Secondhand delights: writers hunt for books

Like any reasonable minded person out there, we love secondhand bookstores. The bargains, the unexpected funds, the sheer randomness, from chainstore charity shops to small independent sellers, secondhand bookstores offer escapism and reward in equal amounts. Whether it’s stumbling across something you’ve been looking for ages, or taking a chance on a book that takes your fancy for only a few quid, there’s usually enough reason to come home with a book in your shopping bag. Lagan Online asked writers Annemarie Mullan, and Karen J McDonnell – to venture forth into a secondhand bookstore near them. Here’s what they found.


Annemarie Mullan visited Vibes and Scribes in Cork and Gadai Dubh in Ballymakeera
Second-hand bookshops used to entail a bargain-hunt through a tumbledown maze of roughly categorised card-board boxed sections jostling cheek-to-jowl in the style of an eastern souk. No longer. Increasingly, flying in the face of the bookstore conglomerates, the trend is a nudge back towards the specialised collection – the owner’s labour of love fanning out to include all other sections.

I had Googled Cork searching for second-hand bookshops that might have an art collection. Vibes and Scribes on Lavitt’s Quay in Cork City started as a mixture of music and books almost 20 years ago when Joan Lucey launched it on Bridge Street. Eventually the music section could not compete with the Internet so the owner began to concentrate on Arts and Crafts, separating the book side of the business onto Lavitt Quay and running the Bridge Street shop as an art books and supplies shop and allowing it to evolve into a two-floored social hub for art and crafts.

The Lavitt’s Quay second-hand bookshop felt light and airy in the low shelved middle sections where you could lose yourself among the mass of reductions and special offers. There were so many books to entice that I was hard pressed to narrow it down – even after an hour of browsing – to a final selection of art and poetry.

We then continued to Coolea (roughly between Killarney and Macroom) to stay with Colin (Hammy) Hamilton, the Belfast-born flute-maker, and his wife Noirin. While we were collecting some copies of his book on the Irish Flute, to bring up to Belfast bookshops, Hammy flagged up another second-hand bookshop, recently opened (11 months ago) in nearby Ballymakeera. We were leaving the next day and it was a Sunday, so Hammy rang the owner who offered to open the shop for Sean and I, later that afternoon.

Gadai Dubh (Black Thief) is a curious range of books, toys, comics and natural history artefacts collected over a lifetime by bat expert, ecological consultant and historian Conor Kelleher. Conor runs Gadai Dubh as a mixture of social hub, natural history museum, exhibition space (a new miniature diorama in the shop window every couple of weeks) offering free teas and coffee, a chill-out area with old board games and a dog-friendly corner.

Old, rare, antiquarian and out-of-print books nestle with drawers of natural history (child-friendly) specimens, and a string of conversation pieces, such as the jar of sand from Omaha Beach, dinosaur teeth, rock from the Great Pyramid and a (decommissioned) 1916 rifle. Each item in the shop has a history, on offer from Conor, who is there from Tuesday to Saturday each week, in between occasional lectures in Cork University’s Zoology department. This bookshop is so new that word-of-mouth and Facebook is still its main source of advertising, a place you should veer off the beaten track to find.

Overall, my haul included: The Bee-Loud Glade, a living anthology of Irish Poetry published by Dedalus Press in 2011; Selected Poems by Eaven Boland, published by Carcanet in 1989; The Faber Book of Irish Verse, edited by John Montague in 1974; The Faber Book of Beasts, edited by Paul Muldoon in 1998; Lifelines 3, letters from famous people about their favourite poem, with a forward by Eavan Boland (I have “Lifelines 1 and 2”, so particularly pleased with this find); Crazy about Women by Paul Durcan, poems inspired by paintings hanging in the National Gallery (ekphasis rules); Reading Women, a large collection of paintings, drawings and prints of women in the act of reading (this is an image that I find myself frequently drawn to in my work, so a useful find for research purposes); The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, a twelve step programme for artists to restore their work-practise, spirit and daily routine; and Kahlo, a brief life-story and collection of colour-prints of paintings by Frida Kahlo (1907 – 1954), an art book for the bedside.


Karen J McDonnell visited Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop in Galway
A few years ago, I put up a photo of Freya Stark’s East is West on Facebook. A friend, who also has an interest in the Middle East, commented enviously: Where did you get that? Charlie’s.

Ah, Charlie’s. What’s not to like? A bookshop right in the centre of town, where you can browse for hours, and then meander around a few corners for coffee with friends. Hell, you can meet friends in Charlie’s! There are books in every category available to you, but there are also pamphlets and all sorts of journals; both new and collectors’ items. Books by local authors are prominently displayed. Even books by local-ish authors (ahem).  When I bump into Charlie as I do my ‘research’ for this article, there’s no problem with my taking photographs. He pops up at my shoulder later to ask how I’m getting on. And the staff are great – they put you and the book you’re searching for together, in an instant.

You get your own account when you bring books to Charlie Byrne’s. After finding the ‘book for you’ it’s lovely to discover that you’ve still got credit on your account, and you don’t have to put your hand in your pocket. It may not be the best work of fiction on my shelves, but The Lives of Shadows by Barbara Hodgson is one of the most beautiful. I found it in my favourite area in Charlie’s: Travel. Unusual, seeing that it’s a novel. But I like that it fetched up there. The book is about an ancient house in Damascus, and set in the early 20th century. Here’s a peek into it (pictured right). See what I mean? I love the ‘gone off’ Sellotape effect!

The joy of a second-hand bookshop, is the element of discovery as much as the atmosphere of the place. So – what did I find in my trawl this week? I avoided my usual haunts: Travel, Classics, History (Galway is a university town – Charlie’s is strong on the Humanities!). I can never resist flicking through the Penguins. I picked up an Olivia Manning, but found it was Part Two of the Balkan Trilogy. I have both the Levant and Balkan trilogies in Penguin editions already, so even I thought that was going a bit far. Then I saw a Penguin New Writing. I’ll have that, I thought and pounced on it before anyone else could. Am I the only one who becomes a tad dangerous to approach around secondhand books? It’s 1945 new writing – including work by Rosamond Lehmann, C. Day Lewis, and Stephen Spender. It was only when I got home that I realised it’s also a first edition.

I’m a sucker for slipcases. When Kennys’ Bookshop was moving out of its central location in Galway, I went in on the last day and bought a lovely edition of I Capture the Castle – in a slipcase. My ‘Kennys’ memory’. This time, I bought another classic – The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane, illustrated by John Steuart Curry. Published in 1944 by the Heritage Press in New York, the front page has an embossed stamp by the previous owner: ‘Library of Richard S. Welch’. I wonder what his library was like. Lying among the hundreds on the book tables in the front section of the shop, I spied a modern edition of The Southern Gates of Arabia by Freya Stark. Originally published in 1936, this paperback is a 2001 Modern Library edition. No getting away from Freya, Arabia, or Travel. Charlie Byrne’s. They know you better than you know yourself.

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