Bookshops: places of adventure & discovery…

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                                              Phone at Carraig Books

                                             Dora Kazmierak https://www.instagram.com/dorakazmierak/

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Working In Carraig Books, a suburban second hand bookshop, had been a happy career accident. I had always been a reader. My mother had encouraged me to read Stendhal and other Penguin classics. Our sitting room was filled with books (and a bit of sheet music for the piano). I graduated from the French classics to Sartre, and other French existentialists. I had dropped out of secondary school: an academic-phobic, wanna-be hippy.

Prior to working Carraig Books, I had been working in Blackrock Printers, owned by the same family. It was situated at rear of the used bookshop. I was never going to make it as a printer, beyond apprenticeship level. To be a capable offset printer in the 70’s, you needed to be somewhat mathematician / somewhat scientist. I was neither.

It was with pleasure that I then heard that the bookshop assistant wished to get into the printing section. I wanted out of printing. We simply switched jobs. No interviews required! I spent two enjoyable years, baptised in the antiquarian, sweet scented atmosphere of used books.I learned to appreciate older typefaces, gorgeous prints, full calf covers, raised bands on leather spines and gilt edges.

One of my bookshop jobs, was picking and packing books to send to list subscribers. I became a self-taught salesman of historical reprints. Often I got the bus into town to sell these modest chapbook reprints, published by Carraig Books.

 

                                                  Postal catalogues and various Carraig chapbook reprints

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Other than that, I was serving calling customers, mostly men: geeky specialists, completists, obsessives and collectors. I also catalogued books on the electric “golf-ball” typewriter and swept the floor…

                                   Poetry Ireland journal editorial on my prize-winning entry

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In December 1981, I won the Poetry Ireland / Padric Colum poetry award. A change was needed in my very modest career. I was never going to make much money in a small family business. With my poetry prize money, which equalled three months wages, I took a “career break”. That term was a laughable concept, if you only knew my career to date: kitchen porter, cloth cutter in backstreet textile factory, art-shop assistant, packer in my parents textile company.

Later that Spring I was touting my self-published booklet of poetry and prose, The Homecoming, around the same Dublin bookshops that I had called to, on behalf of Carraig Books. Hodges Figgis gave me a small book order. I was pleased…from modest beginnings etc. Before I left that well-regarded bookshop, I asked the same Irish interest buyer were there any jobs going.

 

                               Samizdat-published booklet published with poetry prize money

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Seconds after I asked my job query, one of the Hodges Figgis directors happened to pass nearby. I was introduced to him and was told that I could drop in for an interview – but that no job promises were on offer. I was game for that proposition. The next day I presented myself for interview.

 

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                                                          Hodges Figgis, a long-established Dublin Bookshop, Dawson Street

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“And what schools did you attend?”

I always feared that question, as my grades had never been good and I had never completed my secondary school education. I mentioned my Dublin suburban national school, then my co-ed Quaker boarding school, Newtown School, Waterford.

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                               Newtown School, Waterford

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“Did you happen to know my sister, Wendy, who went there?”

Of course I knew Wendy! She was prefect, keeping order on my dining room table. From there on I had the feeling that it was almost a matter of “gentlemen, please adjust your school-ties!” A short while later I got a call from that director.

“Could you possibly start work in the bargain basement tomorrow, Friday?”

Certainly I could. Although not other staff member regarded working in bargain books as a “real bookselling job” – I jumped at it. What were bargain books, if not the close-cousins of “used books”.

On my first day working in the bargain basement of Hodges Figgis I noticed on the staff room notice board an intriguing notice. It stated that Hodges Figgis would be opening a religious bookshop. Not only that but it would be situated in an Anglican church, located a minute up the street, in St Ann’s Church of Ireland. It was directly across the road from The Hibernian Bible Society and long established theological bookseller.

 

                                                           St Ann’s romanesque-styled Anglican church, Dublin

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I went up that first-day lunch time and found the bookshop-to-be. It’s location was imaginatively placed in an unused side-entrance to St Ann’s church, via a Romanesque style stone porch. Being a Christian, as well as a bookseller, this project enthralled me. However, I thought it wise to bide my time for a few weeks. It might be looked on askance to apply for this managerial position, on my first day working in the bargain basement!

