The Secret Bookshelf
JO ZEBEDEE on the life and love of running an independent bookshop in Carrickfergus, Co. Antrim.
How we started
We’d thought about opening the shop many years ago, when the old Queen’s University bookstore closed and my husband, Chris, was made redundant from it. But, with two young children, we didn’t feel the time was right to take the risk.
However, in the winter of 2019, due to a change of jobs, we had another opportunity to think about the future. We knew we wanted to open in our town, rather than up in Belfast, for a number of reasons— not wanting to commute, but mostly because we feel strongly that bookstores should be less city-centric and more community based.
That’s the way they used to be—the lack of bookshops outside of cities means we are centralising so much of our literary landscape, and we really wanted to challenge that trend.
Where we’re located
We settled in The Courtyard in Carrickfergus, where we’ve enjoyed shopping for years. We are on the first floor, snuggled in the corner of a garden courtyard.
One of the things we hear consistently is how Carrick needed a bookstore.
I feel that is true (and true of many towns, especially with the loss of Easons in the North). As well as the bookstore itself, we’ve been able to start limited events (due to Covid), and support local authors.
If a creative community is to be encouraged, creative places are needed – and a bookstore is one of those places.
Readings and events
Monday is the quiet day in the garden, so we decided to make an asset of this peaceful place, and host a series of summer poetry readings (restarting on 19 July with Linda McKenna, and running through to late August).
There’s something visceral about a seagull drifting overhead as you listen to a poem; it makes you hear it from a different place than from inside a room.
So far, we’ve had Moyra Donaldson, and Matthew Rice (who had to compete against the wind!) and later we have Teresa Godfrey, Gaynor Kane, Karen Mooney, Laura Burns and Maggie McCarney.
It feels really good to have events again! We did do some in lockdown, virtually, which were lovely, but it’s also nice to be able to meet up and chat, even at a distance! Our shop isn’t small, but it’s made up of lots of rooms, so each one is limited in terms of numbers, even before we factor in social distancing!
All kinds of everything
One thing that we knew when we opened is that children’s bookstores have ridden out the Amazon effect better than some others, which gave us confidence to take on a specific space. Parents prefer physical books to e-versions – and we’re passionate about the importance of young people having access to books.
We’re also aware that the children’s market is one where the books that are very visible in the supermarkets tend to be by a limited range of authors (often celebrities), while many great books and authors struggle for visibility.
We feature the Indie children’s book of the month, and try to buy across a great range. Recent favourites have included The Last Bear, Amari and the Night Brothers, and we also try to feature the great writers that don’t get found everywhere, writers like Stewart Foster and Marcus Sedgwick. We also bring in books by local authors like Shirley MacMillan and Sue Divin to try to give them some visibility.
But we also knew we didn’t want to only run a children’s bookstore, as we have so many other genres we are passionate about.
The layout of the shop, with three big rooms – we use one for the bestseller/gift and new books, and one is a bargain room – and various nooks for specialist genres like crime and fantasy/sci fi, meant we could have the best of both worlds: a general shop, and a children’s room that feels like its own bookstore.
I’m a science fiction writer; we normally have a good range, including some off the beaten track titles. Our sci-fi section is buried at the end of a corridor. We had a little room for it at first, and the crime was in the corridor, but we swapped them around and both readerships seem happier with where they are now!
We do quite a few gift ranges now. We try to keep them literary related. As well as the little poetry-as-card packs, which are lovely, we stock quite a bit of book-themed wooden gifts from Belfast’s Dribbly Yak, lots of bookmarks and notebooks, and then quirky gifts like reading gloves (very Jane Austen!), sea-glass Alice in Wonderland necklaces, book-nooks (little miniature worlds for bookcases), that sort of thing.
We also do artwork by local artists such as Audrey Kyle, from Islandmagee, and lots of cards. And then, the practical things that are hard to get: book lights, magnifying glasses, and so on.
A bookshop community
We hope to have a writing club once a week (we were planning it just before the first lockdown) and an in-person book club, but we’re also happy for people to drop in just to chat about what they’re reading, what we recommend, or just to lose themselves in the bargain room for a while and see what they unearth (it’s an absolute treasure trove!).
We recently asked our Facebook page what customers would like, and one thing that came up highly were recommendations, so we’re populating the shop with cards, and post-its, with our thoughts on it. We are eclectic readers and our volunteer bookseller, Deborah, reads a lot, too, so we cover a lot of ground!
We also have a couple of people on hand to read advance copies and tell us what they’ve loved, so that feeds into it, too. But popping in and telling us what you like, and asking what there is, also works well. We have a book subscription, where we select books to match a customer’s taste and send them out in a little book parcel once a month, which is popular.
What we’ve learned
People want bookshops. They don’t get the same experience in the supermarkets—they want a place to go that has a range, and where the booksellers are engaged and interested.
Children and young adults read—a lot! One of the things that we have in place (via Deborah, who keeps it up to date!) is that we show the Accelerated Reader Scheme information on the books. A lot of children really like the scheme, but find it frustrating when they buy a book and then find out they won’t get their points for it—this allows a choice that they know will bring a reward. We’ve also donated vouchers for local schools to reward their 2-million words readers – it’s great to see so much reading going on!
Bookstore customers are not morning people! If you want a quiet browse, pop in before midday.
There’s so much about books and writers we’re learning. We love it when a customer recommends something to us, and then we love it too. The House on the Cerulean Sea is one that’s getting that kind of vibe at the moment.
The challenges – as with all bookstores, is selling a product that can be found cheaper elsewhere. It’s tough—especially when its the most popular books that are promoted in the supermarkets and online. Apart from wanting to offer our customers the same value (but, let’s be clear—the supermarket two miles away is cheaper than our wholesaler!) we try for added value by staying on top of publisher offers, offering events, or kids’ activity sheets—whatever we can do. And time—we’re open 6 days a week.
Why you should visit
It’s a book haven, in a lovely setting where you can easily spend a few hours on retail, lunch, and pampering. In the complex there is a jewellers, art galleries, a children’s boutique, a gift shop, nail and hair parlours, nice cafés, and a fantastic playground right beside us. And the sea: we are, literally, half a minute from the promenade .
A nice day out with a quirky bookstore included. What could be better than that?
The Secret Bookshelf, The Courtyard, Carrickfergus, Co. Antrim. Find them on Facebook.