This is a re-post from a previous blog of mine. It occurred to me to do this after receiving an email from Brendan Lynch, the author of Parsons Bookshop: At the Heart of Bohemian Dublin, 1949-1989. Mr. Lynch had read my piece after a friend of his had shown it to him. I highly recommend his wonderful book to anyone interested in the Dublin literary scene of that era.
I know where and when I bought Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds because for some reason I decided to inscribe the first blank page in the book:
Purchased from the old ladies at Parsons bookstore, where the bridge crosses the canal at Baggot Street, Dublin, 15 April 1983.I have no idea what inspired me to write those words. To my recollection, I have not inscribed a book before or since.
When I read it now, "old ladies" strikes me as demeaning. I'm sure I didn't mean to be callous. I probably thought that the white-haired, soft-spoken women who ran the shop were quaint. At twenty-one, I often viewed people and situations, especially in Ireland, as subjects for my amusement. What I didn't know then was that these remarkable women -- Mary King, May O’Flaherty, and their assistants -- had actually known Flan O'Brien (real name Brian O'Nolan), and that he and one of my other literary heroes, Patrick Kavanagh, had been regular visitors to the shop during the heights of their careers in the 1950s and 60s.
I certainly did know of the significance of Parsons bookstore, and the role that its proprietors played in Irish literary history, when I returned to Dublin in late 1984. I had a small flat on Herbert Place, just down the canal from the shop, and I would drop by every morning. I liked the idea that I was walking the same ground as O'Nolan, Kavanagh, and other famous writers like Brendan Behan, and exchanging pleasantries with their old friends.
But if the women ever thought of me at all, it would only have been as the shy American who came in every morning and bought a copy of the Irish Times and a Cadbury bar. In the six months that I visited their shop, I never engaged them in any meaningful conversation. “Good morning,” “Thank you,” and comments about the weather were as far as I got.
I don't know why I didn't ask them about the old days, or divulge my passion for the work of Kavanagh and O'Nolan. I suppose that I had some silly notion that my dignity would be compromised, that I would appear to them like a typical American tourist. What a shame. They were gracious and kind, and likely would have given me anecdotes that don't exist in any of the biographies. Who knows, I might have learned something interesting or important I could share here. But that opportunity is long gone. So is Parsons, and so are those venerable women.I learned of Mary King's death on June 25, 1995 -- ten years later and three thousand miles away from Parsons. I was in another bookstore, the Borders in the Chestnut Hill neighborhood of Philadelphia, near where I now live. I must have been feeling nostalgic for my time in Dublin, and purchased a copy of the Irish Times. Her death notice was the first thing I saw when I turned the front page. It read in part:
Queen of books dies aged 83I clipped the notice out of the paper and it has been stuck inside my copy of At Swim-Two-Birds ever since.
A landmark of Dublin's literary world has passed away with the sudden death of Mary King. Aged 83 she ran Parsons book shop in the city for 38 years and her knowledge of books was unsurpassed.