After two weeks, I made enquiries and was interviewed by the Managing Director of Hodges Figgis. From what I enthusiastically related about my Christian faith and my love of books, he surmised that I was a good fit for this position. I was soon introduced to canon Billy Wynne, the jovial, slightly rotund clergyman who was in charge of St. Ann’s Church. tn_billyHe wanted top open up the church in different ways by introducing evening concerts, a sandwich cafe, daily communion and confession booths (highly unusual for the usually low church perspective). The church bookshop-to-be was to be part of that opening up of a typically moribund Anglican church.

I met Canon Billy Wynne in a local hotel, just opposite government buildings. We had a meal and a pint of Guinness each. He quizzed me about my faith and my interest in books. He also thought me the best fit for the bookshop-to-be in his church.

Knowing quite a bit about bookshop politics, from a regular reading of The Bookseller, I knew that this scheme would fall at the first fence. The holding company of Hodges Figgis had recently dumped their investment in an English evangelical Christian publisher. Why on earth would they initiate the development of an Anglican based bookshop.

Shortly, after my meeting with the Canon, that church bookshop idea, spearheaded by Hodges Figgis, was shelved. The shop had been fully fitted out in a very tasteful manner. What I didn’t realise then was that the APCK board was considering re-entering religious bookselling in a modest way. They soon took on ownership of the church bookshop project.

I knew that no-one in the general bookshop trade was interested in going for the interviews, to managing this bookshop. Apart from a few retired and bored Church of Ireland parishoners, I was front runner for this job. I was inwardly convinced that I would get this job. Due to illness, I was unable to attend the one-day specific interview process. I was very soon interviewed by a robed bishop and a business manager during my bargain bookshop lunch break. Half an hour later I was approached in the bargain basement and congratulated on passing the interview.

 

APCK 3

                                                                                                                       Interior St. Ann’s Book Centre 1983

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I had a very kind, very patient manager,  during my two years in St Ann’s Book Centre. Every two weeks he caught the train from Lisburn to Dublin to brainstorm, guide, and chide – when necessary. He would arrive  at 10.30, inspect the sales and lodgement books, take us out to lunch, have wrap-up chat and then leave until another two weeks time. His name was Jim McAdams, and he mentored me well.

He was funding this start-up on the profits of selling red-top newspapers,  stationary, cigarettes and sweets! Albeit he had a small section of religious books for sale above this newsagent-styled shop. He let me try any section development possible, within rite and reason.

As an evangelical, emerging from a fundamentalist spiritual foundation, one of my modern Christian heroes, ironically, was

One of my bookshop jobs, was picking and packing books to send to list subscribers. I became a self-taught salesman of historical reprints. Often I got the bus into town to sell these modest chapbook reprints, published by Carraig Books. I took to heart one of Mother Theresa’s Order foundation Rules; apart from the daily Mass, and daily Scripture reading, was regular reading of church history. Her reason for this, was that all Christian denominations had made historical mistakes.

So, with this wonderful idea in mind, I started the first dedicated church history section in any Dublin bookshop that I knew of. I regularly trawled other Dublin bookshops with interest, to see what they were getting up to, in buying themes and promotions.

Among the cinderella-sections that I developed, were Christian Feminism, a bit of poetry (well, as I was a poet myself, this was an obvious move!). As I also had a strong Slavophile interest, I started stocking Russian Orthodox interest books and Orthodox liturgical records. (I had long interest in the unaccompanied Russian Orthodox choirs and lively church campanology. The first Orthodox liturgy LP that I bought was to celebrate my poetry award, previously mentioned.)

 

                                                   The first Russian Orthodox liturgical music that I bought

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On occasions the Irish School of Ecumenics held Orthodox study weekends. I would buy in multi volumes of authors from the recommended reading lists, on sale-or-return. It wouldn’t be unusual to sell a couple of hundred euros of books over a couple of hours.

Regular trade was usually in the newly published hymn books and prayer books, ordered by parishes in their hundreds. This was the bread-and-butter turn over of this shop.

