home from England, and all he had brought back was a suitcase of books, there was a kind of reverence in the way he said it.

He had no money but he had books. I can’t remember what my first book was but we were always reading something, whether it was the deaths in the papers or whatever.

We were always a newspaper house, we’d get a daily paper, an evening paper and several papers on Sunday, then the local paper on a Thursday or Friday. Bryan MacMahon was my brother Jimmy’s teacher and he gave Jimmy the job of reading the leading article and summarising it for the class.

Now you are spreading the joy of books to others…

I hope so. I do my best. I would love to read most of the books I order but I don’t have the time. I was reading an interview with the author Ann Patchett recently, she opened a bookshop in Tennessee.

She said there were so many books coming in that she was just reading quarter-books. And that’s me exactly, so I don’t feel as bad now, if it’s good enough for Ann Patchett…

But you get a good feel for a book after reading a quarter of it, although you might miss a fantastic ending. But you can’t have everything.

How is business?

The recession was a struggle but it picked up. I’m just hoping there won’t be too many taxes in the budget but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. Everybody struggles so why should bookshops be any different?

And there’s only myself so I don’t worry about dependants or anything like that, which is a big plus. I just keep going.

The book clubs are great to support me, and I give them a 10% discount. All those little things help.

I have quiet days. It’s a challenge, but it’s one that I love. And if it wasn’t a challenge, sure what would we do, we’d get lazy.

Do you see a spike in business when Listowel Writer’s Week is on?

Oh yes, I wouldn’t be here only for it. That and Christmas. It’s so busy that I don’t get the chance to soak it all up and enjoy the fantastic people who come into me.

I’m out and about, organising books to be sold at the different events. Colm Tóibín is great, he always makes for the antiquarian section.

People like that, they are great supporters and they appreciate that the independent bookshop is a struggling entity. But there is still a good few of us around the country, fighting the good fight.

What do you enjoy most about being a bookseller?

I am a people person, absolutely, being reared in a pub. I get a great buzz if I’m walking down the street and someone comes up to me and says, ‘that book you recommended was great’. That to me is worth a million pounds.

My niche is people who come in and they don’t know what they want, I kind of suss out what other books they’ve read, what they watch on television or whatever, and I get a kind of a feeling.

I pick out a few books and I have two nice comfortable chairs, I say, ‘Sit down there and have a look’. I rarely get it wrong. Mind you, they’re probably too nice to tell me when I get it wrong!

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