David Cunningham owns and runs Ulysses Rare Books (formerly Cathach Books) on Duke St, Dublin, with his sister Aisling, writes.
How long has the shop been in business?
My late father [Enda Cunningham] started the business in the Market Arcade in South Great George’s Street in 1986. He was a teacher and had retired early. Then the opportunity arose in April 1988 to move to Duke Street, off Grafton Street.
When did you join the business?
When my father moved to Duke St, it was a bigger location in a busier part of the city, so he needed some help. I was at a bit of a loose end so I decided to join him. My sister Aisling was working in the bank at the time and she signed up as well. When we joined, we didn’t see ourselves as career booksellers. It went on from one year to the next.
Tell us more about the shop and what it sells:
When my father started out, his main focus was on Irish history but we gradually branched out into Irish literature and in the last 10-15 years, we got into more popular American and British authors, international authors and also children’s literature. We have to be cognisant of what people would like as a gift or a special present, also what someone might be interested in collecting.
What is your customer base like?
We get a lot of footfall here, that is the reason we are still in the shop. We like the constant everyday contact with people coming through the door. Because of our location, we do quite a good tourist trade. In the last couple of years, tourism has really boomed and it is all-year round now. That is really important too because a lot of the time, someone might return home and then contact you through the website. A lot of the time people come in and they don’t know an awful lot about literature, maybe they haven’t seen this kind of shop where they’re from, so it’s a novelty, kind of like a tourist attraction in itself.
Your name reflects Dublin’s strong literary influences…
Dublin is steeped in that literary tradition and we are lucky we are in an area where there are a lot of references to Joyce, Behan and Kavanagh, all those writers who used to hang out around here, especially in the Bailey, which is nearby.
How has the business changed over the years?
During the Celtic Tiger era, it was a lot busier in terms of the domestic trade whereas now it has shifted a bit more towards tourism. In the last two or three years, the internet has helped a lot. You can buy directly from our website, and that is a good window into what we do, it is essential. We find people even locally will look up the website even before they call into the shop.
What is the most expensive book on sale in the shop at the moment?
Our books range a lot in price, we have a bargain basement where you can buy books quite cheaply. At the moment, our most expensive book would be a first edition of Ulysses. Because of the shop’s name, it is nice to have the first edition of the book itself, it is one of the Paris: Shakespeare & Co editions, from 1922. The copy we have is a particularly nice one, it is in its original wrapper, the famous blue one with the white title on the front. The price of that is €30,000.
Any interesting finds in terms of rare books?
One of the strange things was when we found a scarce book in our own shop that we didn’t even realise we had at the time. It was a facsimile copy of the Book of Kells, by Edward Sullivan, which was published in the 1920s, a book with plates in it reproducing the Book of Kells, with commentary on it as well. We had it on the shelf and a customer came in and looked at it. It was priced at £75 at the time and he said it was too expensive. But when I was checking the price, I saw an inscription which I hadn’t seen before; it turned out it was inscribed by James Joyce to John Healy in Galway, who was Nora Barnacle’s uncle. Needless to say, the price jumped. I think we sold it for around £2,500 at the time, this is going back probably 25 years. The interesting thing is I saw it a few years ago in a bookseller’s catalogue for €15,000.
Can you recommend three books?
I really enjoyed Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor. I am very familiar with Bram Stoker and Henry Irving and it is about their relationship. We have a nice copy of Bram Stoker’s biography of Irving in the shop at the moment, which is inscribed by Stoker himself.
In terms of a gift, for children, one that always goes down well is the Harry Clarke illustrated edition of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytales, the stories are magical but it also the way Clarke illustrates and interprets them.
A book that I always enjoy is A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson; it is so entertainingly written and really informative.