During my time in St Ann’s Bookshop I had a few unusual encounters. One such encounter was with Brigette, a book restorer, who worked on old manuscripts in nearby Trinity College. She was a similar age to me and was a bright, easy-going young woman. I met her as we both sheltered in porch of the bookshop. She had been bought a catechism-type book by the church curate, who had baptised her the night before.

 

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                                                          Anglican adult baptism
                                                          __________________________

It is highly unusual for adults in the Anglican church to be baptised, even if it was common place in my church-of-choice, the Plymouth Brethren. I was intrigued at finding out this. Did she understand the significance of what she had done, I wondered? I tried to educate her a bit in biblical literacy.

We ended up having lunch together in the hip-music playing Marks Brothers restaurant, on South Anne Street. We met up for lunch a few times. We also attended Handel’s Messiah, under the sad drooping, tattered military flags in St Patrick’s Cathedral. I walked her back to her apartment at Trinity College.

Under high-arched, baroque cathedral roof
choir-sung oratorio echoed, pathos pervaded;
our eyes articulately spoke emotional proof,
under regimental flags no longer paraded.

Later kissed proffered lips, moonlight reflected
college courtyards, I cupped your freckled face;
such bright-eyed eagerness, quite unexpected,
dumbfounded by such feminine-firm embrace…

It was sweet and short, a very short relationship….

A year later I started a relationship with Liz, who had attended the same co-ed boarding school that I had. After a short while I learned that Canon Billy Wynne was actually a childhood friend of my girlfriend’s mother, both living in County Wicklow, in the 1930s.

Billy was frequently lauding my hard work inthe bookshop, when in conversation with Liz’s mother. That diplomatic up-talk possibly helped me when I later approached Liz’s parents, asking her hand in marriage…

 

l &l wedding (1)

                                                                       Liz & Louis marriage September 10th 1985

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One day, the one-time managing director of Hodges Figgis called into the church bookshop. He informed me that he was opening a new bookshop, to be called Bookshop, in a suburban shopping centre, in Blackrock. He asked me would I like to join his team there. As a career bookseller, and later to be married, it was a no-brainer to accept another move, after two exciting, ground-breaking bookselling years in St. Ann’s.

Billy Wynne accompanied me to see the shell of the shopping centre bookshop-to-be. It had not even been kitted out by shop-fitters at that stage. He asked me to pause within the bare concrete structure while he prayed for my future there. A kind and prophetic gesture, as it later turned out. My over-earnest Christian faith caused a few small storms during that period of my bookselling career. I missed vital corporate-cultural clues from time to time, but was pleased to be part of an almost-franchise type of business culture

When I left St Ann’s Book Centre, the man who took over, Fergus McCullagh, was my part-time assistant there. He got this position in an unusual way. Over a year before he had come in one day, and ordered a book on the church and unemployment. When I phoned to tell him that his book had arrived, I asked him was he unemployed. He had been unemployed for a few years, he stated. I told him that I would keep his name on file.

Little did I know that I was very soon to undergo a minor but urgent surgical procedure. I quickly phoned him, asking would he like immediate work and he stayed on after my two week recuperation. I saw this, like many of the events around my career direction, as being directed by a caring, paternal-minded Father God.

 

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                                                  One of my window displays at Bookstop in the late 1980s.

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In time, I was to work again in my home town of Blackrock. I worked in Bookstop in different capacities for the next eighteen years. While there, I was championing the usual “cinderellas” of minority interest bookselling, developing a dynamic special order section, and doing creative window displays. It was hard work adjusting to working with a team, under a management that never seemed to want to excel above the average. Growing up in an immigrant, entrepreneurial family imbued me with passion and vision that was tolerated, rather than welcomed and celebrated. During that turbulent and mixed career  period I semi-retired, down-shifted to part-time work at Bookstop. I started selling used theological & Irish interest books online.

For the last ten years I have returned to work in Carraig Books, ad hoc style. As the shop slowly wound-down towards closure, I altered my working terms and conditions. Previously I had been “paid” in books but when I stopped selling books online, this was of no use to me. These days my “wages” are a sandwich/latte meal deal, by my choosing.

