Another Bookshop Closure: Time For A Proper Debate?

HHNews of the closure of Hughes and Hughes Dundrum has been reported in The Irish Times and the trade presses, following an announcement on the company website. The Dundrum booksellers were informed of the decision last Monday afternoon, and were given notice that the branch was to close after trading on Sunday 10th March. Staff have not been offered alternative employment. The day chosen for a public announcement was World Book Day, an irony that didn’t go unnoticed by people posting on the bookshop’s Facebook page.  

At the end of the official notification on the website, the branch’s staff members have added a personal note to their customers:

 We would like to take this opportunity to thank all of our customers for your support, conversation and loyalty over the five years we’ve spent in Dundrum. You have helped to make our bookshop a truly wonderful place to work and it has been a pleasure and an honour to be a part of your lives. We wish you all the very best for the future and continued happy reading to you and yours.

As is obvious from the merest glance at the company’s social media platforms, the bookshop did indeed have a very loyal following. Comments from customers and local authors have expressed sadness at the loss of this branch of Hughes and Hughes (#HHDundrum). The shop had many regular customers, of whom several had been around since the very beginning (2008) and who had stuck with the brand throughout the upheavals of 2010. These dedicated supporters were genuinely upset at the news.

Unfortunately, their loyalty wasn’t enough to combat the twin demons of high rent and poor location in the windswept nether regions of Dundrum Town Centre. The views of the hills from the shop are wonderful on a good day, but when the storm clouds hang low (as they all too often do) then shoppers prefer to stay safe and dry. And that’s before the Amazon effect comes into play; not to mention the inevitable impact e-readers have had on print sales. However, Hughes and Hughes have ventured into the e-reader market by beginning to stock the Kobo, a rival to the Kindle.

Yet again, it seems we are faced with the question of what the future holds for Irish bookshops. A recent debate in the letters page of The Irish Times and in the online edition was triggered by Manchán Magan’s article, discussing the lack of an iconic independent bookshop in Ireland. While I take issue with several aspects of Magan’s original article (its Dublin bias for one) it is clear that someone in the book trade needs to take the initiative to begin a serious conversation about the future of bookselling in this so-called land of scholars and saints.

In the UK, the respected bastion of the book trade, Foyles has recently invited a range of opinions before moving into new premises next year. This takes the form of monthly meetings of interested parties to put together a blueprint for the new flagship store. Whether the tactic will work or not remains to be seen. What we do need to ask is whether enough people are willing to support their local bookshop and help it to survive. What do people want from a bookshop? What do bookshops need to do to do attract readers (and writers)? What kind of diversification works and what doesn’t?

It is also time to dump the romantic assumption (Magan again) that a bookshop has to be independent and shabby to be good. As its many well-wishers assert, Hughes and Hughes Dundrum was an example of a branch of a chain (albeit a vastly reduced one) where the staff were every bit as knowledgeable and helpful as in the shabbier indies.   

Now, who is up for a heated debate?

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