Phone at Carraig Books
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
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
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
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.
Hodges Figgis, a long-established Dublin Bookshop, Dawson Street
“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.
Newtown School, Waterford
“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
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. He 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.
Interior St. Ann’s Book Centre 1983
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
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.
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…
Liz & Louis marriage September 10th 1985
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.
One of my window displays at Bookstop in the late 1980s.
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.
Coffee meal deal example
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.
Closing up Carraig Books, setting security screen in place