This article was originally published in the Dublin Inquireron 16 January, 2019.
Liz Meldon had been nervous about coming back, she says.
We are leaving the road in Rathgar where her bookshop used to be. She had spent more than a decade of her life working here, but she hadn’t come back for quite a while.
“I couldn’t put a finger on exactly why,” she says. “It’s always the people you miss the most, about anything. I mean think about it.”
She takes one last look in the window to wave goodbye to old friends, customers, and pulls away. Through the windshield is a wet winter morning.
Meldon worked in publishing for eight years before she got a chance to open her first bookshop in Dundrum. “I went for it,” she says.
“I had no experience of retail, so that was a total novelty. I did it as I went along and I have no regrets.”
It was 1990. Dundrum Books was in the old shopping centre. It was simple, on the first floor, and became a special place, she says. “Because of the people,” she says.
Customers behaved differently, then. “It was before online selling, Amazon, discount selling,” says Meldon.
The old shopping centre was later sold. The shop closed. Meldon moved the shop to 100 Rathgar Road in 2005.
The Rathgar Bookshop ignored the bestseller lists, and talked a lot to their customers about what there were interested in, what they wanted to read, she says.
She didn’t want loud offers. Four books for the price of three. “What I call ‘sticker bookshops’,” she says. She wanted to share the authors she liked with those she thought would like them too.
The shop is now home to the Fat Cat Café, which serves light food.
Earlier in the day, Meldon parks the car outside. She suggests visiting a butcher’s next door, and locks the car door.
In the butcher’s, a customer greets her. “They would text me when a book came in. People came from a good deal around because of the service that they gave,” the woman says.
“I used to come up with my grandchildren and get something out the back, and if you didn’t have the name of a book when you went in, they’d say ‘God have you got nothing to read? Come over here and have a look at this, I think you would like that.’”
Meldon goes next door to the café where her bookshop used to be. “It’s weird being in here,” she says.
In her day, the bookshop had a small bakery. Meldon baked scones and cakes for it. Each morning, she would get up at 6:10am and go for a swim in the Forty Foot, an 18-minute drive, while her baking cooled.
There was a small garden out back. She sold the plants she grew there. The shop felt like a home. It felt like a community. “There was a whole mixture of things that drew different people,” she says.
The Rathgar Bookshop closed in December 2017. Meldon says this was due to a change in the buying habits of customers. “It was no longer financially viable,” she says. “I was forced to close the shop, and yes I regret that it had reached that point.”
“Buying online is easy-peasy,” she says. “Everything has to be done in a hurry, and it was palpable – ‘Do you have that book now?’, ‘I can get it in in two days,’ ‘It’s okay, I can get it online.’”
Meldon hopes there will be a turnaround in bookselling. People need communication, she says.
“With Amazon, there’s just no experience. If you bring it to its logical conclusion, you can sit on your couch, you can do all your shopping online, you can do all your banking online.”
These days, Meldon works as a consultant for the Books@One foundation. She oversees the development of community bookstores across the country, teaching others how to foster the same sense of community she did.
“It took some time to get used to the day taking on a different shape,” she says. “But I have to say, I really like the new shapes.”
The hardest part of closing the Rathgar Bookshop was losing the community she had helped build, she says. “If you want to ask me why people minded when I closed, it was because of that total community. Human interaction, people need it.”
A family arrive into the café. Meldon talked to them for 20 minutes. She greets each child with a hug.
On Christmas morning of December 2017, the last Christmas that the shop would entertain customers, Meldon threw a small party in the store for friends and family.
“I said to everybody here that they could just go around and pick whatever book they wanted as a keepsake. We were here for about three hours.”
This family came. They lived behind the shop. They were regulars, who became friends. The children would come through the laneway behind the store to visit, bringing friends for hot chocolates and reading. Meldon watched them grow up.
“We miss Liz a lot,” says Fiona Brennan. “The shop had a good open-door policy.”
Meldon had a wonderful dream when she closed: “that I would be filled with inspiration and creativity and start writing my first best-selling novel, and at last my gas bill wouldn’t have to be paid in instalments.”
“Needless to say, the last year has been different to how I imagined,” she says. “I did pay the gas bill though.”