Thursday, March 05, 2009

World Book Day and Dublin's Second Hand Bookstores

Leonard Cohen hailed Dublin as “a city of writers and poets” during his series of concerts at the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, last summer. How sad, then, to reflect on how Dublin’s second hand bookstores are now winking slowly out of existence, like stars in some doomed galaxy on the edge of the Milky Way.

Dandelion Books, a haven for science fiction, or speculative fiction as the aficionados currently have it, was on Aungier Street. Now it’s not. The Rathmines Bookshop is currently mutating into an art gallery and, saddest of all, Greene’s bookstore on Clare Street is now a haberdashery – the body is clothed where once the soul was fed.

Greene’s was the best of the three, because it has those two features without which no true second hand bookstore could be considered worthy of the name – it had shelves and it had stairs, and it had both in abundance. The shelves in Greene’s started at the very bottom of the stairs, and then snaked an eclectic path upwards, John Grisham standing cheek by jowl with John Milton.

Upstairs, a huge arched window lit the first floor, and shelf after shelf of books of theology and divinity that were never going to move. There was a shelf of Irish interest next to that, and then an alcove of Americana, biography and, bizarrely, true crime stories.

I bought a lot of old Irish language books there, in the old typeface and the old spelling – double jeopardy for the amateur, and no walk in the park for the seasoned student of the First Language. I bought a volume of short stories by Séamus Ó Grianna there, who published under the pen-name of “Máire” – a reverse Ellis Bell, if you like.

The book is called “Úna Bhán,” and the cover has a lovely water-colour illustration of that same lady, up on the back of a jaunting car, flowered hat tight on her head, a spare in a round hatbox behind the driver, waving goodbye to her people while off to make a new life in America.

The jaunting cars and hats are all gone now, and poor Greene’s is gone with them, exiled from its sweet city centre spot between the canals to one of the industrial estates that skirt the M50, now existing only in cyberspace like that other Irish bibliophile’s Shangri-la, Kenny’s of Galway.

The Hidden Bookstore on Wicklow Street carries on, of course, and that marvellous store in the George’s Street arcade with all its wonderful old Irish books, including marvellous Anvil paperbacks about faction fighters, the Normans and Devil’s Own Connaught Rangers. But the new prince and chief of Dublin’s second hand bookstores is now on the other side of the river, part of the astonishing development of Parnell Street as the twenty-first century rumbles on.

Chapters Bookstore has moved from its snug spot besides Arnott’s and Eason’s and the former office of the Irish Independent newspaper on Middle Abbey Street to its current glass façade in the Ivy Exchange, shared with the new and shiny Tesco on the corner.

Where on Middle Abbey Street it was small and dark and pleasingly musty, Chapters on Parnell Street is all brightness, light and fluorescence. The contrast between the old gloom and the new glow is such that going inside is as jarring for the bibliophile as entering the great cathedrals of Notre Dame or Chartes must have been for the medieval monks of France, used to tallow candles and perpetual twilight.

The selection in Chapters is better than it ever was in Dandelion Books, or Rathmines, or even Greene’s, but it’s hard not to notice that a second hand bookstore isn’t really about the selection. This ebay age has changed the rules that regard, because the internet now means that nothing is ever unobtainable.

But the fact of the books being second-hand is what generates the magic in a second hand bookstore. A bookstore is just a place of retail, but a second-hand bookstore feels more like a library. A library that belonged to thousands and thousands of people, each of whom had his or her own story and life and existence, and brought worth to that existence through their reading of books.

And now there’s a good chance that person is in another existence, and the books have been left behind. Any time you see a row of newly stocked Modesty Blaises or Bonds or ever poor Louis L’Amour in a second hand bookstore, chances are someone has gone on their last caper, assignment, or lonesome trail in the west, and the books are now foundlings, looking for a new home.

Isn’t it a pity that Dublin can’t emulate Paris and its great love of books? How lovely it is to see the stalls being set up in the mornings along the Seine, in the shadow of the great cathedral, and the rich display of wares.

There are bookstalls in Rome too, but they seem rather more interested in selling what used to be known as pictures of the Eiffel Tower than musty old copies of Dante or Boccaccio. One hopes none of our own visiting clerics peers too closely – it may shatter one too many illusions.

The weather in Dublin militates against the open air kiosks, of course, and those few braves souls who set up stalls in Temple Bar need to keep their eyes peeled for squally hens and stags coming from the east as just as much as showers and gales blowing in from the west. But it is rather sad that Dublin, a city haled as a city of poets and writer by one of the greatest poets and writers of our age on a blessed Friday the thirteenth last year in the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, is losing these second hand bookstores, these lodestars of the literary life.

The city of Long Beach, California, designated Bertrand Smith’s famous Acres of Books bookstore as a “cultural heritage landmark” eighteen years ago, and Long Beach, lovely though it is, does not have the literary reputation that Dublin enjoys. Something to ponder today, World Book Day.

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