Archive Online – Parsons’ bookshop. September 1979

Ida Grehan visits Parsons’ bookshop on Baggot Street Bridge (Sept. 1979, Issue no. 36)

‘The door is always open at the bookshop on bridge’

214_ParsonsDUBLIN CITY.IEWhat have two such diverse establishments as Ireland’s Own and Parsons’ Bookshop on Baggot Street Bridge in common? They both came into being at the beginning of this century. Wars, risings, recessions, De Valera, multi nationals, Castro, TV, men on the moon, strikes, developers, pop sub culture?nothing has moved them from their rock-like integrity. The facade remains uncorrupted by the frenzy of the plastic industries. Inside the contents are only of the most wholesome best.

Miss May O’Flaherty, who bought the bookshop from Miss Parsons in 1939, looks up at the smokey grey ceiling. “It hasn’t been painted since 1916. Architects, designers have said if I changed the shop it would be over their dead bodies.”

The black glass Irish Times sign with its gold Gothic lettering has hung over the door for sixty years. “We’re still a branch office. I take the advertisements, if it suits me. I’ll put up with no nonsense,” she says, leaving all kinds of thought in the air. The floor boards have worn more graciously than any carpet. The door is always open, looking across at the twin red brick bank building on the other side of the Grand Canal bridge. “It’s never cold. I don’t mind the leaves blowing in, it’s the papers I dislike. It’s a warm building, we’re well insulated by the books”.

There’s a whole frieze of Walter Macken’s The Unfortunate Fursey. Miss O’Flaherty thinks it one of the finest of books. “When the publishers went out of business I bought all their stock.” The silvery leaves of honesty spike up from a vase on a pyramid of books in the middle of the shop. “That came from the garden at the back. We have a secret garden full of weeds and birds and sometimes we sit in the sun and have our lunch outside. During the Rising there was an illegal printing press and guns hidden there.”

Miss O’Flaherty strongly rejects all publicity. “We don’t need it. We’ve more than enough to handle. Anyone who has an interest,w ho puts their mind to it and works hard at it can succeed.” Miss O’Flaherty has succeeded. She has built up the finest bookshop of its kind. A host of national heroes, poets, politicians, novelists, actors, scholars, aspiring writers must have browsed and bought and chatted here. She will not discuss her customers. One can guess at the variety from the shelves. There are also the more glossy magazines with no concessions to commercial sex. Bord Failte’s Ireland of the Welcomes? “never mind the date of issue, it’s timeless and hundreds of people buy it and collect it. Michael MacLiammoir’s lovely book, Ireland with pictures by Edwin Smith sells endlessly well.” Why? “Because, for once, Thames and Hudson had the good sense not to destroy the plates and to keep it in print.”

A Senator comes in to buy books for his children. “The families have all moved away from here, it’s the parents who come to buy books now. There are few children living around here anymore.” There must also be many scholarly customers who will ask for Padraic O Tailli?ir’s dark green tome, The Sources for the Early History of Ireland, or the new edition of The Brehon Laws.

Those who know say that at Parsons’ you can find books you will not find in other bookshops. Miss O’Flaherty and Miss Mary King who has been with her for twenty years, will agree. If she had time, if the shop were less busy, Miss King could tell tales of publishers’ parties, but we only got as far as the famous incident Allen Lane told her of, when he could not prevent his company from printing a book of which he did not approve. So, after dark, he went to the warehouse and burned the lot. Miss O’Flaherty pointed out the May issue of The Book seller with Simon Winchester’s article, ‘Death of a Bookshop’, about the closing down of Saviles of Georgetown, Washington, stoney broke after fifty years selling books. Crown Books have set up book supermarkets nearby, selling books by weight with $4 off. She sees books being reduced to merchandise, like pop music. Despite the present upheaval of Dublin’s family booksellers, I hope she’s not too prophetic.

Although business in her book milieu is very good she is never tempted to expand. She has all she wants and that’s a swim a day, a drive to the adjacent country at weekends, and travel around the world. One suspects Parsons’ wide ranging selection of large volumes on art and architecture provide some groundwork for her travels.

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Archive reference: September 1979, Issue no. 36

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