This is the first in an irregular series of interviews relating to Dublin Writers’ Festival Venues in 2014
What (and where) is The Gutter Bookshop? What happens there?
The Gutter Bookshop is an independent bookshop in Temple Bar, Dublin – close to Christchurch Cathedral and the Smock Alley Theatre where a large number of the Dublin Writers Festival events take place. We teamed up with festival in 2012 as official booksellers which involves running around Dublin with big piles of books for the duration of the festival – it’s one of my favourite weeks of the year – tiring but lots of fun! Events are key to making the Gutter Bookshop a vibrant and lively bookshop. Oh, and we’ve just opened a second branch out in Dalkey on the south coast of Dublin so now I spend even more time running around.
What possessed you to open an Indie bookshop at a time when the gloom and doom merchants were predicting the end of books and bookshops?
Ha, I usually plead insanity! But in all honesty, I made my first plans to open an independent bookshop back in 1995 whilst living in Stoke-on-Trent in England after finishing my degree. It took me until 2009 to fulfil the dream but I got there in the end. There’s an awful lot of negativity about books and bookshops but the Gutter is doing great. Bookshops will always adapt and there’s loads of busy bookshops doing lots of events, bookgroups and festivals like us – it’s all about engaging with your community and never taking your customers for granted. Yes, it’s hard work and the pay isn’t great but I get to talk about books all day – how cool is that?!
Did you always want to be a bookseller?
I’ve always loved books. My mum often tells the story of when I was a child and I thought being sent to bed early for bad behaviour was actually a reward because it meant I could spend more time reading! I got my first bookshop job at 16 when I was studying for A levels and haven’t stopped since. I love putting a book into someone’s hands and knowing that they’ll love it, there’s nothing better than when they come back and tell you how much they enjoyed something that you recommended. Working with Dublin Writers Festival is brilliant because I get to meet so many writers who I admire. Last year I got to introduce ‘The Yellow Birds’ writer Kevin Powers, which was one of my favourite books of the year, to Seamus Heaney. I love moments like that and it’s obviously even more poignant after Seamus Heaney’s death in August of the same year.
How do you keep The Gutter not only alive but vibrant?
Great staff, a love for what we do, and a lot of hard work! It’s so important to me that everyone we employ is passionate about books and reading so that they can share that excitement with the customers. Our Staff Picks section always accounts for most of our bestsellers every year. Events including festivals, launches, readings and bookclubs mean that you never quite know what you’re going to stumble on in the bookshop and I love that so many people see the Gutter as ‘their’ bookshop, it means they’re invested in its future.
Describe the shop, for someone who’s never been there: what makes it different from other bookshops?
Um, bizarrely that’s a tricky question! I think we often surprise people by being an open bright airy space, I guess everyone still thinks of bookshops as being dark cavernous warrens of dusty tomes! We have a lovely high ceiling, white fixtures, a lovely slate floor and windows down two sides of the shop so it does feel like living in a goldfish bowl at times. We are quite small compared to the huge bookshops so we do have to be quite selective about stock – there’s a lot of talk about ‘curating’ in the arts at the minute and I like to think that we’re a ‘curated’ bookshop. The staff pick the stock individually by title to try and offer a unique and interesting choice for our customers. But we’re not literary snobs – I love a good crime thriller as much as the next person!
Can you talk about your (literal) corner of Dublin? What impact has the shop had on the street, and vice-versa?
Cow’s Lane is part of the ‘Old City’ district of Temple Bar. It didn’t actually exist as a Dublin street until 2000 when it opened as a residential district in the heart of the city. Apparently there did use to be a ‘Cow Lane’ here in medieval times but it had long since been built over. There’s a lot of apartments here but also a lot of visitors to the area as it’s part of Temple Bar, and it’s a lovely area – lots of small independent Irish businesses offering an alternative from the identikit shops you see everywhere else. It also helps that we have the wonderful Queen of Tarts just around the corner and a bakery next door so we’re never short of cake. I am a big believer in communities and supporting local businesses, I think people underestimate how much we need them – it’s not just about their handiness when you need something urgently, it’s also about talking to like-minded people and discovering things you didn’t know existed.
Didn’t you recently open a branch in Dalkey? Can you talk about that?
We got involved with the Dalkey Book Festival last Summer after they liked how we worked with the Dublin Writers Festival to offer an exciting range of books to support the festival. All weekend out in Dalkey people told us how much they missed having a bookshop in the village so when we had the opportunity to do a pop-up shop at Christmas we jumped at the chance. Then December became January, then February, and the Dalkey branch just kept on rolling. I never had any real plans to expand out of Cow’s Lane but this natural progression is the way I like to work and it just feels right. The Dalkey shop is at 20 Railway Road, opposite Finnegan’s Pub and close to the Dart station.
In general, do independent booksellers in Dublin support each other, or are you competitive?
I’d definitely say that we support each other as much as we can. I always think ‘the more bookshops the better’ and it certainly seems to be true that when a bookshop closes those readers just seem to disappear rather than buying more from another shop. I’m currently the Chairperson for the Bookseller’s Association Irish Branch and recently organised a conference for booksellers from across Ireland. Like any other industry, there’s nothing better than meeting up with your peers across the business and discussing what’s going on, as well as having a drink or two. Saying that, I do get quite jealous when another bookshop gets an event with an author that I’d love to host. But I still turn up and drink their wine.
Do it. Despite all the doom and gloom, there’s a lot of life in bookshops yet and opening the Gutter is the best thing I’ve ever done. Be prepared for hard work, and make sure you’ve got your best business head on – it’s all about watching your costs whilst encouraging your sales. But don’t be put off by all the people saying that bookshops can’t survive any more, business in the Gutter continues to grow every year and owning a bookshop is great fun, I can’t imagine doing anything else.
What keeps you awake at night?
Good books and my cat – she seems to believe 3am is perfect snack time. But apart from that, very little. I’ve always been very good at sleeping but I did have a few sleepless nights when we were first setting up the bookshop, starting your own business and using your life’s savings to do so is always going to be stressful but my main concern was giving people jobs and being able to pay their wages. I do have momentary panics sometimes, usually the day before a festival event when the author’s books haven’t arrived but we always get there in the end!
What was here in the past? Even though The Gutter is part of a new block, do traces of that past remain?
Yes, our building and Cow’s Lane is new but Essex Street West and Essex Gate would have existed when Dublin was made a walled city in the 9th Century. There are markers to indicate where the old city walls used to stand. The whole area was part of Dublin’s original Viking settlement and many remains were found when the area was excavated in the 1990s. We’re right next door to the Smock Alley Theatre where a lot of the Dublin Writers Festival events take place and the history of the building is a story in itself, the original Smock Alley dates from 1662 and has hosted a raft of Irish playwrights and dramatists through the centuries. And Fishamble Street 2 minutes away is where Handel’s ‘Messiah’ was first performed, conducted by Handel himself. To say the area is steeped in history is something of an understatement.
What do you imagine will be here in the future?
Who knows! A lot of people only gave the Gutter six months when it first opened and nearly five years on we’re still here and still growing. I hope Cow’s Lane continues to attract an eclectic mix of independent Irish businesses that show there’s an alternative to the same-old same-old. That the Dublin Writers Festival has decided to centre itself on the area is a great bonus, it has a real knock-on effect for various businesses in the area including the cafes, bars and hotels. And it’s great for us in the bookshop too of course!
OR: 20 Railway Road, Dalkey, Co Dublin OR: www.gutterbookshop.com/
(Interview by Lia Mills)