How to read a city

The weekend brought me to Dublin for a wedding. I had some errands to run in the morning and went out to beat the streets. Inevitably, I found myself in a bookshop on the north side of the river where I picked up some titles in the Penguin Great Ideas series. For a tense moment, it looked as though the credit card transaction wouldn’t go through but, no, the shop assistant manipulated the card reader’s cable and I was spontaneously €35 poorer.

Temple Bar seems vibrant and a huge amount of fun with plenty of restaurants, pubs and bars and an entire street of musical instrument shops. However, it’s bookshops that serve my drug of choice. In the past I would have been scouting for record shops but they are now few and, for better or for worse, I just don’t buy music in a physical format these days. But what would be the point of a city without bookshops?

I started wondering about what would make a successful bookshop in the age of Amazon. There’s no way that even the biggest of chain stores can compete with the range of an internet retailer, so bookshops might as well be small and specialised with a lovingly selected stock. ‘Human capital’ is another advantage they have over internet giants: a bookseller performs a role that’s similar to a museum curator, surfacing interesting titles the customer might otherwise have missed. Staff should be free to engage with customers and find out what they’re looking for. A good bookseller won’t meekly ask ‘can I help you?’… more like ‘what have you been reading lately?’. This becomes easier if the shop has a guiding theme or philosophy. The third advantage bookshops have is the space itself. Occasional celebrity signings are fine, but it would be better to have regular events, readings, book clubs, creative writing sessions, talks etc. that bring in dedicated, returning customers. Finally, you could combine the shop with something more interesting than a coffee house, like a restaurant, bar or something unusual.