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It's Easy to Get a Read on Dublin

By Ambrose Clancy
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 19, 2009

Ireland is a nation whose most revered object is a book.

That would be the Book of Kells, and you could do worse than visit Trinity College in Dublin, and pay homage to the 1,200-year-old masterpiece, a hand-drawn manuscript of the Gospels where the distinction between word and image disappears. (Go early in the day, since getting a later look can be similar to standing in a Dublin bus queue gone wrong, with urgent elbows and hips gently but inevitably moving you out of the way.)

After bending your knee at the great Book, it's a treat seeking out contemporary Dublin temples of the printed word. You'll set out for places and find people.

Make your way to the Georges Street Arcade. Step out of a delicate rain greasing the pavement into a glass-canopied bazaar crowded with shops and stalls selling everything: coins, stamps, cards, jewelry, vinyl records, clothes of every era and description. If you're concerned about a future decision, there's a tarot card reader who can stop you before it's too late.

If you're hungry, there's a four-stool chipper (a fish-and-chips counter) with one customer bending the ear of the counterman, who has the empty expression of one who has heard it all before. But if you're hungry for books and conversation, there's the small, crisply kept Stokes Books, where Peter Conway considers every visitor an honored guest. That includes a fellow just leaving, looking as if he'd dressed in the dark with clothes found on the floor that morning. "People come in, you'd think they're beggars," says Conway, eyes dancing. "But, no! They're readers, aren't they? Not getting out much."

Asked if Stokes sells only used books, Conway holds up a hand. "Not used, please," he smiles. "Rare."

Some are rare indeed, such as a mint early edition of "Ulysses," a steal, Conway notes, for about $6,500. Story follows story with language turned on its ear. Speaking of Stokes's mail-order business, Conway says, "The largest amount we ship to the States goes to Texas." He pauses two beats before adding, "Texans are very Erin-udite."

Between tales of his father's adventures in the silk trade, Conway takes a call, and when asked about his accent, replies, "I never had the advantage of an underprivileged background." You take your leave when another call comes in, and Conway cups the phone and reminds you not to be a stranger.

Leopold Bloom, James Joyce's Dublin voyager, poses a test to himself: how to cross town without passing a pub. An equally difficult challenge would be crossing Dublin without passing bookstores or places of literary significance. On Duke Street you'd be stopped twice, by the Davy Byrnes pub, where Bloom has a lunch of a gorgonzola sandwich and glass of Burgundy (still on the menu), and across the street, David Cunningham's Cathach Books, perhaps the city's most beautiful bookstore.

Mellow light falls on polished shelves, and a mural of Irish literary giants circles above the stacks. Elegant editions by those exalted masters gazing down are available. Catching the eye recently was a $10,000 first edition of "Dracula" by Bram Stoker (who lived nearby on Kildare Street), with a creepily simple cover, an innocent yellow background with lettering the color of dried blood.

Take some time with ancient maps and prints. You might find yourself enchanted by an exquisite chart of Kinsale Harbor by one Capt. G. Collins from 1693.

Thomas Spain is leafing through bound copies of the London Illustrated News from 1854. A question about the Dubliner's unusual surname sets Spain off on a history of his family and its "checkered past," coming to Ireland from France in the 12th century. He makes it sound as if it happened the day before yesterday.

"We're mentioned in that book," Spain says, pointing to an annals of the Huguenots, a volume the size of a building's cornerstone.

Books are an issue in Spain's marriage. "I've taken to sneaking books into the house, my wife saying, 'We can't eat books, you know.' "

Asking Cunningham to wrap up the volume of Victorian journals, Spain is puzzled someone would ask about his interest in newspapers more than 150 years old. "Look deeply enough into the past and you're no longer here, but there," he smiles, and steps out clutching his time machine.

Regan Hutchins, manager of the Winding Stair, a bright, laid-back shop on the River Liffey, uses a boxing term when speaking of competition with monster bookstore chains. "We punch a little above our weight," the young Corkman says, meaning that dedicated customer service creates an edge. "When someone mentions a book, we go first to the stacks before the computer."

