A community book shop with a big heart—Books at One opens in Letterfrack, Connemara

Mary Ruddy and Vincent Murphy, in Books at One, Letterfrack

Books at One opened its doors in Letterfrack in December 2020

A welcome bloom of the autumn and winter lockdowns has been the flourishing of bookshops. People have turned to real pages, returning to binding and spine, the smell of new print, or biblichor, that musty scent of second-hand books.

Whether pristine or pre-loved, both can be found at Books at One, a community book shop which opened its second premises in Letterfrack, Connemara, in mid-December last year.

It’s a labour of love run by Mary Ruddy and her husband Vincent Murphy, the team behind Artisan House, which publishes beautiful, award-winning books. They opened the doors in Letterfrack having been inspired by the first Books at One in Louisburgh, Co. Mayo, which opened with the support of The One Foundation in 2016.

Books at One aim to have a community bookshop in every county in Ireland, with plans to open soon in Cork and Dublin.

Something between a bookshop, an events space and a hub for people to connect, manager Joanne Hunter talked about what exactly a community book shop means, particularly in recent months.

Vincent Murphy, Mary Ruddy and Joanne Hunter in Books at One, Letterfrack

“When we were able to open under government guidelines, some people were understandably apprehensive about coming into the shop to browse. Maybe they were nervous about staying safe, anxious to protect others, or worried about taking up too much time if there were people queuing, or waiting outside. So we offered private browsing sessions—to the elderly for example, or if someone was on crutches or found it physically challenging to negotiate the restrictions, to people with small children, or children with additional needs. We wanted to make sure everyone could still have access to books.”

Books have been a lifeline during lockdown Joanne says, with people returning to titles they may have read at school, poetry especially being another thing to blossom, perhaps small nourishing words being all that some readers could manage. Sometimes people would call to order a book, but often they would ring just to have a chat.

One woman arrived at the shop after a long period of isolation having broken her wrist, keen to have a browse—but she had forgotten her reading glasses. Joanne read out the blurbs from different books, until the customer had found the right words to keep her company in the winter nights ahead.

This is the spirit of Books at One—kindness, openness, going the extra mile and above else an infectious passion for reading.

Books at One practises what it preaches and chooses locations that might not be the obvious choice for a bookshop: it seeks out locations in more disadvantaged areas. The idea is simple—to bring books into communities that need them the most, to run events, workshops, and readings that bring people in, whatever their background or ability.

During lockdown when there has been no opportunity to browse, people have bought mostly new books; they have been prepared to buy local and wait for a title, rather than going through Amazon. However, the bookshop also stocks around twenty percent second-hand volumes.

Old books carry more than words in their pages, but the imprints and stories of the hands that held them; perhaps there are echoes too in the walls of the shop, which once was part of a Christian Brothers Industrial School. The darkness of that history has now been transformed into something bright and vibrant, a centre of community enterprises and organisations, and Books at One is at its heart.

“Everybody is welcome,” Joanne says, “we just want to get books into everyone’s hands.”

The doors at Books at One maybe closed for now, but the team will provide a Click and Collect service—you can find out more on Facebook, on their website, or contact them directly on 087 333 4627 and at letterfrack@booksatone.ie