Owner of iconic Dalkey bookshop recalls 36 years among the covers

‘I once discounted a book for Colin Farrell. He looked like he was on his uppers,’ says Bono’s bookseller

Irish Daily Mail, 17 April 2012

By Dave Kenny

He’s sold books to Bono and Maeve Binchy, and been mentioned in despatches from the Middle East. Declining book sales, however, have forced Michael Simonds to turn the final page on Dalkey’s iconic Exchange Bookshop.

“This is not a decision I’m taking on a whim. I’ve been here since 1975 and would have liked to have carried on. The books trade is in a state of flux. Sales are down 30pc on two years ago and more people are buying online. I don’t blame them. I think people want to support their local bookshop, but sometimes it’s just not convenient,” he says, with trademark charity.

Despite the popularity of Kindle and iPad, he still believes in the “technology” of books.

“One of my customers showed me a 14th century book he owns. That technology has stood the test of time. Even a stone house will eventually fall down. Where does that leave emails in the future? People were trading books hundreds of years ago. My misfortune was to be born at the end of 500 years of publishing.”

With the closure of the Exchange, the Dalkey Book Festival will find itself without a bookshop this year. In June, thousands of tourists will flock to the village to spot their favourite authors. Maeve Binchy, Neil Jordan, Declan Hughes, Martina Devlin, Brian Keenan, Joe O’Connor, Don Conroy and Sarah Webb, all live within walking distance of the shop. As one local sardonically points out, “you can’t throw a stick down the main street without hitting a writer. And there are plenty of writers we’d like to hit with sticks around here…”

Michael is concerned that his departure will leave a literary void. “The library is closing for three months too. The village won’t have an obvious book outlet for the festival. It will be a bit odd.”

Closed book: Michael Simonds locks up his world-renowned bookshop

His shop – which has featured in several books, including BBC journalist John Simpson’s autobiography – has served some literary giants over the years. Curmudgeonly playwright, Hugh Leonard, was a regular.

“He exchanged books here right up to his death. He was great, but could be quite brusque sometimes. Once, I didn’t get him a book he wanted and he wrote about me in his column. I thought it was like cracking a walnut with a sledgehammer.”

On another occasion, the widow of a legendary politician gave him a tongue-lashing over his accent. Michael comes from a privileged, Anglo-Irish background and professes to be “West Brit, but Irish”. Referring to the War of Independence, the lady told Michael that “we should have shot the lot of you”.

The vast majority of celebrity customers have been pleasant, however. “Bono has come in a few times, but I wouldn’t necessarily recognise him. I’m very short-sighted,” he explains.

“One day a young man came in and bought a book about a French actor. He was scruffy and very Bohemian-looking. I thought he was a poet on his uppers, so I gave him a discount. Someone later told me he was Colin Farrell.”

Once, Michael witnessed a world-famous customer being ‘collared’ by the law. The actor had parked his BMW outside the shop.

“Minutes later the door opened and a guard asked whose car was on the double yellow lines. Pierce Brosnan popped up and said ‘it’s mine’. The guard made him move it. Fair play to him, he didn’t care that he was James Bond.”

Celebrities and locals alike are saddened by the passing of the Exchange. “People around are lovely, they’ve been so kind,” says Michael, pointing to a row of wine bottles behind the counter.

“We’re losing an institution. Dublin lost Green’s and Dalkey is now losing Michael,” said Liz, a local lady stocking up on last-minute bargains. Her fellow resident, Ryan Tubridy agrees, and believes the picturesque village is losing its “nerdy hub”.

“Losing a bookshop from a village like Dalkey is like having the brain removed. It needs a nerdy hub like the Exchange. It’s one thing ordering a book on Amazon, but Michael spoke to customers about authors, titles and the village itself. I hope some local has the sense to invest in the bookshop.”

Author, Brian Keenan, says he is “stunned” at the closure of his favourite shop. “The Exchange is one of the reasons I come down to the village. I can’t believe it’s closing. My abiding memory of the place is the day, years ago, when I went in to use the photocopier. I looked up and there was the journalist, Robert Fisk, asking Michael for directions.”

They hadn’t seen each other since Beirut, where Fisk had spent years writing about Keenan’s captivity in Lebanon.

“I said ‘what are you doing here?’” said Keenan, “and he said ‘What are YOU doing here?’ We both laughed.”

Fisk uses the shop as a post office, according to Michael. “He has his mail sent here when he’s away reporting.”

Michael has a particular affection for journalists, especially those who used to bring in review copies of books over the years.

“Many years ago I applied for a wine licence. I think wine and books go well together. A lot of the journalists who came in were heavy drinkers. I thought, if they came in with a book, for an extra three pounds they could trade it for a bottle of wine.”

Dreams of Bohemian hacks sipping wine and reading Maeve Binchy in the shop were quashed by the aptly-named Judge Hubert Wine.

‘Bohemian’ is word that sits uneasily on Michael’s shoulders, although he is undoubtedly a ‘creative’ himself. Prior to being a bookseller he was a published songwriter. Music runs in the family and his sister Clodagh has played with the likes of Thin Lizzie and Mike ‘Tubular Bells’ Oldfield. There is always music playing in the background at the Exchange. A box of tin whistles is perched on the higher reaches of shelves at the back of the shop. Ballad books sit alongside whimsical histories of Dublin and Lady Gregory’s Irish folk tales.

“It seems odd, as a bookseller, not to be ordering in new stock,” he says wistfully, looking at his soon-to-disassembled shelves. “I’ll be giving a lot of those books to charity.”

After 36 years of selling books, Michael plans to spend the next chapter of his life writing and publishing them. He has already produced two glossy tourist guidebooks which sell for €3. He will miss chatting to his customers though.

“Kids I sold to back in the 1970s have grown up with the Exchange, and now come in with their children. I’ll miss them all.

“I’m sad to be closing, but I’m looking forward to retirement. There are a lot of things I’d still like to do. I’d really like to learn how to play golf,” he says, clocking up his very last sale on the till.

“Let’s say €8.00 for that,” he tells his final customer, discounting a book by 50pc. He walks them to the door as a group of locals arrive with a book-shaped cake. Even in retirement there is no getting away from books. Inevitable gags are cracked about “eating his words” as Michael says his farewells.

He turns the key. Another chapter in Dublin’s history comes to an end.

* If you have any memories of the Exchange Bookshop, I’d love to hear them. Please write them up on the comments page, below. *

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