I had the accidental priviledge of working in Carraig Books, Blackrock 1979 – 1981. Even though I came from a bookish, non-academic background, I never thought of working in bookshops.
Carraig Books have a printers at the rear of the shop. I had been struggling with printing competence. It was with relief, after a number of years, that I discovered that the bookshop employee wanted to work in the printers. We simply switched jobs, no interviews required.
Saturday’s light opera songs from upstairs cause questioning looks from browsers, rummaging through the cardboard boxes; eyes scanning the wooden shelves with tireless, jumble-sale, hopeful, “gem” find intensity. Nan Day is hitting the high notes to some old favourite chorus on the radio, working in her kitchen, above the bookshop.
“Sunny” the boxer-dog sits by the shop door looking up at the ceiling, questioning crinkles furrowing his forehead, listening to Nan’s singing, amazement in his bloodshot, world-weary eyes. Sunny had a slight incontinence problem. If he wasn’t let out promptlyin the morning he chose to sprinkle the rows of spine-up runs of books on the floor, just below the shelves. His urine had the ability to glue even hardbackbooks together in a tight unit. “ Text a little “damp stained” indeed…
I sat at a “golf-ball” electric typewriter, typing bibliographic details of books, onto oblong offcut pieces of card. My feet were showered in a confetti of price-tag triangles, cut from decades-old book covers. Every so often I pause my two-fingered typing to flick through a book and admire the old fashioned type-faces, or black & red title pages. Book titles in bold lettering, lovingly crafted by Batsford, Foulis, Macmillan, Talbot & Dolmen Press.
Strangely enough I didn’t buy many books there at the time. One book I did buy, though, was Stephen Graham’s ‘The Way of Martha & The Way of Mary’, a travel book published in the early 1920’s by Macmillan. It was about the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt & the monasteries in the deserts. I was drawn to it by the tipped in colour icon depicting both Biblical ladies. The author had a letter in it which added to the appeal.
Interesting characters came into Carraig Books. There was ‘Owney’, like an extra from Strumpet City, shoulders haunched, socks instead of gloves on his cold hands. He had come to make a stab at cleaning the shop windows for the price of a bottle of porter, “on the QT, ya know”. A cigarette butt slurring his Dub, working-class accent:
“Dickle-dee-boo, dickle-dee-boo. How are ya, young fella? Where are dem lhadders? I’ll get shut o’ ya fer hidin’ dem. haha”.
The unobtrusive browsers were startled by his unexpected conversation, engaging them about the price of drink, or the awful weather. They stood on step ladders or the circular “elephant’s foot”, arm extending to some dust covered, long-forgotten book, just beyond reach. They either ignore ‘Owney’ or smiled condescendingly at him. His chatter was ruining their concentration, they are seeking the “deeper things” in life. After “finishing” the window cleaning job & being paid the price of a drink, ‘Owney’ would wobble off into the traffic, on his sit-and-beg black gents bicycle that had no brakes worth talking about.
Remembering now, years later, the risen dust caught in sunlight, when a book was pulled from a half-filled shelf, buttress removed. Remembering the slap-happy chaos: the clutter, the stacks of boxes or the Pisa-like piles of books on the floor. Remembering now the atticy-smell of dust, ink on paper or the full calf covers with their gold-blocking “tooled” inlay.
I came to love the bargain hunters & collectors, nearly all of them middle-aged men. Some browsers silent, others whistling old Irish tunes under their breath, on their haunches or climbing the creaky old-fashioned library wooden ladders. I even came to love sweeping the scabbed lino floor, from the long room –
Literature, Poetry, Genealogy, Reference, Catholic theology, Latin, Greek Classics and History books;
then past the cramped packing room where the giant weighing scales, an oversize cast-iron Victorian clamp, and large rolls of corrugated parcel cardboard stood;
then into the shop where all those price-tag triangles lay underneath my desk, surrounded by the Irish interest books; then through the arch to Art, Collectibles, Music, Folio Collectibles, Juvenelia, Topography, Travel, Antiquarian.
See those rows of books jutting in and out: octavo, quarto, small quarto,large quarto, landscape and folio; all of them show flagtips, white cards peeking out the top edges, with my badly typed bibliographic information on them.
Between the pages are forgotten letters, bookmarks, old stamps, rusty paper-clips, and lined note-paper marking pages or passages. Sometimes refutations, pencilled annotations, written in by would-be scholars on the page’s edge.
Those books held secret dialogue; clashing ideologies peacefully co-existing at last; breaking through hostile borders, where time has disarmed the guardians of prejudice and hatred.
And over twenty five years later, I still work there, so that owner can go for a round of golf. There is little passing trade these days, so I can browse the shelves or even surf the internet at leisure. My wages for such a priveledge are a coffee / sandwich meal-deal.
The book-collector clientele of yore is dying off & the hard copy catalogues are becoming a thing of the past. This bookshop is 48 years old now. It just about manages to survive the vagaries of modern retail & the onslaught of the all pervasive internet of online bookselling and the compliments that don’t turn into cash.
If ever you are in the Dublin area , you should visit Carraig Books, in Blackrock. You will enter an old-fashioned world that has no piped music, or garish posters, nor three-for-the-price-of-two offers. Though, if you ask with a smile, you may get a token discount, due to the times that are in it.
You too might jump, whilst browsing, when you unexpectedly hear the front door still slam, just like it used to. Its almighty wooden clunk-click, causes even me to sometimes jump out of this bibliofile-blissful reverie….
originally published in The Blackrock Historical Society Journal, 2013