The pleasure of growing up surrounded by books has the added benefit of helping young people do better at school. That's according to Joanne Hunter, general manager of Books at One, in a chat with fellow book addict Ryan Tubridy. The former accountant joked with Ryan about leaving her "dark past" behind in favour of helping people in rural and disadvantaged communities start up a non-profit book store in their locality. Books at One is currently involved in two community book shops, the first in Louisburgh, County Mayo and the second in Letterfrack, County Galway. The benefits are many, Joanne says, from providing a social hub, a book club venue and part-time work opportunities for local people. Having books within easy reach can also make a big difference to educational outcomes for children and young people, Joanne says:
"One of the predictors of educational success in children is the number of books in the house, regardless of their parents’ educational level."
Growing up in the literary paradise of Listowel, County Kerry, where you could bump into a Nobel Laureate of a Tuesday and think nothing of it, Joanne says it only hit her when she moved away from home how unusually supportive her town was of writing and writers and how it percolated down to the schools:
"I suppose, coming from Listowel, I didn’t realise that other people didn’t have this. I assumed that everybody was comfortable, you know, trying to write a poem or going to a play or picking up a book and, you know, feeling a personal connection nearly with the author."
The Books at One stores are community-led and run by local managers. The organisation is currently working on establishing stores in two new venues, but nothing short of national domination will satisfy Joanne, who wants to bring the shops country-wide and share the benefits with as many people as possible:
"I am adamant that this is going to be a consistent part of rural or small town life for decades, if not generations to come."
The original concept and funding for Books at One came from Declan Ryan, who came up with the idea for the Louisburgh shop. Joanne says she read an article about the venture and it changed her life:
"I was reading about this wonderful community bookshop and I was just blown away by the idea, and I just said, it’s brilliant, it’s crazy and I have to be a part of it. So I got on the phone, rang the book shop and to be honest with you Ryan, I’ve hardly thought about anything else since that day."
A week after reading about the Mayo store, Joanne was in the car on the way to Louisburgh. She says she was even more smitten by the real thing than when she read about it:
"I found a lovely bookshop, lovely people, a buzz around books that you wouldn’t see in a normal commercial bookshop. You know, that it was books were a way of connecting people. I really got that concept and I said, I really need to do this, I really need to get involved in this."
When the job of general manager came up in Books at One, Joanne put herself forward and was hired. She says it’s the realisation of a childhood dream to run a bookshop:
"I’m in a position where I’m working with all these visionary people that have that same dream as me and I hope to be in a position to bring these bookshops to other communities around Ireland."
If there are any communities out there who would like to start a bookshop, Joanne says three things are needed: people, property and finance. The Books at One organisation can help, but in the end the business should be able to fund itself:
"We need the people in the community to drive this and we need a property. These bookshops need support over the initial period, but the idea is that they are a social enterprise. So after the initial period, that will be a very self-sustaining business and a community hub."
Joanne’s home base is now in Kildorrery, the village in north Cork which made the news in recent years by reversing the downward trend in rural population through efforts of the local community. Joanne is ambitious to add a book store to her own community, as well as to urban areas with no commercial book shop:
"if you grow up in one of these areas that doesn’t have a bookshop, or you choose to live there, why should you be deprived of the opportunity to spend your money locally, or maybe even get a part-time job or get a part-time job for your children?"
The stores are run on a not-for-profit basis, so it’s about more than just making the sale, she says:
"We see the bookshop as not just a place where it’s a transaction where a customer comes in and buys a book; we see it more as a community hub. So it’s a very kind of democratic space where people of all ages and all backgrounds can get together through a common interest in reading and in books."
Joanne describes the community bookstore as a kind of "third space": it’s not home, it’s not school, it's not a workplace: it’s more like a sports club for the book-mad, she says:
"My family are really into sport and I’m the oddity that I’m into books, so I see these bookshops as the hurling pitch for book lovers. That’s the idea that we want to get out there is that it’s for everybody."
Ryan also talks to Greg Fletcher, manager of the Louisburgh branch of Books at One about his work, his Perth background and his wedding at the summit of Croagh Patrick in the full interview here.
Find out more about Books at One here.