Ireland is a nation that holds its literature and its books in high regard, and that includes its bookshops. For those of us who love the printed page, few things can compare to a beautifully stocked, cosy bookshop, the smell and texture of a newly opened book and face-to-face contact with a knowledgeable and friendly owner or staff member.
While some readers have taken advantage of the convenience of e-readers and online shopping, it would seem, happily, that reports of the Independent Bookshop’s death have been greatly exaggerated. OK, let’s be honest: there is a notable scarcity compared to 15 years ago or so, but a good number are still thriving on our small island, thanks to a committed number of bookophiles who keep the tradition going.
Brenda Woulfe of Woulfe’s Bookshop in Listowel is one such person. Her enthusiasm and passion for books is almost palpable when she speaks of the time her dream of opening a bookshop became a reality almost 10 years ago. “I’d been dreaming about it, planning it in my head for about 20 years,” she says. “I’d throw the idea out there but people weren’t inclined to think I was serious. They said independent bookshops were a dying thing, the margins were too low, the range was too big – not a hope they said.”
Incredibly, Brenda applied for jobs in various bookshops throughout those long years but never even got as far as the interview stage – a lesson perhaps in self-belief, perseverance and patience.
Pragmatic as well as passionate about books, Brenda believes it was a marriage of common sense as well as a knowledge of retail (her parents ran a pub/hotel in Ballybunion and later in Listowel) that led to her success. “I was lucky when I started. The recession was not yet on the horizon and I could afford to make mistakes, which I did – in spades,” she laughs.
“Of course mistakes mean losing money and if you lose money you learn pretty quickly. The first three years were a learning curve but
they were absolute magic. I used to be appalled at myself sometimes, because although I had confidence and loved books, my knowledge was very limited.”
Eager to find a network of people with knowledge of the book trade, Brenda travelled throughout Ireland and the UK visiting shops and making connections with people who had the same passion for running an independent bookshop. One such person is Seamus Duffy, of The Bookshop in Westport. “People like Seamus knew where I was coming from, so that was very reassuring. They wouldn’t tell me what to do, but being able to talk things through with them would clear my head, so they were essential connections.”
A voracious reader, Brenda has an eclectic selection of books in stock, each title painstakingly chosen by her. “I’m always reading book reviews,” she says. “I had a roomful of newspapers articles about books once that I couldn’t get though; I had to cull them in the end. Like Oscar Wilde and the wallpaper – one of us had to go!
“Customers are wonderful at recommending books too. I was in the shop one Monday morning and a lady came in with a book in her hand – a book she knew I’d love called The Tragedy of the Templars: The Rise and Fall of the Crusader States by Michael Haag. So I ordered the book on her recommendation knowing that I could recommend it further. I’m good at that – marrying people to books. When I meet people on the street and they tell me a book I recommended was great I get such a glow in my heart – I really do,” she laughs.
“I have a customer who comes in every November with a Christmas book list for all his grandchildren. He just puts their ages, sex and interests on the list and asks me to pick the books. Last year I had a copy of one of my favourite books as a young person called Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. I absolutely loved that book at the time as it was radical, and it just took me off on a journey. It’s the type of book that would speak to a 16 year old, so when he told me his granddaughter was interested in history and politics I thought ‘perfect!’ He was in yesterday and told me his granddaughter loved the book. That made my day… it really did.
“Young people, they don’t share with you at all and I don’t pressurise them. They’ve very private in their reading. They’ll come in and buy their book and if you haven’t got what they want they’ll ask you to order it. I tend to leave them alone now and don’t question them.”
One of Brenda’s favourite subjects is philosophy and she’s delighted that there’s talk of putting the subject on the school curriculum. “I’ve done two philosophy courses, but I really don’t know much about it at all – even so I just love it.” The philosophy books live on what Brenda calls her ‘quirky shelf’, which stocks everything from Winnie the Pooh to Socrates. “They’re unusual books that I just love, she says, “books by Malcolm Gladwell and little books on philosophy and sociology. I might put a sign up saying ‘quirky shelf’ because there’s not really enough of any genre to give it a shelf of its own.”
Like many booksellers, the advent of e-readers and online sales has impacted Brenda. “That and the recession,” she says. “It all seemed to happen at the same time. But I found that a lot of readers didn’t actually go out and buy a Kindle, they were given them as gifts. I’ve yet to come across a reader that went out and bought a Kindle.”
So did she lose some customers? “Yes, but some have come back, because of the convenience of the book – they prefer a book. I have one dedicated Kindle fan who buys print books for her children and I always ask her if there’s any move back. And the answer is always the same, ‘no move’, but that’s fine.
“In time, it might not be my time, but common sense tells me that Kindle and other e-reader prices won’t stay low. And of course, the dedicated bookshop is a pleasure and an experience in itself. It crosses all age groups, gender and tastes. You get the radical left in here and you get the conservatives – and I meet them all!”
The conversation soon gets around to the Listowel Writers’ Week Festival, which Brenda is very much involved with. Boston Crime writer, Dennis Lehane, who will feature on Friday 27th May is an all-time favourite, as is Patrick Cockburn, who will be discussing his latest book, The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the new Sunni Revolution on Saturday 30th May. “Patrick Cockburn will be big,” she says. “He communicates his message so well.”
Because Brenda is so busy during Festival Week, she often doesn’t get time to meet her favourite authors and she admits it’s the most stressful week of the year. “I can’t enjoy it,” she says. “I’m under such pressure.
“But I love what I do. I feel so privileged, so lucky; people don’t always get the opportunity to do something they really love doing. I have a loyal customer base; they come from all over the country and as far away as the UK and the USA.”
Poet Paul Durcan is a big fan; in a Sunday Independent article last year he spoke about Brenda’s passion for books and her insistence on giving him a book by another author and refusing to take payment for it.
“I just love books and I love picking books and suggesting books to people. Book reading is such a joy and a pleasure – and my mother gave that to me.”
Woulfes Bookshop is situated in the heart of Listowel at 7, Church Street, about a two minute walk from The Arms Hotel. Tel 00353 (0) 68 21021. A ‘must visit’ if you’re in town. Do pop in – you’ll be made most welcome and you may even discover some future favourites!