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Amidst some consternation, in August 2013 McDonald’s opened a new branch in Temple Bar, Dublin. We, along with many other Temple Bar residents had objected to the planning permission feeling that a large multinational fast food outlet of this kind was simply unsuitable for the area and would be detrimental to small local businesses in the district. Whilst acknowledging that Temple Bar faces many challenges to its original concept as a cultural hub for Dublin, we felt that a McDonald’s would take it even further away from what should be a showcase for what is best about Dublin and Ireland. Earlier this year I (along with many others) sat down with consultants working on behalf of Dublin City Council to discuss how Temple Bar could develop in the future and move towards a new plan for our cultural quarter.

Dublin City Council had refused planning permission to McDonald’s but this was overturned by An Bord Pleanala on the ‘strict terms‘ that they must close by midnight, protect the building structure, and would work on a three year trial.

Yesterday on the way into work I noted a new planning sign had gone up outside McDonald’s so, being the nosey type, I read it. Just one year into their trial period McDonald’s have applied to remain open until 3am.

McDonaldsPP

When reading up on objections made to McDonald’s openings last year I had noted that they use all kinds of tactics to get what they want. They’re a big clever company. But agreeing to ‘strict terms’ 12 months ago and now attempting to change them is simply unacceptable. We will be objecting to these changes to their original terms and we hope that you do to. We will also be asking An Bord Pleanala to review their decision when the three years is up.

All objections must reach Dublin City Council by 17th December 2014. A €20 fee is payable to object. I am currently checking exactly where objections can be made and will post details here asap. If you believe that McDonald’s should not be allowed to overrule the agreements it made, and believe that this is another backwards step for Temple Bar, please lodge an objection in support.

‘Yes’ I hear you all cry instantly. But, really, do they? I am the proud owner of two independent bookshops and I would hate for them to close (don’t worry, they won’t, they’re doing just fine!) but I do ask myself whether what we do is actually so important that we should be preserved and supported as a cultural institution? Every day people tell me how much they love our bookshops and how important they think it is that people have access to bookshops, and particularly independent bookshops, but is it actually true?

Earlier this year, the Bookseller’s Association of the UK & Ireland (I am the current chairperson for the Irish branch) announced that the number of independent bookshops in the UK has declined to less than 1,000 for the first time in their records, a rapid decline from 1,535 just 9 years ago in 2005. In Ireland we currently have 145 independent bookshops who are members of the Bookseller’s Association (this includes Eason franchises and the small chain Dubray Books but does not include chain Eason stores and UK-owned chains such as WHSmith and Waterstone’s). We don’t have comparable Irish figures for bookshops in 2005 but it’s safe to conclude that bookshop numbers have probably declined in a similar fashion to those of the UK.

Over the past decade the way that we shop, and the places that we shop in, has changed dramatically. The rise of internet shopping and global brands means that all independent businesses are now competing in a global marketplace where community and local isn’t necessarily measured in geographical distance. We’re now used to being able to buy anything we like, at any time, at a lower cost than ever before. This is heralded as a golden age for consumers but, as ever, there are consequences.

There’s a wealth of figures to show why shopping with local independents is good for your local economy – for every €1 spent locally, it’s estimated that 50 to 70 cent will stay within the local economy through spending with other local businesses, wages & taxes. This compares with approximately 5 cent when you buy online. Independent businesses make our towns more interesting and diverse meaning that they are more pleasurable places to live and visit, as well as allowing other small businesses and suppliers to have outlets for their goods.

‘But you can’t stand in the way of progress’ people say and to a certain extent they’re right. Modern independent bookshops have to market themselves through websites and social media. They need to understand their strengths and their unique selling points. It’s a myth that books are always cheaper online – now, just as ever, it pays to shop around and especially when you have to take postage charges into account. Most Irish independent bookshops will now source books for you from the USA as well as locally, often quicker and cheaper than online stores. A good bookshop allows you discover books and writers that you didn’t know existed, and should be able to recommend something that you’ll love – even if it’s outside of a typical ‘you’ve read this so read this’ computerised algorithm.

But, really, do independent bookshops matter? If Ireland’s 175 independent bookshops were reduced to 120 next year, 80 the year after, 50, 30, 10, 0 what would happen? Something would fill the void wouldn’t it? You could still buy your books online and someone would invent a website you could use to discover new Irish authors or recommend books that you might enjoy. Worryingly, perhaps not. Reports indicate that a lack of independent bookshops would directly hit publishers and the kind of books being published – just like in nature, a lack of diversity means that many parts of that subculture will no longer be able to exist – certain publishers and books won’t find a market at all, and the economics for many writers means that they simply won’t be able to afford to be writers anymore. A recent New Yorker article cited that “money for serious fiction and nonfiction has eroded dramatically in recent years; advances on mid-list titles—books that are expected to sell modestly but whose quality gives them a strong chance of enduring—have declined by a quarter. These are the kinds of book that particularly benefit from the attention of editors and marketers, and that attract gifted people to publishing, despite the pitiful salaries. Without sufficient advances, many writers will not be able to undertake long, difficult, risky projects.” This is why such large predatory retail companies such as Amazon are feared so much. The recent example of all of Hachette books being withdrawn from the US Amazon website shows how such a large retailer can potentially be damaging for both publishers and readers. It’s true that they can also open new avenues to readers through e-books and independent publishing, but in the end a healthy system needs a number of key players to stop one company having too much control.

