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.

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