Stokes Books Tony Canavan pays a visit to George’s Street Arcade
In Dublin’s famous George’s St. Arcade, Stokes Books is an established institution. The bookshop has been there since 1989, but the business itself started in Clanbrassil St. in 1983. It is an unpretentious place that does not go out of its way to draw attention but there is no shortage of people exploring the books on display outside or browsing its shelves inside.
Stephen Stokes sits in a chair to the left of the door, ensconced in books. He lifts some off a chair and makes me feel welcome. The talk soon turns to books and I know I am in the presence of an expert. Stephen is not only full of knowledge about books but has an almost philosophical approach to the subject. He talks about their content and composition, evoking an appreciation of a book as a thing of worth in itself.
This seems appropriate as we’re surrounded, floor to ceiling, by antiquarian and second-hand books. There’s little elbow room, as books take up most of the floor space. Yet, far from feeling cramped, the shop invites exploration, as hand and eye move from one shelf to another, spotting old favourites, new discoveries and almost legendary hard-to-find titles.
‘Where do they all come from?’ I ask. ‘The dead,’ he laconically answers. The death of a bibliophile usually means a houseful of books that the family don’t want. Stephen is happy to take on such collections and real gems are found among them. Stephen comments, with a touch of sadness, that he has been in the business so long that quite often now he is buying back books that he originally sold to the deceased many years before.
The arcade itself and Stokes Bookshop seem far removed from 21stcentury hi-tech realities but they are not untouched. Stephen admits that the arrival of the internet has radically altered the bookselling landscape. ‘What can I offer that the internet can’t?’ he asks. The answer is that he can offer bargains, books at less than €10, because he doesn’t have to cover postage and packing. His store, too, offers a unique atmosphere in which to shop and the chance to talk to a knowledgeable bookseller. Stokes Books has its regulars but tourists drop in, too, usually looking for Joyce or Beckett. They can’t carry off heavy hardbacks but Stephen also provides pocket-sized paperbacks of Irish writers.
Stephen is not a luddite. He finds the internet a valuable tool for research and for checking online catalogues of universities and libraries. This can be useful in finding out what books these institutions don’t have, which helps him when compiling his own catalogues. These are produced in hard copy, as that’s what the shop’s regulars want, and catalogues can be collectibles, too. At present, Stephen is compiling a catalogue, which will be out for Christmas, containing over 1,000 books relating to the Irish Revolution, covering the standard works, contemporary commentaries and, perhaps most importantly, local histories of how events unfolded across the country. We could have talked for hours about books and bookselling if we had not been interrupted by a customer keen to make a purchase. I thought it best to let Stephen get on with his work.
By Tony Canavan
First published in Books Ireland print edition November/December 2018