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It has been about twenty years since I first visited Ireland with Allen and Pat Ahearn of Quill & Brush. They were good friends and of Irish descent. They’d been to the country before and knew some booksellers there. They agreed to accompany my young family and tour the "West." There are some fun and wonderful stories about that trip and subsequent ones.
One great memory was when they introduced me to the Kenny family in Galway. The Kenny’s have been selling books there since 1940. Back then they had a shop in a medieval storefront on the High St. It had been there since the 1940s. That street is so narrow you feel you could almost reach across from an upper story window across and touch hands with someone reaching across from the other side. Conor Kenny tells me the building is dated from about 1472. From that meeting a relationship developed which has seen books and friends travel both ways many times. In recent years far more books have been going East from the New World across the Atlantic to the West Coast of Ireland.
All my trips to Ireland are full of magic and humor and books and…magic. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stopped the car over there to get out to look and photograph "the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen."
Many of those stories have been recorded in the hundreds of pages I’ve already written but will have to wait. This story is about a more recent visit by Irish booksellers to Maryland.
But to get this story started I DO need to give a little background.
"Ye said ye’d be gettin’ on wi’ it and now yer backtracking."
Ah, my Book Muse. I’m doing something wrong I’m sure—again.
"Well, Charlie and John just didn’t arrive here out of the blue…unlike you I might add. I’ve got to set the scene," I replied.
"Do what ye must and be done wi’ it."
"You were there that first trip weren’t you?"
"Yer still digressing."
"And that glimpse I certainly had of Tir Nan Nog from Dun Aengus—it was you that parted the curtain wasn’t it."
"Old times, they were and good ones too."
"Inishmore… ok. I’ll be brief with the background."
So on that first visit Allen and Pat introduced me to Conor Kenny—one of the founder’s (Des Kenny) sons. The whole Kenny clan was warm and friendly. We shopped the ancient store, and I chose many boxes of books to export back to the states.
Years passed. I returned as often as I could. Then the Kennys began visiting nearly every year. They would come to Maryland and visit each store and sweep whole categories from the shelves.
For example, Conor would stand before the World War II section in one of the stores and ask: "How much for these, Chook." (He’s always pronounced my name that way and I’ve always found it endearing.)
"All of ’em. The whole section!"
THAT got my attention! It took a while for me to get the rhythm but after a bit I came to understand the appeal for both parties. If I quoted a reasonable enough price per book, he would take the good with the not so good. He’d sweep the shelves clear and we could start with a clean slate. The purge was therapeutic for us. The deal was attractive and profitable for him. The money was useful as well. Oh, and the faster the book buying was done the sooner we could find a spot for a pint.
After he’d gone, many of the shelves were bare in European History, WWI…whole sections of authors (especially Irish ones) in literature and on and on…in all three stores.
We’d pull all the books, transfer them to the warehouse, tally and pack them. We’d always fill an ocean going container for a ship to sail them across the sea.
I think it was about 2008 that he mentioned another Galway bookseller who might do well with me. He was a friend that he’d like to refer. And so I met Charlie Byrne for the first time.
I believe he has visited once a year since then.
On January 31, 2018 an email dropped in that I look forward to each year:
Hope you’re keeping well. John and I are planning a trip again and I am wondering would a visit to your shops be ok for Wednesday 14th and Thursday 15th March.
Let me know what you think.
We’ve learned since the first visits what he likes. We’ve learned how to make his book pulling experience faster and less laborious since he’s always on a tight schedule. (Maybe if we make the task easier, he buys more books as well!)
I put his arrival dates on my calendar and let the book sorting managers at the warehouse know they should send all the books on Ireland, European history…well, it is a long list—but we send books in genres or by authors he’s chosen before.
The date arrived. He had checked into a Frederick hotel the night before. Clif picked Charlie and his assistant John up and brought them to the Frederick flagship store at 8 am. I was there waiting for him. We had 50-60 plastic tubs on the sidewalk. I unlocked the store after canceling the alarms.
