Gwen Allman opened her first business, a gallery called Blue Loft in Ranelagh, in 2004. It was here in 2006 where herself and her business partner Anne Macdona started a book club. That was the first chapter in what would become the road to opening one of the most well-curated bookshops in the city.
The Company of Books is open seven days a week, and has an eclectic collection of fiction, non-fiction and children’s books. Naturally the store has a devoted fan base. While Gwen says Ranelagh has become considerably more restaurant and night time-oriented, there’s still a place for independent retailers. Aoife Sheehan sat down with Gwen to discuss Ranelagh’s book-reading population and how her store has persevered through economic turmoil and is here to stay.
Your shop front is so beautiful, do you think there is a pressure in Ranelagh specifically for a business to come across as original?
Yeah for sure, we opened our business nine years ago and it was important for us to have a good impression on the street front. A distinctive streetfront, and something that has a clean, modern design fits well with the area. It draws people in.
Why did you choose Ranelagh? Did the sense of community affect where you chose to set up shop?
Yeah, there was definitely a gap and I’m actually a resident of the area. I’ve been living in Ranelagh since the mid ‘90s and I always thought that [a bookshop] would suit the area well. It was just a matter of finding the right premises, and then this came up to let in 2009 and I liked the double-fronted nature of it, I think that works well for a bookshop in terms of display.
I know you have a book club that is currently full, who does the reading community you’ve set up attract? Who is your customer?
They are quite a devoted and loyal bunch, there have been very few departures in recent years. One person left because she moved to London, so that was reasonable [laughs]! Yeah, it’s a mix of age groups, obviously all of their interest is in reading. In terms of both the bookshop and the book club, the people of Ranelagh are a curious bunch who like to be informed. They have good taste in terms of fiction and non-fiction and it’s great to be able to cater for that. It’s great to have books like this on the doorstep so you don’t have to go into town, for me that is one of the reasons for setting up the shop, just the convenience of having something like this in a neighbourhood.
Do you think coming into a bookshop is still important? Why should people choose to shop locally instead of getting their books online? What can you bring to the experience?
Well, I think it’s the physical presence of books. You’re able to walk in and you’ll get the smell and if you’re a real book person you’ll like to pick up the books and feel them. Being able to browse. I know you can look online, but it’s not the same thing, like you said to me, ‘Oh I see three things I want here already’, and that was in ten seconds! There is space for both. Also, you can walk away holding your book, you don’t have to wait for the postman.
You’ve, I’m sure, almost handled every book in the shop so you can give informed recommendations?
Yeah I have a reasonably small space here so I’m careful with the book selection I make, how I choose to fill it, and part of that is knowing what the neighbourhood likes to read. It’s having an instinct for something that would be of interest to my customer, but also what’s in the news. But in terms of the weekends, you get families coming in with little kids and they just love to look at the books. It’s not all technology, books still have a place. When we opened in 2009 there were two things going on, number one the recession and the second was the transfer to Kindles, so e-readers were beginning to increase in sales, but since then they have plateaued. People have come back to the physical book, they have Kindles that they might like to bring on holiday, but when they’re at home they like to have a book in their hand. It’s great that there is space for both.
Do you think that you have a responsibility to bring books dealing with specific topics to the fore? To curate your offering to keep people informed?
Yeah, that is the balancing act of a bookseller. Knowing what the area likes to read and making people aware of books they may not have considered. In order to do that you’re looking at journalism, prizes and festivals. For example, in August we had ‘Women In Translation’ month, so that would feature international writers who have been translated into English and maybe we wouldn’t be so aware of them over here. I have the opportunity to promote something like that in Ranelagh – Finnish writers, Italian writers, Chinese writers… I can bring that to Ranelagh.
There are so many independent businesses in Ranelagh, do you feel like businesses in the area support each other? Have you ever done any collaborations with other Ranelagh businesses?
Yeah, it’s a good question. Over the years there have been different schemes – there was a We Love Ranelagh scheme where all the retailers combined to put on certain offers for the residents. From our point of view we worked with the Ranelagh Arts Festival over the years – for example if they had an event we would supply the books. We are always open to collaboration.
Do you enjoy the human side of owning a business? I’d imagine sharing book recommendations can be satisfying when someone comes back to tell you you’ve sold literature that has changed their life.
Yeah absolutely, I get a lot of repeat business from when I’ve recommended a book to someone and they’ve really enjoyed it and they want to pick my brain and get another recommendation. It’s really satisfying to think that you have influenced someone in a positive way and that they have been happy with your choice. That’s what makes the job worthwhile. Definitely human interaction, that’s so important to every business, no matter what size, whether you’re a small independent bookshop or a big multinational.
What do you hope your ethos inspires in people? What do you want people to leave your shop thinking?
I’d like to think they had a welcoming experience while they were here and also learned something, whether that be choosing a book and maybe coming across a book they didn’t know they wanted to read and they’re leaving with it in their hand and they’re happy. It’s all about positive customer experience and them wanting to come back. Nine years later we’re still here, and to survive a recession and the whole e-book thing means there is still a place for us here.