TURNING NEW PAGES Neil Paul, manager at Books@One Louisburgh. Pic: Conor McKeown
IT could be the first community bookshop in the country, and where better to trip across it on a deluge of an autumnal day than on Bridge Street, Louisburgh. More like a literary oasis in London: the vibe is cool, cultured and cosy with its clean-lined shelves filled with books, new and old, hardback and paperback, thrillers and history, fact, fiction and fantasy.
Well, then, its manager, Londoner Neil Paul, was the lighting rigger for all the Harry Potter movies, so it shouldn’t be surprising that the big green-shaded lights were taken from the set of the famous movie series. And that there are other bits of bric-a-brac from the world of wizardry created by JK Rowling.
Paul may be living in the old schoolhouse in Accony for almost 20 years now, but that west London accent is still predominant. So too is his excitement about Louisburgh’s latest avant-garde enterprise. Books@One is much more than a bookshop, it is a quirky, communal sitting room, where books can be browsed and bought over delicious coffees and hot chocolates. Its separate reading room – attached to the main shop by a lovely patio – is every child’s haven with its bean bags and books filled with fairytales and adventures.
Tour over and sitting with coffees on the couch, Neil Paul explains that the concept was developed by members of the Ryan family (the founders of Ryanair) who are regular visitors to the area. Their One Foundation – which has been a great supporter of youth organisation Foróige as well as many other initiatives – decided to choose Louisburgh for this community venture.
“The ethos is to promote literature in the community and especially among children. It is about recreating an atmosphere where people engage with books in a communal way again. As part of our launch we worked with six national schools to design bookmarks based on the children’s favourite books. We also plan to to work on projects with Transition Year students to encourage entrepreneurship,” Neil Paul says.
He also plans to run launch a children’s book festival next year.
Even though it has only been opened since the end of August, already Books@One hosts story time each Saturday morning.
“Last Saturday morning we had 30 kids here while Jake Kilcoyne, a Fifth Year student in Sancta Maria College, read Enid Blyton’s ‘The Faraway Tree’. We have also held meditation meetings and have two book clubs who will use the facilities here to meet,” he explains.
INDEED, Neil Paul and his Dublin-born accountant wife, Bríd Conroy’s odyssey to the wild west could inspire a bestseller book itself. Paul was working in Wexford during the filming of ‘Saving Private Ryan’, and on a day off himself and Bríd came over to Castebar to visit a friend. During the visit they got lost while out on a scenic coastal drive, took the wrong turn and came across the derelict old Accony school (imagine a scaled-down Hogwarts on a wild windy day).
“We asked a farmer across the road, who owned it. He gave us this guy’s number who lived in England, and we effectively bought it there and then,” he says.
Their daughter, Rusty James, was just one year old as they undertook the big renovation job at the old schoolhouse, to which they welcomed past pupils a couple of years ago for a day of reunions and reminiscences.
Community activism is important to both Neil and Bríd, who were involved in the setting up of another pioneering community enterprise, Louisburgh HQ, an one-stop-shop for the many seasonal visitors who pass through Louisburgh along the Wild Atlantic Way.
Paul was also a volunteer with Mayo Mountain Rescue until his ‘knee gave up’. It afforded a perfect opportunity to – metaphorically – put his feet up and manage a bookshop with a most comfortable couch.
For more information on Books@One, including its books, book club and planned events, visit www.booksatone.ie.