There is always a bit of mystery going into one of the stores before it opens. I’ve always felt that the books "own" the store overnight. Or maybe there are other kinds of visitors in old bookshops when the humans aren’t there. In the old days I’d often find things mysteriously moved from when I’d locked up the night before. But when the banks of lights get switched on and the shadows run away around the corners and the ends of the book rows, the books are all at attention. They show their best selves in hopes a human will take them home that day.
We brought some of the tubs in and Charlie and John had at it. There began a constant gentle thumping as they carefully dropped their selections into the tubs next to them. As the tubs filled one of our staff would wheel them out to the sidewalk. I wandered around a bit doing my inspector duties. I went to check on them and found Charlie pulling all the James Joyce off the shelves. A couple aisles over John was "disappearing" all of the Oscar Wilde. They’d done this plenty of times before. It’s ok. The voids will fill back in before you know it.
"Call me when you’re about a half hour from being done here and I’ll come over and take you to the Hagerstown store."
I left and headed to start my daily routine at the warehouse.
In the early afternoon they called, and I headed over. I had Clif follow with a van to transport all their full tubs to the warehouse. We headed west over the first ridges of the Appalachian Mountains. At first we followed the route of the "Old Pike"—the first "National Road" that Conestoga wagons took to find their way to the Cumberland Gap in the mountains, and so be able to get west to the wildernesses of Ohio and Kentucky and beyond in the early 1800s.
I dropped Charlie and John off at "HD"—the Hagerstown store—with more tubs.
"Call me and I’ll come get you and we can go out for some dinner and beers in Frederick."
It was about 7 pm before we got to the wonderful downtown of Frederick. Now the second largest city in Maryland the local entrepreneurs and government have always done a great job of keeping the place vibrant. There are so many good restaurants and bars. Boutiques and intriguing shops of all kinds. They’ve kept the small town feel intact and maintained the mostly Georgian architecture. It is a great place to wander and choose where you want to want to grab a bite or a drink.
Turns out they’d gotten in town early the night before and had hit all the Irish pubs they could find already!
I took them to a little place that has a good beer selection hidden back in an alley behind a parking garage.
"We’d tried to find that one last night!" they laughed.
The White Rabbit was quite good. I’d had some mixed experiences there before but they have a good and long beer list. They had a specialty beer crafted for the season that was based on a traditional Irish bread—Barm Brack (Irish: bairín breac.) It’s the one where a ring is baked into the loaf and whoever gets the slice with the ring will be the next to get married. We ordered samples, and I enjoyed mine (and finished theirs.) It wasn’t their "cup of …beer." There were after the American craft IPAs. The hoppier the better. I too enjoy a beer that bites me back!
From there we went to Magoo’s and when I told the proprietor—former Mayor Jennifer Dougherty—I was entertaining two Irish booksellers from Galway she soon came over and they exchanged stories and favorites pubs and restaurants in the west of Ireland. I sat and quietly sipped my Guinness.
I hope my Book Muse doesn’t mind if I digress here. It was on my first visit to Galway that I was taught how to "properly" drink a Guinness stout by Conor and Tomás Kenny at the Bunch of Grapes Pub just across from their High St store. Many over there call it "The Black Stuff." There’s a formula to it that if poured correctly the bubbles actually appear to sink along the inside surface of the specially shaped glass that the brew should always be served in. When the beers were first set down in front of us, I immediately started to reach for it. Conor held two hands up before for me and spoke:
He then taught me you must wait until it has settled "just so" before you can pick it up.
So, I’ve known how to drink a Guinness for over 20 years now!
"Yer still in too much of a hurry with yer pints!"
"Ok. Ok. I’ll be more circumspect in the future"
"Back on track now I pray?"
Jennifer is leading a tour group over in August. They all spoke of places so familiar to me.
