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How to open a bookshop

A success story from small-town Ireland

Anthony Gardner | August 13th 2015

Every summer for the past few years we’ve holidayed on the east coast of Ireland in County Wexford. When the sun shines – as it sometimes does – there are sandy beaches to walk along; when it doesn’t, there is Gorey. This small market town (population 9,000) has three particular attractions: Partridges, a delicatessen serving wonderful coffee and four different kinds of toast; Gorey Little Theatre, which stages first-class amateur productions; and above all, the Zozimus Bookshop.

Zozimus – named after a 19th-century Dublin balladeer, and situated at the back of the bustling Book Café on Main Street – is the best second-hand bookshop I have ever set foot in. The stock encompasses everything from medieval literature to Agatha Christie, and is brilliantly arranged so that you can find what you’re looking for but happen upon all kinds of unexpected treasures along the way. And what is most astonishing is that its doors opened in 2011, when starting any kind of bookshop looked like financial suicide.

Its presiding genius is John Wyse Jackson, an avuncular figure whose own publications include a biography of John Lennon and anthologies of Oscar Wilde and Flann O’Brien. Few people know the trade better: he was previously a partner in John Sandoe, the London bookshop whose devotees include Tom Stoppard and Elton John. He returned home to Ireland in 2003, thinking that he had left bookselling behind; but one day he set out to buy a copy of “Brighton Rock”, and couldn’t find any shops in the area that stocked it. “I started Zozimus three days a week to keep me busy when I wasn’t working on my own books,” he says. “Now we’re open seven days. We don’t sell online, because we’re too busy with customers.” The shop has spawned a children’s book club, Zozzy’s, and is about to launch an "occasional magazine", Zoom!

While much of Ireland is still struggling to get back on its feet after the Celtic Crash, Gorey has a definite buzz about it. “Because we don’t have any industry, we haven’t suffered as badly from the recession as some other places,” one resident told me. “And I think when times are hard, people turn to culture. There are lots of artists around here, and the theatre has had very good audiences.”

Though the collectors’ section of Zozimus contains Yeats first editions and other rarities, Wyse Jackson believes that it’s vital in the internet age to offer affordable books for everyone: “Fifty per cent of our sales are books costing €3 – thrillers, Penguin Classics and so on. I always have half a dozen Mills & Boon in case old ladies ask for them. There’s no point in being snobbish.”

He measures his success not only in returning customers but in the people who have offered him books to sell. The literary critic Denis Donoghue is one, and Roddy Doyle another: “He was in last Saturday – we had breakfast together, and he’s going to let me have all the overseas editions of his novels.” Fortunately the shop, which already holds over 30,000 volumes, has plenty of space: “From time to time I go through the shelves to see if there are any books we shouldn’t have, but there just aren’t.”

When Zozimus first opened, a local business was buying books by weight. “They paid ten cents a kilo, and people would wet the sacks to make them heavier,” explains Wyse Jackson. “The books were taken to the north and pulped, and then mixed with tar to make African roads – so there are places there where you can drive over Irish literature.” If only for offering an alternative to such sacrilege, Zozimus deserves a place in the highest pantheon of bookselling.

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