Hutchins also doesn't fear competition from electronic books such as Amazon's Kindle. "I'd rather take James Joyce or Jane Austen to bed without an electronic device," he deadpans.

Hutchins, of course, has a story. Teaching in Budapest, he heard of an opening at the Winding Stair. "I fell off an airplane in Dublin one morning with a very tatty CV, and here I am."

The Winding Stair, with bargains on art books and new releases, is named for the Yeats poem: "My soul. I summon to the winding ancient stair/Set all your mind upon the steep ascent. . . . " The shop does have a spiral staircase leading to one of Dublin's finest bistros, also called the Winding Stair. Reservations are a must. Ask for a window table, looking down on the river, "always going, never gone," as author David Lozell Martin has it. Browsing in the bookstore and then ascending the stairs for sensational food are not-to-be-missed Dublin events.

Through a nondescript door on Dawson Street, down a quarter-flight of stairs, into a narrow corridor haphazardly crowded with books, a dazzling 18th-century drawing room opens up.

Welcome to De Burca Rare Books. It's the kind of room that initially makes you lower your voice in the presence of an antique library table floating on a sea-green rug, a tiled Georgian fireplace and a mahogany mantel flanked by portraits of Edmund Burke and George Washington. Here are globes, prints, historical documents, including some by Cromwell and William of Orange, and, above all, exceptionally printed, bound and preserved books.

The effortless hospitality and buoyant wit of proprietor Eamonn De Búrca, typical of his country, allows you to stop your whispers. Offering tea, he says: "Strong, medium or weak? I like it so you can trot a mouse across the top of the cup."

From here and his other shop just south of Dublin, De Búrca sends antiquarian books on Irish topics to every continent. He also publishes books under his own imprint. "Here," he says, lifting a heavy tome, one of a five-volume series he has published. "It's a book of Irish genealogy from 1650," De Búrca says. "You have to be mad or brave to publish something like this."

Or clever. He rounded up 1,000 subscribers who pledged to pay about $825 each for a set of the series. Every subscriber but one paid in full on publication. "A man in Belize," De Búrca says. "But I'll not be going out to find him."

Conversation flows from one topic to another, eventually leading to De Búrca himself. "I had an unorthodox entree into bibliomania," he begins. Leaving his native County Mayo at 17 for England ("All the young lads went there or the United States for work"), De Búrca worked construction and "was a salesman, a barman and finally a policeman."

When he came home, he started from scratch dealing in books, something he loves as much as he does his native county, in western Ireland. "I never really left Mayo," he says. "Spiritually, I'm still there."

Travel a few miles down the coast to Dun Laoghaire and visit Naughton Booksellers, a basement cave of a Georgian townhouse with 20,000 used books, indexed from "Antiquity" to "Zoos." Across the road from Dublin Bay, it looks toward the dramatic Hill of Howth looming across the water. A long jetty reaches out through the harbor, the place where, one wild night, Samuel Beckett wandered alone, later saying he discovered his literary vision, or in Beckett-speak, a "memorable equinox."

Look down the coast from the front of Naughton and there's another literary holy site, the Martello Tower, where "Ulysses" begins. (Now a Joyce museum, it's worth a visit even if the author doesn't turn your page. Views of the bay are superb, and you'll feel like an anthropologist among the tribe of Joyceans.)

Naughton Booksellers is reached by opening a blue wrought-iron gate in a fence with rosemary fragrantly pushing through. A path leads past daffodils, a patch of lawn and pots of flowers.

The shop is open again after closing a few years ago. Michael Naughton, who runs it with his mother, Susan, says they had gone to an online-only business. But customers kept showing up to browse, forcing the Naughtons' hands.

It seems Dubliners, some of the tech-savviest people on the planet, need bookstores. Not an online add-to-the-cart experience, but a place where actual books crowd actual shelves, welcoming book lovers to share the printed and spoken word.

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