21 November 2015

A bookshop in Gorey that offers
more that fine fare to browsers

Blackboard menu in the Book Café, Gorey, Co Wexford … but there was more to read than the menu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

After a long working week, two of us headed off for a weekend in Co Wexford, staying at the Mill Race Hotel, on the banks of the River Clody and the River Slaney in Co Wexford.

On our way, we stopped for lunch yesterday [20 November 2015] in the Book Café, a cafe and delicatessen on the Main Street in Gorey offering freshly-made food with tasty vegetarian options.

I heard about the Book Café from two friends recently, and from their description it sounded like a café with book-themed décor, including the wallpaper. But they insisted I go in and try the place.

On the outside, it looks like any other café, but inside I was soon in for a surprise. The tables were full, we were fortunate to find one in a little nook, and as we sat and waited for our lunch we realised we had stepped into a Labyrinth or Aladdin’s Cave of books.

Behind us, in that little nook, the under-stairs area was choc-a-bloc with science fictions books, which are of no interest to me at all. But beside me, from floor to ceiling, arose the most eclectic collection of books from biography to travel.

‘84 Charing Cross Road’ … an appropriate first find in a second-hand bookshop (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

One of the first books I put my fingers on was 84 Charing Cross Road, Helen Hanff 1970 book, later turned into a stage play, television play, and film, about her 24-year correspondence with Frank Doel of Marks & Co, the antiquarian bookshop located at 84 Charing Cross Road in London.

Helen Hanff was searching for obscure books she could not find in New York. She and Doel developed a long-distance friendship and their letters discussed topics as diverse as the sermons of John Donne, how to make Yorkshire Pudding, the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the coronation of Elizabeth II.

What an appropriate book to find on the first sitting at a table in one of the most unusual second-hand and antiquarian bookshops I have visited in many years. It was as delightful as visiting David’s in Cambridge or the lamentably now-gone Staffs Bookshop in Lichfield – although, of course, Marks is long gone too, and 84 Charing Cross Road is now the site of yet another McDonald’s burger shop.

Zozimus Bookshop continues in shelves and nooks and crannies behind and beyond the Book Café (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The food at the Book Café is of a very different order, and the books lining the walls are part of the larger Zozimus Bookshop which continues in shelves and nooks and crannies behind and beyond the café.

Until very recently, most Irish towns had a second-hand bookshop that was worth visiting, but these are vanishing at a disturbing rate. Zozimus Bookshop was founded in 2011 by John Wyse Jackson, a son of Robert Wyse Jackson (1908-1976), Dean of Cashel and then Bishop of Limerick and Killaloe.

John was born in Kilkenny in 1953 and after a degree in English Literature at Trinity College Dublin he worked as a bookseller in London. There, he became a director of John Sandoe (Books) Ltd, an independent bookshop off the King’s Road in Chelsea, wrote and edited several books, lectured and broadcast on a wide range of topics, and contributed to many journals and newspapers, including the Sunday Times, Hibernia, the Journal of Beachcomber Associates and the Spectator, and to many collections of poetry. He has a wide-ranging specialist knowledge of the works of Oscar Wilde, James Joyce and Myles na gCopaleen or Flann O’Brien.

He was also one of the founders of the Chelsea Press, whose bestsellers included a facsimile edition of the Freeman’s Journal for the first Bloomsday, 16 June 1904.

John Wyse Jackson set up the Zozimus Bookshop in Gorey in 2011 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

John, his wife Ruth and two of their sons, returned to Ireland in 2003 and settled near Gorey. He founded Zozimus Bookshop in 2011, naming his bookshop in honour of Michael Moran (aka Zozimus), the early 19th century Dublin street balladeer and poet.

John says the shop has more than 30,000 titles on his shelves. He is normally on the premises from Tuesday to Saturday, and happy to search for obscure and out-of-print titles, and to recommend good books.

Many of his paperbacks are priced at as little as €3 or €4, or even less, and he has an array of rare antiquarian books and first editions – often of Irish interest – at rather higher prices.

He proudly showed us ‘Behind the Door,’ a new room devoted to volumes of particular beauty, age or value. Behind its beautiful door, painted by the artist Una Keeley, are first editions, illustrated albums, collectible editions of classic children’s books and other curiosities, many of Irish interest.

I have spent the full afternoon in each of the sections devoted to architecture, to local history and to TS Eliot. Indeed, I could have spent days there, and forgotten that others might think I had gone missing.

I came away with books on TS Eliot and John Betjeman, and regretted I had left so much behind.

I could have been lost for days in the Zozimus Bookshop in Gorey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

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