Lily Power is dusting The Dictionary of Geography. Othello and Tree Fruit Growing wait their turn by her feet.
Brian Flanagan adds string to planks of wood to make a display for the window. Across the street, a man sings a song about an uncle as he smokes at the crossroads
Flanagan and Power were putting the final touches to Marrowbone Books, which they went on to open just yesterday.
They will be keeping “slightly wonky” hours for the next two and a half weeks, as they work on last-minute tweaks, says Flanagan.
Marrowbone Books is a few minutes’ walk from The Liberty Market on Meath Street and the antiques shops on Francis Street, at 78 The Coombe.
As they were setting up, well before they opened, passersby stopped to check out the single shelf of books that Flanagan had put in the window. Residents knocked the door to ask what was coming.
There was some excitement; Flanagan already had two books reserved behind the counter for a Roddy Doyle fan.
Flanagan and Power met while studying history and politics at Trinity College Dublin.
Their bookshop resumé would list that Power used to work in a now-closed students’ co-operative bookshop, and Flanagan worked at Atlantis Books in Santorini in Greece in 2010.
In 2013, Flanagan asked Power join him on a trip back to the Greek island to work side-by-side at the bookshop. “I struggle to tell this story without making it sound like I tricked her,” he says.
Atlantis Books was inspired by Shakespeare & Company, the English-language bookshop in Paris. A magnet for young writers on the road, it hosts festivals and events organised by passionate volunteers.
“Everyone says it’s their dream to open a bookshop,” says Flanagan, sat near a table in Marrowbone Books with paints and brushes. Three years ago, he and Power decided to make it real.
Back in Greece at a wedding in 2014, Flanagan said he noticed that guests not much older than them were getting married, raising children.
The drive to act on the dream became stronger, he said. “There’s never going to be a good time to start a bookshop, to be less busy.”
“Your bad idea is not going to get better,” says Flanagan.
A paperback of John Berger’s The Success and Failure of Picasso, is sat on a shelf above his chair.
The room is white, with pale bookshelves as far as arms will reach, it’s sparse with only a curtain for privacy.
The colour comes from the books, mainly Penguin Classic orange. Strips of wood are hung from the ends of the shelves to display those with the best covers, with string to keep the books in place.
Of the 6,000 books needed to fill the shelves, many had to be brought in backpacks and boxes on trains and buses. The pair don’t have a car.
Made for The Coombe
In Santorini, the bookshop could be as literary as they wanted, but it was still a shop on a tourist street in a tourist destination, said Flanagan.
Marrowbone Books is different, he says. “It needs to have cheaper books.”
They have agreed ground rules on what makes a good shop. “Don’t stare at people or raise eyebrows” when customers bring their books to the counter, says Power.
They both admire shops that are “overflowing with books” and “aren’t that precious”, she says. Places such as Armchair Books in Edinburgh, or Housing Works in New York – or, closer to home, Charlie Byrne’s in Galway.
Like Charlie Byrne’s, the books at Marrowbone are all second-hand. Some carry the names of their first owners, the dedications, the years they were given as presents. One D.H. Lawrence novel includes a carefully written character list inside its back cover.
Power wipes the covers clean, rubs out the decades-old prices and sorts them into piles.
They recently invited friends to the shop for alphabetising parties, as new homeowners might with painting. History, poetry, science, and classics were sorted over a few evenings.
Power says she filed, while tired, Don Quixote under Q and Angela’s Ashes in fiction.
As they get to know their customers and to tease out what they are looking for, Power and Flanagan aim to expand their network of suppliers.
“If you’re someone who likes books – and I think these people exist – then we will have something for you,” says Flanagan.
Power says she wants the shop to become a meeting place, and hopes that book groups and acoustic music will be part of an upcoming programme.
Conscious that he is bearded and bespectacled, Flanagan doesn’t want to put off older readers with anything that looks “too hipster-café”, he says.
He mentions “Welcome to Airspace”, an article from The Verge that argues that across European cities you can find cafés and bars with the same kind of tiles, the same type of serving staff, and the same music.
Before they got the keys in September, the shop had been vacant, says Flanagan. For five years, painted text on the shutters read that the the previous tenant, a florist, had “Moved to Thomas Street”.
Flanagan and Power had a painter update the shopfront in rich, bright yellow twice as it looked too nice the first time it was done, says Power: “like a patisserie, or a macaron”.
After the shop was painted, Flanagan walked across the street to see the full effect, with its bright gloss standing out against the surrounding red-brick. He looked down and realised it matched the double-yellow lines, he says.
Next door, The Lamplighter pub also changed hands recently. The new owner, Brendan Trayers, says he is looking forward to the street receiving more attention.
While it was vacant, Marrowbone Books was his clients’ smoking area. “I’ve seen that kind of thing in London and I think that’ll do very well,” says Trayers.
His pub serves locals of all ages, mixed with tourists who have walked down from the nearby Teeling Distillery or Guinness Storehouse. He sees change ahead, with hundreds of student rooms planned for nearby Newmarket Square.
“This will be the shopping street. It’ll be a mixture of students and locals for the next few years,” says Trayers.
Out on the street, a young man in a blue suit walks past a boy in a Manchester United shirt pulling a wheelie on his bike and the sound of TV drifts out from open windows.