It’s 10 o’clock on a very crisp March morning. Duke Street, just off Grafton Street, is coming to life but at a languid, sleepy pace. Rush hour is over but delivery trucks are creeping around either side of the street, the flower sellers are setting up, and there’s a steady stream of early shoppers or late office workers strolling this way and that. Along with South Anne Street and Lemon Street, which run parallel, Duke Street has retained a vague air of an older Dublin - of an era where you’d wear your Sunday best to go to town. Despite the sometimes thunderous construction works on Dawson Street in recent months, and among the cafes and pubs, these streets still feel like somewhere you’d go to get something special – a tailored suit maybe, to wander around a small gallery, or to browse in the hopes of finding something a little unusual.
One shop front, with its large window and dusty blue awning, seems to fit right in. Step through the glass door and you’re standing in a small room lined with books. This is Ulysses Rare Books and it feels like you’re in a very small library, exquisitely stocked with old, mostly hard back, and always elegant books.
From behind a tall counter in the centre of the shop, Aisling Cunningham greets us. Her father, Enda Cunningham started the business which stocks rare books and antiquarian maps in 1986. He initially started collecting as a hobby while he was working as a teacher. When he retired from teaching, he decided to turn collecting into a full-time job and opened a shop in Georges Street Arcade. He stayed there for two years before moving to the current Duke Street premises in 1988.
It was then that Aisling and her brother David, both in their twenties at the time, decided to work in the family business.
David: "I suppose in the beginning it was like, we'll try it for a while."
Aisling is of a similar mindset.
Aisling: "Well it was really, twenty/twenty-one, you're sort of thinking, ah sure I'll do it for a while, you know."
But twenty-eight years later the siblings are still involved and now steering the business. It’s not hard to imagine what would keep them there. For any lover of words, even to spend time amongst the shelves is an enjoyable experience of itself.
They specialize in Irish 20th century literature, and also Irish history books, but are well stocked with an array of American and English authors (classic and contemporary), and an ever-growing collection of children’s books. Titles are sourced mainly from auctions in the UK, Ireland, and the US. They also attend book fairs but often are contacted by people with something to sell – this may be someone who has inherited a book, someone who has found a book in the attic, or a collector who wants to shed their collection and move on to something else.
The most sought-after works are from what they call “The Big Five” – James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, W.B. Yeats, Oscar Wilde, and Seamus Heaney – who retain their popularity throughout the years. Flann O’Brien is still very sought after too, David tells us. Other well-known authors such as John McGahern and Patrick Kavanagh tend to go through phases, and where they may have been very collectible some twenty years ago, are now not so much in demand.
Along with those cyclical transformations, the shop itself has also underwent some significant changes, and one of the most outwardly notable was the name. When Enda opened the shop in Georges Street Arcade, he chose the name Cathach Books.
David: “The Cathach really is an ancient Irish name and it's the battle book of The O'Donnells. It's an ancient Irish, illuminated manuscript.”
“So it's associated with St. Colmcille, who is the Donegal connection, and that's our connection - we were the Parish of Glen Colmcille, so when my father started doing this part time, back in the 70s, 60s I think it was, he kind of adopted that name.”
In 2013, Aisling and David decided to change it to the current Ulysses Rare Books. At first glance, it appears to have been a wholly commercial decision.
David: “We always had an idea that maybe the name was a little bit obscure, and it didn't really quite say what we did.”
Between them, they go on to mention the difficulties people had with spelling it and how it may not have been the most easily searchable name as a result. But 2013 was also the 25th anniversary of the business and their father had passed away three years before that, in 2010.
David: “We decided well, you know, where are we going to go, are we going to continue …”
“It was a big deal, it was the twenty-fifth anniversary when we changed it, 2013, you know we were kind of hmmming and hawing ...”
Aisling: "Aw we were very ..."
David: "And we said will we do it, and if we don't, now is the time ..."
Aisling: "And especially because our father had passed away and people thought, oh god they're, he's only gone and they're ..."
David: "Well it was two years later, three years ..."
Aisling: "You know some people would think it. I know that he would've supported it, because he always wanted the business to keep going, it [the name change] was never something that came into play when he was alive, so it was only that we were twenty-five years here, we said, you know, we have another hopefully twenty years left in business."
