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Tell Your Own Story

The Old Bookshop by Michael Clemenger

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Article by Michael Clemenger ©.
Posted in the Magazine (Tell Your Own Story: , ).
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Old  bookshops are places one goes to replenish the soul. It’s the smell of them old books that returns me to a time when they were more appreciated than they are today – more is the pity. On a trip to Dublin on the bus I observe that I am the only one with a book in my hand. Other passengers have their eyes glued to their mobile phones, their fingers dancing at a pace that will ache with pain long before their time.

Once a month I like to make a pilgrimage to a particular old bookshop in Abbey Street Dublin, that I have visited many times over the past 35 years.  Its aged greying bricks and front window are badly in need of a coat of paint. It stands out in sharp contrast to that well-known pristine building on the opposite side of the street that dwarfs it in its shadow. They stare at each other with nothing to say despite their common currency – books.

I never fail to visit this pristine bookstore before my pilgrimage. At a subconscious level I believe that I will be rewarded and rescued from the trivia of those glossy books and magazines guaranteed to raise my ire. When I venture inside it’s the bright lights that triggers my displeasure, they shine down too brightly on the assorted books as if they were budding movie starlets. I look at them more in sorrow knowing that in a little while they will be washed up ‘has beens’ eventually finding their way to doctors surgeries, hairdressers, nursing homes and public libraries – half read and soon discarded.  The books stand erect dutifully as each in turn is picked up by sweaty fingers flicking roughly through their pages before being placed back on their shelves. The books seem offended by their rejection but their disposition is restored by young assistants with their reflex smiles, that caress their bruised egos.

I move swiftly along to the recommended book section cited by Irish radio personalities spouting on about them on their various radio programmes. I deem it the height of stupidity that one’s reading should be directed by others and not oneself.  Book clubs serve the same purpose with much more beneficial results for the authors.  As a matter of principle, I refuse to have any physical contacts with such biased recommendations – friends supporting friends. This particular genre of books seems to approve, casting slight condescending glances at each other, speaking a language all of their own. In my head I hear the echo ‘no purchase to be had here today’. I leave mightily unimpressed. Out of the corner of my eye I see the autobiography of a young starlet not yet 30 years of age. Has she lived long enough I wonder to myself, to have a full life experience?

I move resolutely forward looking not to the left or the right. My eyes fixed on that special space where the occasional author sits ready to sign copies of his or her latest book. After a few brief introductions the author appears like a lamb to the slaughter listening for the intensity of the applause of the assembled gathering waiting for the ritual to begin. In my experience it’s the selfies with the author that is more important than the book – the book is secondary. We live in an age of supreme superficiality. The pen obliges, the hand waltzes across the page even if the signature if half illegible. In the mind of the author he or she is already planning their next book.  A few more cents in the bank. The author has to play the game.

I make for my favourite exit. The bookshelves approve. I leave with a smile. Outside the clean fresh air and the sprinkle of raindrops hits me in the face. I look to the right and the left like a little boy wanting to run into a sweet shop. I skip across the road. I place my hand on the doorknob and turn it. I look sideways into the big window. Old favourites greet me from the array of books scattered in no particular order in the window. I am greeted with smiles that almost calls me to swoon – old souls meet, no words are needed – the welcome is in the smile.  I immediately make my way to the philosophy section right in front of me. I am welcomed by the familiars – Plato- Socrates – Descartes – Emmanuel Kant and the indomitable and ever relevant Spinoza in whom I hold a special affection. It’s at moments like this I feel I am transported to a place between earth and heaven. I hold their books warmly in my hands like a good handshake drinking in their delightful insights which have well stood the passage of time.

I recall how young I was over 40 years ago when I first read them with the excitement of youth never imagining that I would still retain the enthusiasm of those days. Now that the carcass has grown old, memories fading, friends departing, it’s the old books that sustain. They still retain nuggets of wisdom despite the ageing of youth into an old carcass. It’s only fitting that after a lifetime it is the kiss of wisdom that half answers that which is the complexity of life’s journey.  Wisdom is not to be found in the fountain of youth but in old bones upon a stick.

