The writer who returned to the bookstore
When I told people I was going back to the bookstore, no one was very surprised, especially my friends in the book business. “It’s in your blood,” said Ivan O’Brien of The O’Brien Press. “Did you say yes before Trish had a chance to finish her question?” Bob Johnson of The Gutter Bookshop joked.
Trish is Trish Hennessy, owner and manager of Halfway Up the Stairs in Greystones, a local independent bookstore specializing in books for children, teens and young adults. When she asked me if I would be interested in covering her vacation in August, channeling Molly Bloom, “yes I said yes, I will.” Not really, but there were certainly a lot of yeses involved.
I’ll explain. My first “real” job after graduating from college was as a part-time bookseller at the Hodges Figgis Bookstore on Dawson Street in Dublin city center. I worked antisocial hours, evenings, weekends, holidays, but I fell deeply in love with everything about selling books, being surrounded by books and other book enthusiasts, put away new books, order more books, and most importantly, help customers find the right book, or better yet, recommend something they might like to read. I particularly enjoyed working in the children’s department. I had never stopped reading children’s books, I read them throughout my studies in school and college, and I still devour them today.
A full time job presented itself at Hughes and Hughes in St Stephen’s Green and here I became adept at tidying up picture books, a job no one else wanted to do, especially after a busy and sticky Saturday . After moving down Waterstones Road to Dawson Street, my bookselling skills really took off when I was appointed a Great Department Kid’s Buyer and spent many happy years organizing events for schools and families, welcoming children’s writers to the store, and trying once again to find the perfect book for every young reader.
I started writing my first book while working here. Kids Can Cook was published by The Children’s Press and I organized my own book launch in my own children’s department. Eventually, I was drawn away from Waterstones by the promise of a stable nine-to-five, Monday through Friday position at Eason, where I became their children’s first buyer and marketing manager, and after many happy years. to work there, I left to write full time.
I never completely quit selling books, working as a children’s consultant for Dubray Books as well as writing. I have also continued to review books and to program and host the children’s component of various book festivals such as Mountains to Sea, and to work with the MoLI (Museum of Literature Ireland) where I help program their family events in this regard. day.
During lockdowns for the past 18 months, I realized that children need books more than ever – both for comfort and escape. With bookstores closed, finding the right book for young readers was difficult for parents, so I took to social media, recommending books every day. It made me feel useful and connected with the larger bookstore community, as I connected at various bookstores, especially halfway up the stairs.
Trish and I started to organize online events together, having great success with our Children’s Book Fairs, online parties for adults who want to learn more about children’s books, where writers and illustrators talk about their work and their new books.
Working with Trish and her team on these events made me feel useful and connected, but it also made me happy. I’ve always been a fan of doing more things that make you happy, so I made the decision to try the workshop again. And bravely – as my bookselling skills were so rusty – Trish hired me and I’m still here, again a part-time bookseller. My professional life has come full circle.
During the closures, booksellers have stepped up a gear, cycling and driving through every town and city in Ireland, delivering books to those in need and checking out their customers.
Working in the workshop of a small independent bookstore, I quickly realized the important role these local stores play especially in their communities. They are more than just shops, they are places of calm, wonder and wisdom, places where the advice given does not always relate to books.
On average we find the perfect books for young readers, yes, but we also listen to young couples share their dreams of moving to Greystones or Wicklow and ask about schools; we talk to grandparents who are desperately missing their grandchildren living abroad and send them packages of irish pounds. Parents who are worried about their children’s reading skills are reassured; we’re chatting with solo teens about the latest YA (Young Adult) titles, feeling their need for a little connection with a nice person in real life. We tell the boy who wants a unicorn book and the girl who wants a dinosaur book that unicorns and dinosaurs are for everyone!
When my new book, The Little Bee Charmer of Henrietta Street came out, it went right out the window for her moment in the sun. But when the next promotion arrived – Free to Be Me from Children’s Books Ireland, dedicated to promoting diverse and inclusive books – it came out. As it should be, so is the way of selling books. New books are coming every month, glorious and enchanting books that we need to help young readers discover.
While working in the store nothing else matters, everything is customer focused and it is a magical thing for both staff and readers. In bookstores, stories don’t end, they just begin.
You can find Sarah at the Halfway Up the Stairs children’s bookstore most Saturdays. His new book, The Little Bee Charmer of Henrietta Street, illustrated by Rachel Corcoran, was recently published by The O’Brien Press.