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Rebel Reads: The story of a radical book store in the Marina
The ramshackle secondhand book store is a space for reading and readers and some non-radical ideas such as a cheap place for people to meet and talk, and even, once a month, swap clothes.
What is the point of a secondhand book store in the digital age is a pointless question, but nonetheless let’s give it a shot.
As an adult you could survive fine by never going into a book shop ever again. Even an avid reader could also and easily accomplish this: you simply go online, browse, hit buy. And wait. Usually for not very long at all.
It strikes me now though while writing this, the same could be said about food, clothes, sex, pretty much anything. If it exists, you can order it online, or the digital equivalent of it.
But here’s a minuscule selection of what you’d be missing out on if you never found yourself in Rebel Reads: The Story of the Limerick Soviet, Poems of the Dispossessed, Chaucer’s Early Poetry, The Misty Annual 1981, Dictionary of Dreams, Songs & Recitations of Ireland, Bombs Over Dublin, Brain Drain, and my new favourite book - or at least my new favourite title for a book - The Life of a Stupid Man by Ryunosuke Akutagawa.
That last book, a slim black rumination by the Japanese philosopher, spoke to me as I waited for Decy Synnott to show up in Rebel Reads, the secondhand book shop he has helped establish. As to what exactly Decy’s role is, well he took about 10 minutes to explain the non-hierarchical structure of Rebel Reads which exists without a CEO, a project manager, point guards, media liaison personnel and COOs, which is a way of saying everyone does a little and a lot, but if you contact Rebel Reads and ask to to interview someone in the know chances are you’ll get Decy who’s been with them since 2017. Just remember he’s not the boss; no one’s the boss. But he helps get things done.
A world away
From the front window of Rebel Reads you can see one side of the vast expanse of the Marina Market, the hottest ticket in town with its constantly growing mix catering to foodies and those in search of an experience, such as bringing your dog to see Santa.
The Marina Market is just across the road from Rebel Reads, but it’s also a world away in scope and size. Rebel Reads is also not cute - at least not yet - it has the look and feel of a place that’s in the process of being moved into, bookshelves line two walls, a couple of well-worn couches occupy places near the walls. There’s a kitchen, a work in progress, in the final stages of being fitted at the back of the store behind a partition, there’s a table here and there, some office chairs and everywhere the printed word in books, annuals, zines, pamphlets and encyclopedias. This is where words go for a second, third, or fourth life.
Rebel Reads grew out of Solidarity Books, which was based on Douglas Street for many years. As Decy recalls, back in 2017 there was a call out for people to get involved and he put his name down and met some of the old guard from Solidarity such as book seller James McBarron. In its first iteration, Rebel Reads existed on Father Matthew Quay in the former office of Together For Yes, which was no longer needed as a campaign headquarters following the referendum. Rebel Reads stayed there on the lease for a while longer, but ultimately had to leave when the landlord wanted it back.
At the end of 2020 Rebel Reads secured a space in the Marina Commercial Park with the help of My Goodness - a vegan food business and “lifelong anarchists” who are also members of Rebel Reads. They officially opened in June of 2021.
“We took our time getting setting up, Eamon and a few of others painted it, James put up shelves, but we took our time,” Decy says breaking into laughter recalling that the hardest part was trying to figure out the Covid-19 regulations, and how you could open a shop amidst vaccine roll-outs and after three bouts of lockdowns.
As Decy said you want a space to be safe, especially if you’re encouraging people to loiter for as long as they want in a confined space.
In less than six months they’ve had a good run of it, even though fresh rounds of Covid-related government restrictions are wiping events off the calendar. The weekend after I visited, their first Christmas Market was cancelled. There’s likely to be more events pulled, and you could talk about Covid for the rest of time. But we don’t, and we won’t and so we return to books, and why a bookstore, even a ramshackle one like this, is an ideal place to hold a concert, or a writing workshop, or a radical feminist book club, or a lecture on trees, or a venue to swap clothes.
How it works?
