We Sell Books: ‘Romance rules the world’

John Coffey runs Uneeda Bookshop at 71, Oliver Plunkett St in Cork. The shop sells second-hand books and also vinyl records, cassettes, CDs and DVDs, writes Marjorie Brennan.

How long have you been in business?

I was about 25 years across the road and I’m here about 28. I had to leave the other place; this was an antique shop owned by the Crowley sisters and they had just put it on the market.

How did you get into it?

I went to school in the South Monastery. I left school, with no qualifications of any description but I loved books. I worked as a messenger boy, on a building site, in the IAWS [Irish Agricultural Wholesale Society], and Goodbody’s on Anderson’s Quay.

They made hessian bags, and I was in charge of the turner, you would turn them inside them out, clean them, and repair them for the farmers for the harvest.

That all changed when the plastic took over. I started the bookselling up in Barrack Street, I had a shop up there when I was in my late 20s. I’m 87 now so you can do the maths. It was a bit of a struggle.

I had to buy all the books, no one would give you anything for nothing then. I went from the top of Barrack St to the bottom of Barrack St. Then the corporation threw us out of there. I went directly across the road. I was had three places on Barrack St, three on Oliver Plunkett St, one in MacCurtain St, one on Cornmarket St.

John Coffey, 87, at Uneeda Bookshop on Oliver Plunkett street. Picture: Larry Cummins.

How has business changed?

Drastically. What is saving this shop is the return of vinyl. Vinyl is keeping my door open. Although there is something happening in the last six months or so, the sale of my books is going up. People are giving up the electronic readers and going back to the paper book in the hand. We have a saying in this trade that a house without books is like a room without windows. I have always loved books. I could read before I went to school. And I learned from the Dandy and the Beano…. Lord Snooty, Desperate Dan, I know them all.

What has helped you stay in the business for so long?

My main rule has always been the same. If someone buys something, you have to stand over it. It’s second-hand but if a customer brings something back I don’t question it. I give them back the money, no argument.

When I started in this business, second-hand book and record shops had a terrible reputation. They had this attitude that you were out to do them….I fought that all my life.

If anyone I had a problem, I gave them their money back. I keep the people as customers then. I also know books. There’s nothing in that window that’s not saleable.

I have an innate understanding of what people will or won’t buy. I get a few that are shelf-keepers but then I cut them down in price. A lot of people don’t realise that all these shops like mine are gone. The Lee Bookstore, Connolly’s…. when I started out, there were about 20 or 30 of them. Over the years, what closed them was the charity shops. You could go there and get three books for a euro. I can’t compete against that. The only way I can compete against that is to have decent books. I know books so I can give people advice. Also, if you asked me for a particular book, I’d know if it was on the shelf. I have a good memory, thank God.

John Coffey. Picture: Larry Cummins.

What genres are popular?

Mills and Boon are my bestsellers. A lot of people think commerce runs the world — it doesn’t. Romance rules the world.

Do you find being a bookseller rewarding?

I love it. What’s the alternative to what I’m doing here? Sitting home watching the gogglebox. I’m here, meeting people, talking to people, I love it.

Do you ever come across rare books or first editions?

Not really. Although around Ireland, there is a bunch of people called twitchers. Most people think twitchers are birdwatchers but it also applies to book watchers.

I can tell who they are when they come in. They go around Ireland and they know what the rare books are worth. They’ll be ten minutes going around the shop and they’ll have anything rare picked out.

But they’re nice people and they do know their books. There’s not many of them around now, they seem to be a dying breed.

Picture: Larry Cummins.

What books do you enjoy reading yourself?

[Takes a book from out under the counter] This author, Fred Vargas, is actually a French lady. I have never read the likes of it in all my life. It was recommended by a lad who came in here who had all her books. He loans them to me.

This is the third one [Seeking Whom He May Devour]. They’re thrillers set in France, you’d love it.

I love science fiction as well, and the cowboys, especially Louis L’Amour.

What’s the secret of your success?

A thick neck and durability.

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