It’s been nearly two years since I’ve been there. I’d visited Galway Connemara, the Burren, the Aran Isles… And, again I found myself stopping so often and thinking: "This is the most beautiful thin I’ve ever seen." And so it was.
I visited Charlie Byrnes Bookshop and Kenny’s. And indeed I have found many things to ship back. Including two 18th century stained glass windows and a beautiful leather-bound Connemara book.
I drifted into a happy fuzzy reverie while sipping through the luscious tan foam. That was a memorable sojourn. It even inspired a little verse.*
I think that perhaps that last trip there was the last time I was completely happy. I hope it will not be the last time I’m ever happy nor the last time there.
"That’s a lotta ‘lasts.’"
"Yep, poor writing but vivid I hope?"
"Like a shillelagh."
"Maybe if I go back to Connemara I can find some of that happiness."
"We can try."
"Pshaw! I’m off!"
It was only a couple days until St Patrick’s, and Magoo’s and many of the town’s pubs and bars were decorated and early revelers were pursuing their crawls early.
Charlie, John and I finished our rounds around town—all of them and I took them back to their hotel with a promise to have them picked up and brought to the warehouse the next morning.
They arrived and swept through our shelves and shelves of attractive Easton and Franklin Mint leather-bound books as well. We have so many that most get set aside for Interior Design clients.
They continued wandering through the 3 acres building and found some long runs of remaindered books by Irish authors. They filled several carts up with those.
Then it was time to transport them to the last of our three stores—"WG"—Gaithersburg. We continued our chats on the way down.
I returned and worked on finishing the blog that was due out the next day: "Tonight…." Little did I know the somewhat sad ending would have a very sad addendum the next morning. Another "Last."**
It was a whirlwind couple days. They pulled thousands of books from our stores. We brought all their tubs to the warehouse and sorted and tallied and packed and palletized their haul. 4 pallets with boxes stacked taller than me were made and they are going out today.
Now there’s a cheery sight!
I’d like to climb aboard one of them sail across the North Atlantic. I know I’d pass Tir Nan Nog not too far west of Inishmore. Perhaps I’d be permitted another glimpse of that land. It was likely there that inspired JRR Tolkien in the Lord of the Rings about the after life and Into the West:
"End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it. White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise."
I hope so. It is heartening to believe—and I do.
I WILL return soon. I swear and avow. I’ll visit my books in Charlie’s shop. He has a guidepost erected in one of the rooms. You can see one direction it indicates below:
When I returned 2 years ago, I found myself in Frederick’s charming nook of a new bookstore named The Curious Iguana. I will occasionally buy new books. You have to have new books in order to have old ones! A group of postcards on rack caught my eye. It was Charlie’s Byrne’s Book Shop as I live and breathe! I bought one and sent it to him. He was completely unaware of its existence! When he came back in 2017, I took him down town and he bought a little bundle of them to take back.
Dun Aengus—from here the next land is North America—unless you’re lucky enough to spy Tir Nan Nog.
* Here’s my little verse on a "mock up" of a broadside that Alan James Robinson and I may collaborate on. (The images are just photoshopped—to give an idea of what Alan may draw.)
when I go to connemara again
the wind will whisper irish poems
i’ll not understand a word
but will know the song
when i go to connemara again
– perhaps tonight –
time will speed, slow, stop
then return to the beginning
i close my eyes, open my heart
and i am back in connemara
i can recall each word we spoke
though that language is now extinct
when i return to connemara again
i’ll taste the sea air, see the mountain sun
and i will be there forever
– as i am now –
** "Tonight…" is a blog posted on March 15, 2018. It is the story of a woman who was leaving her grand home for assisted living. We were to remove her books—thousands of them. The books were the first to go in this instance. After we’d finished, she came and laid her hand on my arm. She looked up at me and said: "Tonight I will cry for my books."
Early the next morning I received a text message from a nephew. My eldest brother had died over night. I wrote an addendum to "Tonight…" about that loss.
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