FROM THE ARCHIVES
Ida Grehan interviews Maura Hastings, the book buyer for Easons, in the July 1976 issue of Books Ireland.
She finds out about the impact of television on book-buying, sex education—and how she grew up knowing how to shoot rabbits and owns a boat called The Maura.
The Books the Irish Buy
Mrs Maura Hastings is the retail book buyer for Easons, one of the biggest wholesalers in the British Isles, which makes her most knowledgeable about what sells books and why people buy them.
She reads about six books a week which means three hours’ reading in bed every night. She has done every course in bookselling and marketing and is Training Officer for the Irish Branch of the Book sellers Association of Britain and Ireland.
18—30 age group
Mother of one son and three daughters, all launched in satisfying careers, naturally she knows and takes a particular interest in what the young are reading.
On the first floor in Easons in O’Connell Street, Dublin, a special section is set aside for Penguins because she finds these paperbacks outstandingly popular.
“I find students, generally in the 18 to 30 group, go for crime and good novels, anything from Agatha Christie to Steinbeck. Anthony Burgess is a favourite.”
“They go, too, for Winston Graham, Eilis Dillon, Leon Uris and, of course, Camus and Beckett. Young people are buying books on Zen Buddhism, on Oriental religions. All Solzhenitsyn’s novels sold well. Then the young became disillusioned with his affluence. Now, since his talks on television, he has zoomed up again.
“Incidentally, we have no violence, no pro-hard drug books. It’s not Easons’ policy to encourage that element in the shops. Also, we have to give particular attention to currently controversial books. We consult our solicitors before putting them on the shelves.”
“We have often been accused of not stocking certain topical books but we are a very big shop, very vulnerable to libel. Wholesale and retail, we have eight shops in Ireland.”
Easons is always crowded. They are expanding, having recently taken over their neighbour the Palmgrove Cafe and also the wholesale warehouse which has meant a move out for them to other parts of the city.
Desk, filing cabinets and telephones, Mrs Hastings has had to move to a new office on the third floor, an oasis behind glass walls surrounded by a busy melee of girls doing the stock control and producing the figures for the buyer. Her telephone interrupts and she asks for her calls to be diverted for a while.
“Television,” she says, “has given an enormous fillip to reading.”
Take only one instance, Clayhanger. It has led to a revival of Arnold Bennett. Henry the Eighth opened Irish eyes to English history. We never touched it at school. Now they are reading Bryant and Galsworthy.
“On the whole the Irish do not read novels. They are not fey Celts. They buy books on how to do it yourself, books on management techniques, on natural foods. Poetry yes, mostly Irish: Heaney, Kinsella, Dylan Thomas always sells and, would you believe it, Robert Service! We have two bound volumes of his poems which are steady sellers.
“The Irish are no armchair travellers. They’re dead practical. They’ll buy a phrase book or a guide book before they go abroad. Easons does a huge mail order business. If a book is mentioned in the Sunday papers there will be orders for 200 copies the following week.
Dearth of bookshops
There’s a dearth of bookshops. From Ballina to Westport, where I was raised – my people, the Ruddys, owned The Bookshop – there’s nothing until Kenny’s in Galway.
There’s Mrs Gray’s College Book Shop in Athlone. Then there’s nothing until Limerick and Cork. Mary and Don Roberts are in Kilkenny. Nothing in Donegal or Wicklow. Kevin Clear’s bookshop in Bray has been a delight to the local people. Bookselling is an expensive, absorbing baby.
“On account of the small book discount you’d be better off selling greeting cards. To run a book shop successfully you need a blend of idealism and finance.”
“Women are important book buyers. They are much better educated now. More books are being published as aids to people. I’m thinking especially of sex education. I think I was the first to sell them.
I knew about those girls going to England, half of them pregnant. Marriage Partnership published by Captain Feehan of Mercier Press; Everywoman from Faber; they replaced The Catholic Marriage Manual, a fusion of souls, not bodies! What does that tell a vulnerable teenage girl?”
“I had every sympathy for them. I was married at nineteen and had my first baby at twenty.”
Maura Hastings was a teacher and she spent five memorable years in Lettergesh in Connemara where her husband was teacher.
“I churned milk, fished in a currach, shot rabbits. I very well know the difference between a shot gun and a point 22 rifle.”
I played bridge, reared chickens, reared turkeys – they tend to hang themselves on the trees – and I had four children. It was towards the end of the war. There was no petrol. I travelled by bicycle, stuffing the tyres with newspaper – there were no tubes.”
Later, back in Westport, she managed an insurance brokers which gave her the sound commercial background which stands by her in book buying. She would recommend it as a very good career.
At the College of Marketing, twice a week in the evenings, she teaches English Literature, Bibliography, Salesmanship, Cataloguing. Earlier in her career, encouraged by Easons she studied for the Oxford Diploma in Bookselling.
It is a policy of the firm to raise standards by encouraging their employees to study.
Maura Hastings’ book buying encompasses every type of book, from children’s books to books in continental languages. She puts in regular appearances at the Frankfurt Book Fair. She has a few languages; French, German, Spanish, Italian. “When the children were small I didn’t go out at night. I had plenty of time to study.”
With her teaching commitments she still doesn’t have much time for going out in the evenings. She lives in Rathgar and when it came to a choice between buying a car or a boat, she bought the boat.
“The bus drops me at Eason’s door. The boat gets me right away from the city and the hectic business scene.”
So far none of her four grandchildren have been named after her so she rectified this omission by naming her cabin cruiser The Maura. She’s very knowledgeable now about engines, hoists, dry rot, dry docks and navigation in general.
She’s enjoying this summer with her family and friends somewhere around the twelfth lock at Lucan. There’s a good light over her bunk to help keep up with the six-books-a-week reading schedule. Bookbuying, too, is a dedication and there’s no one more dedicated than Maura Hastings.