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We love to see bookshops from across the UK featuring in our monthly blog piece, good, in fact, great bookshops have established themselves far and wide, in cities, towns and villages. Sheelagh na Gig is our first bookshop from Ireland, it is located in Cloughjordan, Co Tipperary, which is an ecovillage (and absolutely fascinating, see https://www.thevillage.ie). They have adapted to the changing market and become a coffee shop, as well as a bookshop. I would love to pop in to chat about books, say hello to Daisy Miller, and their loo sounds as though it’s worth a visit too!
Mollie: We were both living in Dublin and members of Ireland’s first ecovillage, which was in its infancy and still in the planning stages. Out of the blue one day in the summer of 2005 Liz phoned me up and said, “Hello! Would you like to open a bookshop?” I don’t know what got into me that day, but I replied without missing a beat, “Of course I want to open a bookshop!”
Liz: I wanted to do something that didn’t involve sitting at a desk for 38 hours a week. What I really wanted was a record shop, but there was no way that was going to work in a village! So I thought of other things, and I knew I couldn’t do it on my own. I also thought about art, and Mollie is also an artist. So she seemed a natural ecovillager to ask.
Mollie: I had wanted to open a bookshop since I was a teenager, after spending much of my time in Dream Street bookstore in St. Augustine, Florida curled up in a hammock reading with the shop cat.
Liz: Well, we started out as books, music, art and coffee. For the first few years, music was ok, but it depended on a few frequent buyers. Ultimately, the internet and the business model of the music industry killed it completely.
Also, it was October 2006. So it was the start of an economic depression. We opened when we did because of the imminent development of the ecovillage, but that was delayed for about 2 years, and we had no significant independent retail experience. We do not recommend this as a business strategy. But we’re still standing through a combination of hope, tenacity, and pure cussedness.
Mollie: Mostly the cussedness. But look...we are still standing, albeit on our tricky booksellers’ knees and gammy hips.
Liz: We’ve also adapted our products. Now we’re books, gifts, coffee and wholefoods. In a small town in Ireland, you have to do more than one thing. We introduced wholefoods for a few reasons. Other suppliers in our area closed, so there was opportunity. Also, we had always had some food products along with coffee, and if someone wanted to buy items such as organic flour and nuts (which we had on hand for baking cakes), we were happy to sell them. It helped with turnover. So when the opportunity arose, we grabbed it. It really helps us keep going.
Mollie: But after 12 years, we are primarily a bookshop. For our first couple of years, the coffee shop side of our business was what kept the door open. We could go a whole week without selling a single book, and it used to really get to us that we opened a bookshop only to be referred to by our customers and locals as “the coffee shop”. It changed, eventually, thanks to our wonderfully loyal customers who love our great selection and who hate the likes of Amazon.
Mollie: Friendly, eclectic, cosy...and rebellious.
Mollie: Thankfully, being a shop serving an ecovillage and a generally right-on real book-loving customer base, we haven’t had to fight the big guns of the internet for book sales. Music was a different story. Internet music and MP3s murdered that side of the business! We do try to keep a varied and interesting range of books that wouldn’t necessarily be found in a cursory browse of Amazon, or even in the bigger retail stores. And people get so excited when they stumble upon something different, or classic titles that are hard to get. I love hearing, “I’ve been looking for this for years!” or “You always have such tempting books.” Also, our customers are very interested in what we think about books, so we carry on the conversations that they would never have with Amazon.
We also did try online book sales, but it turned out to be another full-time job, and we just didn’t have the time to make it work.
Liz: We considered selling ebook readers and looked at trying to set up ebook sales. For small shops, ebooks weren’t really possible, we found. We could have tried the readers, but they would have been a hard sell to our small customer base and, in retrospect, selling them would have undermined what we were trying to do by being a cultural community space in a village. The financial commitment to ereaders meant we didn’t take a risk, and it’s worked out best that we didn’t. It would have been disastrous, really.
Mollie: Our customers want real books. We’re lucky that way. We have a brilliant secondhand section (in our lovely warm reading room) because our customers want it and they love books. We found one of the advantages of having a good mix of new books to sell is that they come back to us as secondhand. We don’t pay for them, but customers really appreciate that they can bring books to us and swap them for other secondhand books.
Liz: It keeps people coming in, and they generally buy a coffee when they’re browsing, so swaps do generate a small amount of turnover. It also means our secondhand stock is constantly refreshed without us having to do much.