Reluctantly I placed them back on the shelves with reverence. They seemed pleased with my visit. I am glad that over the years I possessed copies of these writers works. Good value nowadays at six euros. Next I come to an assortment of books sitting on an old table – it bears the weight of their collective wisdom with stoicism. I spied a book on the life of Sigmund Freud. He is out of fashion nowadays sadly. I buy the book no matter – if only for the nostalgia.  In my forties I purchased his entire collection of books on psychoanalysis. In passing I wonder what he would have made of the sickness of today’s modern world. I pick up another book on the life of Helen Keller. I had forgotten her to my shame. She was a woman who was deaf and blind from early childhood but who learned to appreciate the thrill of language that she said gave light hope and joy to her soul. Her name reminded me of an Irish playwright by the name of late Teresa Deevy who wrote numerous plays but had never got to hear her words spoken as she was also deaf. Both were successful women in their fields despite their afflictions. The human spirit is never defeated unless it allows itself to be vanquished.

As I moved along the shelves, I saw the complete works of William Shakespeare and James Joyce among others and at very reasonable prices. However, I was shocked to find the complete works of Virginia Woolf at fifteen euros. I always loved her work but never became fully reconciled to the fact that she committed suicide at 61 years of age. She had so much more to say. I make another purchase.

Also available were the works of Carl Jung – a contemporary of Sigmund Freud. The relationship did not end well. In deference to Freud I passed on by with a nod to Jung. I am in no hurry as I continue my ramblings. There are so many books. I am spoiled for choice. I mused to myself what a pleasant way to spend a day. The traffic in and out of the shop is bearable.  I see a book half sticking out of its place. I go to investigate and I am pleasantly surprised to find that it is a book on writings of Frederick Nietzsche. We became fast friends in the days of my youth while in college. Those heady Bohemian days when I first began to doubt the existence of God. Like him I began a preoccupation about the meaning of life and the necessity for human suffering to atone for the sins of Adam and Eve. Like Nietzsche I have found no resolution to that vexed question.

As I am momentarily preoccupied with this thought I feel a hand a hand on my shoulder I turn around to see a man smiling.  Can I help you with anything sir? I hand him my purchases. He looks at them.  I don’t sell much of Freud these days I am afraid as we made our way to the till. I followed. I have seen you often in this shop a lot over the years. I tell him my name. He extends his hand and introduces himself as the owner of the shop. Forty-seven years I have spent in this shop – man and boy. He begins to tell me the story of the bookshop in a strong Dublin accent. He tells me that his father was fond of the books. He didn’t get much of an education back in those days – like they do today. Loved books he did to the very end. I felt I had to take over and keep the old tradition going. It’s hard at times but we keep going. I ask him – is he making a living. He responds ‘enough to get by’.

I tell him that I got the grá for books back in my college days after visiting Greens bookshop at the back of Trinity College. His face light up. Greens bookshop – ah that’s a blast from the past. It was a great place to meet people adding with a glint in his eye – especially girls from Trinity. I hand him thirty euros. What did you do as he handed me back the change? I am an observer of life and a scribbler of words. I have more time now that I am retired. He laughs. Ah maybe you would write about this little bookshop of mine before we all disappear. I would love to read what you write but don’t leave it too long. The smoking has my lungs banjaxed. He searches for a plastic bag to put my purchase in. I tell him there is no need as I have my old rucksack.  A question comes into my mind so I ask it. Would you ever sell to your competitor across the street? I immediately regret asking the question. The answer was in his eyes. I make for the door.

He reassures me that he has not been offended. Maybe if I was a younger man but I am too old now and besides I like being my own boss. I turned back and shook his hand. Don’t forget the article. I close the door nodding. As I made my way home that evening I could not help but appreciate the role books have made in my life. They seem to have wrapped their pages around my heart and soul to help me cope with life’s vicissitudes.  I in turn have accepted their warm embrace as that of a mother for her child.

(c) Michael Clemenger

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My autobiography was published by O Brien Press in 2009 called Holy Terrors. This book was subsequently published by Ebury Press in the UK and called Everybody Knew and sold well there and then in recent years it was translated into French and called Dans L’enfer de L’orphelinat. It has sold 90,000 copies to date and is still selling reasonably well in France. I have recently penned a number of plays and I have had them reviewed by the Abbey Theatre, some members of Trim Drama Group and Insight Theatre Group in Celbridge. The genre I write about is social life in Ireland from 1960's onwards. Some of the titles are : - The Monoboy, The Night Jayne Mansfield came to Tralee, Return to Rockford, The Mission of Ballykinn, The Mist that Falls over Land, No is Never a Full; Sentence, The Riddle of the Stone, We had No Secrets and A Dying Business ( a short comedy). I am currently working on another play called The Lodger.