Recently, I enjoyed a great afternoon running around Dublin bookshops. I visited many of my old haunts and one cool new bookstore. It happened to be the day of Gay Pride, so driving around the city center was difficult as streets were closed for the parade, but once I had the car stashed in a multi-story I was exploring a Dublin that in some ways hasn’t changed much since I lived there.
The spire wasn’t there in my time, nor the odd metal balconies over the river, but I’ve seen them on previous visits. I hadn’t come across the big Polish Embassy on the quays before, but it makes sense since the second language of Ireland has seemed like Polish for some time.
The tiny Winding Stair Bookshop and restaurant has shrunk over the years. From a book-lined restaurant upstairs, to a well-stocked bookstore downstairs and separate restaurant up. It’s probably an indication of the relative importance of books to the Irish populace over the Celtic Tiger years: dining out has only grown in importance, while reading… well, let’s not dwell on that. The ground-floor now houses new books, and not very many square feet of them. However, the place feels like a perfect example of a curated selection. I immediately found most of the new fiction I was looking for right there on the shelves (not always a given in any store, anywhere) and found several books that looked great. Chatting with the staff at Winding Stair showed they are up to speed on new writers.
They had a copy of Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s debut novel, You, (and turned out to be the only store I looked in that day that did). After reading her story collection Nude last year, she’s now on my “must read” list. I was interesting in the new Dermot Healy novel, but after reading a couple of pages a combination of style and heft made me decide to wait and maybe look for a used copy on a future trip.
Hand-written shelftalkers showed me that the staff take their books seriously. Somebody at The Winding Stair is a huge advocate for Kevin Barry, and it’s due to their shelftalker that I later bought a copy of There Are Little Kingdoms and it’s high on my TBR list. [Although I must confess that I bought it elsewhere, because I needed to Google the book and read more about it first… you know how it is.] Kevin Barry’s debut novel, The City of Bohane, looks great, and if the short stories are as excellent as promised, I suspect I’ll be ordering the novel soon.
I also found several books that I’d never heard of and bought one nonfiction on impulse. Many of the other Dublin bookstores had a lot of the big books, and little else (or maybe it’s fairer to say that the else they had wasn’t the else I was interested in), but whoever buys books for The Winding Stair seems to be close to my own reading tastes. A tiny store, but still a great one.
The next day, reading Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s poem “Dancing with Paul Durcan,” it felt strangely apt to discover that it references The Winding Stair. If that isn’t literary cachet, I don’t know what is.
The newcomer to the Dublin bookselling scene since I lived there is The Gutter Bookshop. I’d come across them on Twitter (@GutterBookshop), and heard good things, so it was fabulous to finally be able to explore their shelves. The streets of Temple Bar were thronged after the Pride rally, and there was a healthy crowd browsing in the store. Owner Bob graciously stopped to chat to me despite the fact that the words “I follow you on Twitter” should send a tremor through the bravest soul. The space must be great for events, with all the fixtures on wheels to allow for flexibility.
Gutter is well-stocked: all the new releases and big books, as well as a noticeable sprinkling of quirky and backlist selections. I was delighted to score a copy of Julian Gough’s Jude: Level 1, as I never find his books in the wilds of North Carolina.
I stuck my head into Hodges-Figgis & Easons, the physically large/chain bookstores, but really didn’t see much to interest me. In fairness, Hodges-Figgis has a massive Irish nonfiction selection (if you can’t find it there, it probably hasn’t been written yet) but I wasn’t really looking for new nonfiction right now. Easons had lots of popular fiction and a “Buy 3 for the Price of 2” offer, but I’d already bought most of the books I was interested in. Many of the older second hand bookstores that used to be found down the quays and near Grafton Street seem to be gone. Every time I’m home I find a couple of new remainder and used stores, but these always vanish by the next visit.
A quick stop into Books Upstairs, a tiny bookshop absolutely crammed full of books by the gates of Trinity College, and I netted Portrait of the Artist with a Red Car, a poetry chapbook by Nuala Ní Chonchúir that I hadn’t expected to find. Books Upstairs has been there I don’t know how long, and has so many books that you have to hold your breath and suck in your gut to squeeze down the aisles. Not a store to follow fashion, but this is one of your best bets to find quirky titles from several years ago.
By now, my feet were beginning to drag, so I decided to call it quits for the day and head home to work on the most-difficult decision: which book to read first.