Mollie: We know our customers better than they know themselves, at this stage! When we’re choosing books, we’ll often have specific people in mind. But what’s important is bend-over-backwards customer service, a welcoming atmosphere, and also knowing when to leave customers to their own devices to browse and sup in peace.
Sheelagh na Gig is located in Cloughjordan, Co Tipperary, home to Ireland’s first ecovillage. This alone means our customers are looking for books that may be a bit different to those you might find in most high street shops. We are specialists in books on green building, community resilience, permaculture and sustainable living. We also have a brilliant children’s section, which brings in people from miles around.
Liz: Baby Tractor! It’s an Usborne board book. We’re in a farming area, so it’s an easy sell. Home Work: Handbuilt Shelter, by Lloyd Kahn. Anything by the permaculture teacher and innovator Sepp Holzer. The Maloneys’ Magical Weatherbox and Cloak of Feathers by Nigel Quinlan. Nigel re-imagines Irish myth and legend for the 21st century child.
Mollie: Feminist dystopia, time travel fiction, books with Nazis. Any of them will do. I love them all!
Liz: The office! I like to be able to sit down when I’m doing the books.
Mollie: My first thought was the loo. It is so cheery with its bright blue walls and fluffy clouds, and to sit there for two minutes under a blue summer’s sky will make you forget the grim grey Irish afternoon outside.
Liz: Our loo is the most fun of any bookshop loo in the world. It is worth visiting us just for the loo.
Mollie: That’s just a fact! But that’s not really my favourite part of the bookshop. What’s really getting me excited right now is our growing radical non-fiction section. In stocking the shelves, I think we tried for too long to be all things to all people. Our shop is tiny and so is our footfall, so for a long time we kept a fairly broad and popular range in non-fiction. But with fascism on the march across much of the northern hemisphere, with the recent IPCC report on climate change confirming that we’re too late to save ourselves, with Brexit, we’ve realised that the best way we can make a difference is to stay in our lane and do what we do best: choose great books to help people understand how we got here, where we’re going, and what we can do about it.
Liz: The thing is every part of the shop is a good part. We have great books, we have an interesting wholefoods selection. Our gifts section is small, but it’s mostly handcrafted and local. There’s so much here that’s interesting.
Mollie: Well, then it wouldn’t be a secret any more, and it would violate the local shopkeepers’ code against spreading idle gossip. Just kidding. You’ll get all the village gossip here.
Liz: Any, really. I do most of my industrial espionage in the Gutter in Dublin because a lot of our customers would naturally be Gutter customers if they lived in Dublin. (Also, it’s on the way to Heuston train station!) I was recently in Hodges Figgis for an event with Shona MacDonald, author and illustrator of The Pooka Party, and I intend to go back. I haven’t been in Hodges Figgis in years, and it’s a pity. We follow (amongst others) Raven Books on Twitter, and they seem to have a great nature collection for children. I’ve never been there but need to go.
I’ll always go into a bookshop, anywhere, even ones that are actually newsagents. It’s a great way to get ideas.
Mollie: It was The Winding Stair for me when I lived in Dublin many years ago. I also love Mr. B’s in Bath, and will always make the effort to pop into Foyle’s when I’m in London. I especially like museum bookshops. I do a lot of spying in them when I can.
Liz: We will always try and find your book. There is no such thing as not in our catalogue.
Mollie: As a small bookshop, we recognise that we physically can’t stock that many titles, so we are careful to choose really interesting books that we know our customers are going to love, rather than break our hearts trying to get them all on the shelves. Having a reliable ordering service is essential.
It would be remiss of us not to mention our wonderful staff: Julie, Elliot, and Eddie, who work for us part-time, and Daisy Miller the shop cat, who is a full-time adorable nuisance.
Liz: Daisy is Mollie’s cat, so she’s biased. We welcome all companion animals so long as they’re polite and don’t leave puddles, parcels or other smelly things behind. We always have a jar of our homemade Dog Star biscuits on hand, so you can get your canine friend a snack while you enjoy your coffee and browse.
We nearly forgot to mention that we have regular author events with local and international household names, our Sunday writers' group, our pop-up Gaeltacht for conversational Irish on Saturday afternoons, the book The Night Hunt written by local writers and published by us, Feminist Book Fortnight, Banned Books Week, and our Mad Hatter's Tea Parties. We also host music events and art exhibitions and we are starting a feminist book club in January.