Frank O’Mahony is managing director of O’Mahony’s Booksellers in Limerick. It also has shops in Ennis and Tralee, University of Limerick, and an extensive online business. O’Mahony’s website is continuing to accept orders, but these will not be shipped until the Covid-19 restrictions are lifted.
How long have you been in business?
The shop was founded by my grandfather, John Patrick O’Mahony, in 1902. He was married to one of the Clerys of Clery’s store in Dublin, which owned Cannock’s of Limerick [department store]. He was haberdashery manager there but left and opened a bookshop and leather goods store on 110 O’Connell Street, 100 metres from Cannock’s — and that was the start of the company.
How has the business changed since then?
It started quite small — the shop was like the reception room of a Georgian building. We’ve done five or six expansions over the years but we’re in the same building. We probably started off at 300-400 square feet, and now it’s 15,000 square feet. We’ve dug into the basement — it is 120 yards long and was done in three different building jobs, while in the ’90s we took almost the entire back of the Georgian building off. We stretch over three storeys and the shop is long and narrow.
There’s a lot of history there:
They went through the world wars, when my father, Frank, used to travel to the UK to buy books. He was born in 1898, so he came into the shop when he was around 18, and then took over around 1925, running it until 1975 — I took over around then. I had done economic and politics in UCD and came back in 1973. The shop was probably 4,000 square feet then and we did a number of expansions subsequently and opened more branches. My brother David worked here until last year, when he retired.
Even before the virus, what challenges has the business faced?
There was a lot of publicity about the rise of online retailers but to be honest the biggest problem we faced — along with a lot of other retailers — was the contraction in the economy rather than the online sales. Online retailers have affected the business in various ways, particularly in terms of academic books, but otherwise our business has grown.
It did fall back from around 2008 to 2014, but the book business hasn’t changed dramatically otherwise. We’ve had an online presence since 2008 and it’s quite successful. We’re also the biggest schoolbook supplier in the country, and the biggest library supplier in the country. So we have a varied business — the retail end is one end and it’s very important but it’s only maybe 30-40 per cent of our business.
The online aspect of the business became even more important in the initial stages of the Covid-19 lockdown:
March would usually be one of the quietest months of the year, but sales quadrupled or quintupled. [Online sales have been suspended since stronger restrictions came into force.]
What kind of products were people buying online?
One thing that sold very well beside books is our line in jigsaws and games — we sold out of Monopoly and we have six pallet-loads of jigsaws on the way to us at the moment. And we have a lot more games coming in. Funnily enough, we were selling quite a lot of cookbooks. Anything to do with children’s books, children’s education, activity books, all of that — there was a major spike in those as parents try to keep children occupied. There was also a big rise in painting books for adults.
You do a lot of events and launches in the shop, any memorable ones?
Usually we have three or four launches a month, I do remember in particular the launch of Angela’s Ashes. That was an incredible night altogether. We had one of the nuns who nursed Frank McCourt when he was in the local hospital — she was carried in in a wheelchair. It was very emotional, and we had to restrict entry, the shop was absolutely full.
Which books would you recommend?
I tend to read a lot of historical biographies, I usually have two or three books on the go at any one time. I’m reading American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins at the moment — there has been a lot of controversy about it. I was recently in Honduras, where my son works, and Guatemala, so I’m finding it particularly interesting and it’s a really good read. I have Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and The Light ready to go, and I have an advance proof copy of Kate Mosse’s new book, The City of Tears, which I’ll also start soon.