But there’s good news. 2014 appears to have seen a stabilising of independent bookshops in the US as customers begin to see the benefits of supporting bookshops locally. The words ‘community’ and ‘passion’ figure strongly in why book buyers are choosing to visit their local bookshops. As people choose to spend leisure time browsing in physical bookshops the bookshops’ role switches from a simple sales transaction to something more pleasurable and social, something that the internet will struggle to replicate. There will always be independent businesses that close due to retirement and a change of circumstances, but if independent bookshops once again become profitable, feasible and enjoyable retail businesses  to own then perhaps the decline can not only be halted but turned around.

Independent Booksellers Week 2014 takes place from the 28th June until 5th July. Participating independent bookshops across UK & Ireland will hold special events and offer ‘Indie Exclusives’ – a limited edition range of books only available in independent bookshops. What better time to show that you believe that independent bookshops DO matter!

Walking through Temple Bar a couple of days ago I noticed that a Costa Coffee shop is about to open, just around the corner from where a new McDonalds is being built. I hadn’t heard anything about the Costa, but I had been part of the fight to keep McDonalds out of Temple Bar. With the Temple Bar Cultural Trust (our landlords) currently being wound down amidst some controversy and these large multinationals moving into what is supposed to be Dublin’s ‘cultural quarter’ (subject to much derision by Dubliners themselves) it seems fair to ask ‘what next for Temple Bar?’

We opened the Gutter Bookshop on Cow’s Lane, in what is referred to as the Old City or West End of Temple Bar in 2009. We lease the shop from the Temple Bar Cultural Trust who own a number of shop units and buildings in this area. TBCT also lease a number of the cultural buildings (IFI, Project Arts, The Ark) and areas (Meeting House Square, Cow’s Lane Market) in the area and use the income generated from rents to promote cultural activities in Temple Bar. TBCT was formed as a company in 1991 (under the original name of Temple Bar Properties) by Dublin City Council who remain its only shareholder. Once TBCT is wound down it is expected that the property management and cultural organisation for the area will revert to DCC. Temple Bar in its current form was created through regeneration in the late 1980s. (NB Please see clarifications on this information in Comments section below. BJ 16/04/14)

Personally, working with TBCT has been an overwhelmingly positive experience for the Gutter Bookshop. It is unlikely that a private landlord would have taken the risk of allowing an independent bookshop to open on this site, and TBCT have allowed a number of young Irish entrepreneurs to try new businesses in the area – some have worked, some haven’t but the support has been there to create something new and unique. That our rent is used to develop cultural activities such as Culture Night, First Thursdays, Get Active, Meeting House Square in the area has been a really positive aspect to the business (even if a large proportion of this is spent on the wages of those who create such activities).

The night-time drinking culture of Temple Bar has long been a source of contention which clashes regularly with the cultural aspects of the area. The opening of more fast food restaurants and generic multinational businesses also weakens what could still be Dublin’s best entertainment district. In 20 years Temple Bar seems to have moved further and further from its original concept and An Bord Pleanala’s controversial decision to overturn Dublin City Council’s objection to McDonalds appears symptomatic of a lack of vision for the area. Temple Bar retains the possibility to become a cultural centre for Dublin, appealing to both tourists and locals alike. Temple Bar should be a beacon for unique Irish businesses and groups that show what is best about Irish culture. Pubs have a part in this, as do cafes and shops, venues and arts centres. What seems to be lacking is any kind of co-ordinated plan to bring Temple Bar back to the original vision. But it only took 20 years to get this bad, if Dublin City Council, An Bord Pleanala and other interested agencies agreed on a new concept for Temple Bar and worked together to create it, Temple Bar could still revert (in about 10 years) to a highlight, not a low life, of Dublin town. Personally, I’d like to see support for local Irish businesses, cafes, restaurants (not fast food) with a limiting of pub licenses and size. Do I think it could happen? With a vision and commitment from DCC backed up by An Bord Pleanala, yes I do.

Four years into the Gutter Bookshop blog and I’m trying to make it a bit more reader friendly! (And also allow me to update it on the move as the website ‘diary’ style has to be written whilst I’m on the website editor on the PC at home – something I don’t always find time for). Anyway, one great advantage of moving the blog to WordPress is that it allows you (the reader!) to comment on the pieces I write and give feedback which will help me see what works well and what doesn’t. Now all I have to do is figure out exactly how the whole WordPress thing works…