David quickly jokes that Aisling has twenty years left, that he'll be retired but she shoots back that it will be the opposite amidst much laughter. If someone didn't tell you they were brother and sister, you'd probably guess it anyway. Aisling manages the customer-facing side of the shop, while David has an office downstairs where he deals with the accounts, prepares for auctions, and deals with the inner workings. If there is ever any tension between them working together as siblings, there's no hint of it today.
Aisling is unhesitating in her assertion that their father would've supported their decision, but from how they talk about it, you get a glimpse of the agonizing they went through to make the leap. So the name change represents a changing of the guard, bringing the business into its next era, and a generational shift.
Such a shift can be seen in their customer base too. They cater to collectors but also customers who are looking for a once-off purchase, maybe for a gift or special occasion. The age profile of collectors is getting steadily older.
So who is a standard collector of books?
Aisling: “Average age? Ah it'd be probably fifty plus at least, if not sixty, you know. Probably near retirement, they've a bit of money.”
There’s less of a demand now for history books than there used to be too. I wonder if having such an age-group as your core customer group is a worry for the business going forward, but they don't seem to be too concerned.
David: "People will always be collecting, no matter what it is, because it's in the nature of people to do that kind of thing but it just changes."
Much like the books themselves which cycle through degrees of popularity, the customer profile changes too, if in more subtle ways. Aisling mentions the increase in customers in their twenties and thirties who are now looking for first editions of Roald Dahl books, and even Harry Potter. This is the generation who will be the last to know the world without the Internet, and it probably hints at something much larger that they are now seeking out physical artifacts that bring them back to their childhood.
It remains to be seen whether the following generations will value books over tablets or eReaders but standing in the midst of all the first editions from titans of literature which are often as instructive as they are entertaining, it doesn't feel like their value could ever be over-estimated.
Through the years, dignitaries buying an Irish book as a gift for visiting ambassadors are frequent customers, and Aisling and David are often asked to give guidance on what may be a suitable gift. When camera crews are in Dublin, gifts are often sought from the store too, and RTÉ often shops there for the same reason, David tells us.
There are probably few things that convey a sentiment, a level of thought, and a singularity directed towards a person and what it might mean to them, than an old, hard-to-find book. It was chosen with you in mind, often for a reason particular to you, maybe a reason that you share with that person and perhaps not many more, and it's something there's not many of, so you'll put it on the shelf where it's a reminder of all those things, as well as the reason why you loved the words in contains in the first place.
So as David lists some of the well-known faces who, in one way or another, have received something from their collection, it makes sense that providing such gifts has always been a part of their business. All of that has the potential to make the shop feel, for want of a better word, very posh. It all lends itself to place of hallowed shelves.
But it's a place much more earthly, with roots that stretch even beyond the twenty-five years in Duke Street and the two years around the corner in Georges Street. The Donegal roots are still very much here with more than a hint of an accent present in both Aisling and David, despite the almost four decades they've lived in Dublin. Downstairs, amongst all the maps, I pick up a small folded Ordnance Survey county map with a red cover from a shelf of several, and Aisling gushes about it - the detail in it and how nice it is to have one from your own home place - she has one of Donegal.
Upstairs, underneath a framed letter from Bill Clinton (it was sent to Enda to thank him for an original photograph of JFK addressing the Dáil which he gave to Clinton via Jean Kennedy Smith, the American Ambassador to Ireland at the time), is a black and white photograph of the day the shop opened on Duke Street. Enda is there amongst a group of friends and family and the author Francis Stuart. It's a photo unmistakably from before the era of digital cameras, posed but with several people looking away from the camera. David is there wearing a patterned jumper that now wouldn't be out of place in any ironic hipster bar across the city, and Aisling is in skinny jeans tucked into boots, hoop earrings barely visible amidst her mass of hair. She's standing beside a small boy, their nephew, who seems to be enjoying the bun in his hand. (He's now in his thirties and has often worked in the shop.)
So when you walk out the door of the shop, past the wooden fold-out sign that still bears the Cathach Books name by way of homage, it's clear that lots of things have changed, but you're left with the sense that Duke Street is still a place to go and pick up something special, should you find yourself looking for any such thing.
Written by Sinead Fox © 2016
Photos by Adam O'Keeffe © 2016