While Rebel Reads is quite obviously a book store, it’s also a social enterprise. As Decy explains in their very first meeting back in 2017 they agreed that to stay alive financially they wouldn’t be dependent on book sales or events.
“The work and the organisation that takes is a full-time job, and the idea is to be not for profit and it also means we’d have to pay people, and we’d love to eventually, but down the road.”
So that left building a base of paying members, each one who kicks in €5 a month to help pay for all and sundry, but especially the rent.
“The membership model came from a need to sustainably pay the rent,” Decy said. As well as membership helping put a roof over the books it also means an equal say in the running of the organisation.
Decy said the move to the Marina was a big boon for their membership, it doubled within a week and, “it was four times what we had within a month, and it’s still constantly ticking over.”
I asked Decy how many members they have now more than half expecting him to say that’s privileged information, but he had no problem revealing the answer.
They’re at around 80 (paying) members, which covers the majority of their rent. “Hopefully by our one year anniversary we’ll be 100% member funded, which will be doable and that’s the reason I don’t mind saying the numbers,” he says.
“I’m not trying to trick anyone into becoming a member, so I’d like to say we have this many members and if we get this many we’re much freer and be explicit about it.”
“When the membership entails the potential for active engagement with how we organise…transparency only helps us.”
Decy explains that being a member lets you be involved as much as you like, but that means working with the current structure.
Making space for clothes (and talking about trees)
When Joy O’Leary had the idea to set up Cork Clothes Swap earlier this year, one of her major concerns was finding a place to accommodate the meetup, which, as you might imagine, entails exchanging clothes. It’s an unfussy example of the circular economy.
Joy told me that she struggled to find an accessible venue with a large enough space that wouldn't charge her, as commerce is not part of the equation. She got lucky though because when she contacted Rebel Reads, they said yes immediately.
The clothes swap ties in with the overall philosophy of what Rebel Reads as a space represents. Their manifesto - printed on the Ecliptic newsletter - is impressively straightforward and jargon-free. It reads:
Find a space
Open it up
Invite the people in
The rest will follow
And in a way that’s exactly what’s happened.
During the jazz festival this past October Belleville Hot Club rocked up to play the music of Django Reinhardt. Trá Pháidín also played.
Decy explains that through word of mouth Belleville Hot Club knew about Rebel Reads, they called them up, told them they were doing a few paid gigs around town for the festival, but also wanted to pay in a space where the audience are just there to listen.
“They came in, set themselves up and it was brilliant, just brilliant,” Decy says. “There was a really nice buzz around. It was a cross between a gig and people just socialising and the next day Trá Pháidín played in the shop and it was big and loud. It was loud in the space, but again we’re friendly to the neighbours and it stayed within the space.”
Both of the gigs were priced as pay what you can depending on your means. Decy, a blow-in from Wexford to Cork since 2008, used to run gigs in the past, and is used to talking with artists and musicians about expectations.
“The questions are what do they need to get out of it and what do we need to get out of it? If someone needs to make up the cost of a running an event, we’ll put a set price that will get them there. If they want to do it for fun and they wanna give a bit of money for upkeep, we’ll do it with donations.”
“Because it’s a new space, because there’s a lot of new people involved in running it we’re going to learn as we go what dynamic works for this space. We’ll practise what we preach and let it be led by the needs of the community.”
In November, Trees Please hosted a talk with Tony Langlois at Rebel Reads. Tony expounded on his time developing community nurseries in London along with a demonstration on tree propagation. And since October on the first Wednesday of every month Joy O’Leary has been trying to establish a system that bypasses consumerism with Cork Clothes Swap.
Joy thinks the space, scrappy and all as it is, is a great addition to Cork.
“What (other) book shop offers you a cup of coffee while you browse? The space for events Rebel Reads offers is a great asset to Cork.”
“If you have an idea for a creative community event you should get in touch,” Joy added.
Before Jim Horgan opened Plugd on Corn Market Street a few months back, he set up a temporary home in the Marina at Rebel Reads. The space lends itself to music and talks as much as it does to books, in fact it’s the kind of space where you could cook up anything - and quite possibly cooking could be something - when the kitchen out back is finished being fully installed down the line.
