There are still places in Belfast where ‘browsing’ for books doesn’t need an Amazon account, places full of that old book smell and feel where an afternoon can be lost and a bag of bargains found without a trip to an industrial estate parcel office or a creeping credit card bill.
The owner of the only independent book reseller in Belfast city centre, Bill Burlingham of Keats and Chapman, explains how second hand books still have an enduring popularity with local people and even tourists to this day.
He also talks about the £3,500 book which survived a World War Two fire, two generations of book-selling, rates, the death of used fiction, the North Street Arcade fire and why he won’t be serving coffee and donuts any time soon.
Thankfully the face-to-face bookselling business, despite Amazon and eBay and online selling, seems to be in better health in Northern Ireland than anyone could have assumed. The survival of some outstanding bookshops like Bookends in Bangor, Bookfinders and No Alibis sits alongside the availability of some excellent charity shops like Oxfam in Botanic.
There’s also the arrival of new businesses such as Belfast Books in North Belfast – with their impressive and ambitious online presence – and the Book Reserve on the Lisburn Road, leaving bookworms spoilt for choice. I’ve yet to visit either or the book shop I’ve heard about at Castle Ward. And of course we also have a scattering of used bookshops throughout Northern Ireland. Perhaps someone who has visited the Irish language bookshop on the Falls Road An Ceathrú Póilí could pitch in, as I’m not sure if they sell second hand books.
Bill’s own shop, now open for ten years, is his second after a first shop in the North Street Arcade was burnt down alongside one of Terri Hooley’s much loved record shop ventures.
You’d be forgiven for being confused by a change of name for the new shop since then: “Our shop here used to be called The Bookstore. People would ask if we couldn’t have thought of something better so we chatted over a drink until Keats and Chapman was born. People who have read the Flann O’Brien book sometimes give me an appreciative nod about the name.
“My dad Victor, who was was well-known from the Queen’s University Bookshop, ran the book shop in the arcade for me. But now we are the only city centre bookshop of our type while others have sadly been and gone.”
DAY-LONG HUNTS AND CHANGING TASTES
Bill, sitting in the middle of his rows and rows of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, pointed out that the availability of cheap fiction in supermarkets has led to an end to the second hand fiction trade as it once was.
However, Belfast people are still happy to spend an afternoon searching for an unusual bargain.
We always did get the book enthusiasts. We even have a few MLAs who come in with a wide reading range. All in all, we get everyone from younger students to people in their 90s.
The one thing they have in common is an interest in non-fiction. People mainly want non-fiction, as in the past fiction would be worth half the cover price. Now I’d be happy to get £2 now.
Fiction can be found in supermarkets for £3. More and more excellent fiction is being published but you see a new book and you wonder how on earth the person will make money from a book no one knows about.
Changing tastes have also meant that local interest isn’t as popular as it used to be. I think more people used to collect things like Irish history books until the internet came along and it become clear that even though a book was hard to find in the shops and hardly ever seen, quite a few copies were one click away which means the feeling of rarity is diminished.
Bill pointed out that “a busy week can be followed by a quiet week , which can be very disheartening when it happens”.
“Of course, some people want ‘one click’ which isn’t good for business. However, we sell online too and it sits alongside what we do in the shop.”
Bill explained that his customers enjoy the fact they they “don’t know what they’ll find”. “There are people who stay for an afternoon, I gave someone a lift here one morning and they left at 6pm. People are very welcome to do that, although some people make quite a mess and say that was the way they found it!”
UNUSUAL BELFAST FINDS
Bill, who doesn’t shy away from being called Belfast’s Bernard Black (“that show is well researched, things like the haggling do happen”) has uncovered some unusual discoveries of his own.
“You do wonder about the things people part with. We’ve had banknotes in books and a hollowed-out book with two gold watches inside.
“I sold a first edition Graham Greene book called The Power and the Glory, which is legendary in the book trade as a huge number of the original books were destroyed during the war. It was in knackered condition and was still worth £3,500 at auction. Dad once had a proof copy of Death of a Naturalist sold to him. It would have been worth several thousand now.
“But me? I’m not into salting away books, I’m only interested in the content.”
Bill’s stock comes from a variety of sources including house clearances. He recently bought over 10,000 books belonging to well-known Belfast character the late John Clancy, who had shops at Haymarket Arcade and Winetavern Street.
CHARITY SHOPS AND ISOLATION
Keats and Chapman, like other independent book shops in Belfast, have an unusual and increasingly professional competitor in the form of specialist charity bookshops like Oxfam and War on Want.
These High Street ‘branded’ shops, who presumably pay no rates although I’m happy to be corrected on this, have left behind the days of piles of Catherine Cookston and copies of the People’s Friend, and now – taking the Oxfam shop in Botanic as an example – offer appealing stock in well-organised surroundings.
Bill gave his take on charity book sellers: “We had uproar in the book trade in the UK as it was felt that Oxfam had a very aggressive strategy of opening near existing bookshops. Another way of looking at it is that a row of bookshops will do better than a single shop. It depends on your point of view. It is my belief that opening near existing shops has happened in Belfast.
“In either case, they have the money behind them to open, they have people donating stock and they have the goodwill of customers. But we are still cheaper than charity shops.”
Bill added that this charity competition is only one of the headaches for small local businesses who can feel isolated and unsupported, not to mention restrained by constant rates bills despite the fluctuating nature of their trade.
There isn’t a lot of support for small businesses. When the first shop was lost in the fire there was nothing from anyone. It took months of not pulling myself together to reopen. It was heartbreaking. When compensation came six years later it was a pittance.
Rates are a big one, and water is just another tax. But with rates, you don’t get anything for your money, you can’t negotiate and if you don’t pay you are out. If someone could find a more flexible and commonsense way it would be a Godsend. After all, the more small businesses there are the better.
THE PRESENT AND THE FUTURE
It seems that a priceless boost to the second hand book trade in Northern Ireland comes from the loyal customers who value the appeal of an old-fashioned book hunt over a search engine, even without the almost obligatory coffee machine.
The book shop is very important to a lot of the people who come in here. They tell me how much they love the place as they never know what they will find. It has a tactile appeal to them. And we have all the graffiti art in this area enhancing the appearance of the street, which is good for tourists who then come in and enjoy our shop.
But I don’t want to go down the road of selling coffee, I don’t have the room. I understand that other shops have to pay their overheads and as long as it keeps them going all the better, but we are a bookshop and we will stay a bookshop.
Bill said his business has tried to become more involved with the local festivals such as Culture Night: “We’ve tried to become more involved in Culture Night, and in the past we’ve gone ahead ourselves and put on music in the shop – by a local band called the Bookhouse Boys no less – and we also open late. We even had a choir in the shop one year.
But we have no official links with Culture Night or festivals or the wider culture scene, and it isn’t for the want of trying.
As for the future, the upturn in vintage shops and independent curio shops (personal recommendation: On The Square Auctions) was welcomed by Bill as they “would share customers to a degree”: “They are people who are interested in looking for something away from the High Street…spending a bit of time digging to see what they can find”.
Finally, it seemed a shame not to ask someone who has lived and loved books for a lifetime for a recommendation. While I lift down a beautiful Glenn Patterson hardback and a wonderful old former Linenhall Library curio to take home, Bill scans the shelves and hands me The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt . He describe it as “1,000 pages of genius”.
And if you don’t like it come back to me and we’ll pull out a few more until we find something you will.
Beat that Amazon.
Conor Johnston – @CJohnstonNI – writes about subjects including culture (especially film/ cinemas), identity and media. He also blogs at www.freerangewords.net