March 18, 2013

The perfect (Irish) bookstore


Is Livraria Lello in Porto, Portugal a perfect bookstore or just a beautiful space?

There’s been a debate brewing in the Dublin Review of Books and the Irish Times book section over the past few weeks about what constitutes the “perfect bookstore.”

It began with an article the Irish Times. “Why don’t we have a perfect bookstore?” demanded a headline at the end of February. “Paris has Shakespeare and Company, San Francisco has City Lights. Ireland, birthplace of so many great writers, deserves their equal,” author Manchán Magan begins. Almost-perfect Irish contemporary examples cited in the article include Lilliput Press in Stoneybatter, The Gutter Bookshop in Temple Bar. Possibly-perfect bookshops mentioned are the long-gone Dublin bookshop Green’s near Merrion Square and the former Winding Stair bookstore next to the Ha’penny Bridge.

The main conclusion is that bookstores are at their best when they have a bit of worn and rugged charm or a mysterious and awe-inspiring atmosphere:

Ideally a bookshop needs a certain tattiness, a lived-in, homely quality, with nooks and crannies to get lost in. Great bookshops are like a wardrobe to Narnia, making browsers lose their bearings, as in Charlie Byrne’s, in Galway, or Strand Bookstore, in Manhattan, with its almost 30km of new, used and rare books.

Therefore, Magan suggests, someone with an idealistic spirit and utopian goals should secure a beautiful space and start a bookstore in Dublin along the lines of the Shakespeare and Company model, where it will be run by visitors and volunteers who love literature.

The Dublin Review of Books took issue with this idea, and published a blog post in response called “The Impossible Bookshop.” Regardless of how beautiful the setting, rather than a rag-tag group of literary volunteers, the perfect bookshop must have a professional and well-informed staff:

the perfect bookshop, or as near as we will get to the perfect bookshop, is the one that has the best stock and the most knowledgeable staff: people who have been around long enough to be familiar not just with every yard of their own shelving but with the contents of the publishers’ catalogues, who know not just what they have (which one hopes is plenty) but also what you might like and what they can get for you. This is not a service that can be provided by any Mexican poet/tattoo artist passing through, no matter how charming.

In this age of dramatic change, the Dublin Review of Books piece concludes, the perfect bookstore is ultimately one that has qualities that allow it to survive. This seems like an important addition to the list of perfect bookstore criteria: atmosphere, helpful staff, and good survival chances.

I’d add one more to that list: community. It’s not just the magificent charm of the beautiful collection of books or a breathtaking building that make bookstores like Shakespeare & Company or Atlantis Books in Greece reach “perfect bookstore” status. It’s the community: the staff, the patrons, the neighbors, and yes, the rotating crew of volunteers and visitors who bring their heart and soul to the readings, literary projects, and gatherings in the shop. It’s that community-focused element that makes a bookstore like Word Up—both funded by and focused on its community—an example of a perfect bookstore for the future.



Claire Kelley is a the former Director of Library and Academic Marketing.