 

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Coffee meal deal example

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Sometimes there are very few customers, so I read a book, do some writing, or browse the internet, undisturbed in the main…

For me working in a bookshop is a special and unique vocation. It is a bit like being a patient counsellor, a burden-sharing confessor, and presenting actor on an unusual stage. You never know who exactly will push hard on the stiff, old fashioned door. It could be someone famous or someone unknown. What stories and dramas will these book browsers and buyers dare to share. Though I am a nuanced Christian, I have always try to let God direct the conversation direction in this unusual, one-scene bookshop setting…I will sorely miss the interaction with customers, the daily drama of a typical retailers day.

Catch dream delightful nasal whiff,

antique calf covers, pungent pages,

sentimental this second-hand sniff,

older books witness to past ages.

 

Second-hand bookshop unassuming,

frontage design from yester-year,

author arguments begin booming,

old fashioned, biblio atmosphere.

 

Piles of books, passage near-blocked,

some covers warped, or detached,

some printed contents worm-pocked,

older authors not quickly despatched.

 

Heritage honoured with due respect,

past authors offered warm embraces,

many ideas on pages freckle-specked,

playing hide and seek among bookcases.

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                                                                           Closing up Carraig Books, setting security screen in place

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Who holds Tomorrow, if it’s Not the One who Made us…

 

My parents were working-class-made-good textile entrepreneurs. Both English immigrants, they also left school early, back in the 1940s. I had grown up in a middle-class, Dublin suburban housing estate. Prior to that departure from school, my parents separated and I had chosen to escape to a Quaker, co-ed boarding school.

My three goals in my teen life were to immerse myself in music, write poems and establish female friendships. To quote my much-loved boarding school’s pertinent report: “Louis and his (pop) transistor lead a pretty aimless existence…” I’d had a small catalogue of sweethearts in my teens but quickly realised that Pre-Raphelite beauties with volatility issues, didn’t hold the answers that I sought. In 1973 I dropped out of secondary school, due to family fracturing, relationship issues and a lack of academic engagement.

I had a series of short term jobs: cafe kitchen porter; textile factory pattern cutter; offset litho-printer. It was hard to fit in with the small dreams of smoking, swearing, disco-dancing, binge-drinking work mates. I retreated into myself and music. Most weekends were spent in my sitting room, smoking French scented cigarettes; decoratively doodling, while listening to repeat plays of revered singer-songwriter musicians: Leonard Cohen, Judee Sill and Joni Mitchell. Judee’s troubled life, nascent spirituality and lush orchestral songs caught my interest for a while.

Music was a central part of my pre-conversion life. It was an important part of my uncertain identity: the closest to the limited salvation, offered by seventies singer-songwriter saviours. Confessional music was favoured most by this lost teen poet. Having started writing poetry at co-ed boarding school, I was entranced by the introverted and sombre Cohen’s ‘Songs From a Room’. Having learned piano I was also drawn to the emotionally-nuanced, feminine perspectives of Joni Mitchell, even more.

In time, I became an over-optimistic, evangelical Christian convert. There was scriptural hope to learn …and much selfish sin to unlearn. Now I was being challenged to re-find my identity, in an apparently-nebulous Christ. I immersed myself in this new life with the zeal of the convert.

One day, flicking through the LP covers in a religious bookshop, I saw a cover that showed an abstract plant with fire in the background. It became my personal “burning bush”.  Fireflake was it’s title, Adrian Snell its composer. I thought – what is this?? I turned it over to read the sleeve notes and saw an incredible quote from Cornish poet, Jack Clemo:

A fire-flake has pierced my silence,

And a tongue responds—too deep

To be greyly solemn, too sure

Of heaven’s glowing heart to let me sleep

Adrian Snell’s ‘Fireflake’ lyrics were (almost) on a par with Joni Mitchell’s thoughtful reflections. His piano playing certain equalled hers. Many of Snell’s lyrics were stark, and his music dramatic, sometimes bleak. I was smacked between the eyes, heart-hooked by such nuanced lyrics, passionately sung to repeat-cascade of dissonant chords.

 

I quickly bought that LP, and played it over and over. I was dumbfounded. The classical, piano-based tracks had me entranced, the poetic lyrics demanded careful listening. I had found a musically melancholic substitute to my secular singer songwriters at last!  Snell was classically trained, like many supergroup members of Yes, and also Emerson, Lake & Palmer. All my music nerd important boxes were ticked. So, now I had significant music  but not the covenant woman blessing my life.

By then, I had recently come across Clemo, on an accidently-viewed BBC drama documentary, directed by Norman Stone. Clemo and I quite soon became friends after I wrote to him. We exchanged a hundred type writer written letters, one a month, over thirteen years. Clemo became my spiritual and literary mentor / hero. In particular, I adopted his unique style of dramatic biographical renditions of well-known Christian missionaries, non-believing authors and artists.

 

I married Liz in 1985. After three years she and I started a family. It was a sweet time for me, being able to refashion my fractured family in God’s good image. My parent’s emotionally fraught pattern would not be copied. Four years passed, and soon another child was due. All went well until ten days before my daughter’s birth, when we were informed by the hospital that she was stillborn…

Adrian had just released Beautiful, or What?’ at that timeOh no, I thought as I listened. Not another “concept album”! It was billed as “a thematic pop/rock opera which uses the allegorical tale of a girl and her rag doll to bring a profound message about handicapped children…” Yuck! I gave it one unsympathetic listen and quickly put it aside.

Oh dear, what will I do with this recording now?? I certainly don’t want it. …I know… seeing as it is about handicapped kids, I’ll send it to my friend who works in L’Arche”.

When we got the bad news that our daughter, Holly, was dead in the womb, I decided to listen again to this new composition. Perhaps, in the light of our devastating news, it can speak to me, I reflected. This hero child in the song sequence could well have been my child, physically or mentally handicapped. What then…?

As I began to think about my daughter’s funeral, I wondered how to present this loss and pain, in a meaningful way. I wanted hymns for her, of course – choosing ‘O the Deep Deep Love of Jesus’ for its deep Slavic-tinged pathos.

I had written a knee-jerk poetic response about her cut-short life. Then I had the inspired idea of contacting Adrian Snell, and asking him for permission to use some of his music. Two tracks on ‘Beautiful or What?’ would make very appropriate entrance / exit music at Holly’s funeral. Adrian quickly and kindly agreed. I was deeply, tearfully touched at such generosity of spirit.

Twenty one years later, those same album tracks were granted use permission again. This time, to be used on my video-short about Holly: ‘Goodbye, Au Revoir Slan. My video-short was to “celebrate” her would-have-been 21st birthday.

 

That video short ended up on Minnie Driver’s indie-movie dvd about stillbirth, Return to Zero. It was also broadcast on German religious TV. To top all that, I was interviewed about Holly and my booklet in the Sunday Independent (readership 900,000). Holly had changed my life…. so had Adrian Snell.

I stayed in touch with Adrian Snell from time to time. The vagaries of music downloads, and falling CD sales in the music industry impacted Adrian’s more old-school approach. His inspiration to compose new songs diminished quite considerably. I peppered him with ideas for songs. He was gracious enough to stay in touch with this over-insistent blue-sky, Snell-song enthusiast.

One email reply lit a fuse. He hinted that if he could replace his well-worn piano, bought over forty years before, he might just get inspired again. His current life was in music  therapy, with children, rather than in Christian music ministry.

Around that time, I had ended up with undreamt-of financial stability. I was very aware of the biblical responsibility that goes with such blessing. Money is not ours to hoard in banks, it is gifted by God to be equitably and creatively shared with others. I offered to help a bit in the cost of a replacement piano, to see if he actually might get inspired again. Others also joined in with kickstart funding that I had initiated.

When the piano salesman in London heard about Adrian’s piano-playing pilgrimage, he knocked £10,000 off the £26,000 purchase price!  In 2013, Adrian went on to record and release ‘Fierce Love’, based on his experiences as music therapist. It was Adrian’s first album after a seven year sabbatical.

The extraordinary range of instruments, central to his music therapy, contribute to the unique soundscape of Fierce Love. It was a privilege to visit to Bath and attend the launch party of that CD. I also visited Three Ways special school, where Adrian works. He uses his music therapy to communicate with severely handicapped children. Seeing that process in action had me quietly crying…any of these profoundly impacted children could have been my daughter, Holly….