At one stage this summer they had a run of Rebel Reads’ Ridiculous and Radical workouts which were broadcast online from the secondhand book shop. The last workout was a look back at the legacy of Margaret Thatcher while getting sweaty.
In the hands of a marketing agency, what they’ve created would probably be labelled a campus. They’d probably also tag in the word creatives too.
But, back to the books (and zines)
The idea for a bookshop is that it lends itself to loitering and lingering, and also discussion. It’s a well-documented fact that people in libraries and book stores ask questions about books. And at Rebel Reads you’ll always be offered a cup of tea or coffee and perhaps even a treat - I was offered a cup by Eamon almost as soon I entered - and then off you go motoring through the rows and rows of books.
As to how much a secondhand book should cost, Decy says they set the baseline cost at €3. “It’s all about being affordable, and then we go above or below depending on how recent the book is, how rare the book is, what condition it’s in and how many other books a person buys.”
As Decy explains if someone picks up a load of books “you’ll do them a fairly significant deal.”
“And that has happened. They leave happy and it helps me get stuff off the shelves.”
When I asked Decy if he’s surprised that a book shop can still cut it in today’s digital and social media saturated world he was unequivocal in his mild-mannered way.
Sadly, for me anyway, it’s getting harder and harder to devote the time and attention to finish a book. 2021 has probably been the worst year in a while for me for not finishing books, my attention monopolised by shite on my phone.
“I know what you mean, yeah,” Decy says. “I do still read and I have to force myself to do it at times because I know it’s good for me and I know I feel a little bit better about the world when I finish a book because it’s a much more tangible thing.”
Decy says he’s always had a love for secondhand book shops and record stores.
“You always end up going ‘Ah shur get something, because the whole place feels good and I want to get a bit from it.’”
He references Bookmart in Sligo where he says he always feels he has to take away something every time he goes “because I like the place.”
Long term, Decy said he’d love to get some equipment set up in the shop that would allow people to have a go at self publishing.
“That could be as small as having a printer and letting people format PDFs or as big as a DIY press where you could bind your own books in here. I have an image in my head about how it would work.”
Decy also rattles off screen printing as well as a project his brother is working on: building a synthesiser for the shop.
“That could be used on a music library basis where you could come in and use it for your projects.”
They have in the past allowed musicians to come in and record songs for albums, the thinking being it fulfils pretty much all the numbers on their manifesto.
“One of our volunteers needed a space to record an album before we opened up and she needed a space that wasn’t her bedroom.”
Decy’s in full flow now and talks about a music library and having instruments available.
Rebel Reads has a lot of growing to do which has to be done under the cloud of a pandemic. They’re up to being open three days a week.
“I would safely say we’re open three days a week, Friday, Saturday and Sunday,” Decy says.
Eamon chimes in that they’re open on “Thursdays 75% of the time.”
“Part of me does embrace that, because we are voluntary and I like that people would appreciate that the place is run by people who are not getting paid to do it and they’re carving out the time to do it.”
Before I head off back home I do one more tour while Decy brings over some books. Their stock of non-fiction and history books is strong, and their zine collection is great and growing, helped out by inheriting an archive from Red Ink in Dublin. It’s been so long since I picked up a zine, in English anyway.
If bookstores are about one thing above all else they are about discovery, and that’s how I ended up with Brain Drain, a Dublin-based zine which had an interview with Cork-based label The Department of Energy which Tripe + Drisheen follow on Twitter. I realise this is all getting a bit meta, but Brain Drain also had a play with two characters, one a basketball and the other a clitoris and it unfolds next to an ice-cream truck. And why not?
I didn’t have enough coin - literally - to pick up Issue 2 of Brain Drain, but Decy generously said he’d pay for it. I’ll be back. And who knows what else besides a book or a zine I’ll discover in a space that is odd and different and bookish and badly needed.
Incidentally, I did have one one euro coin on me, which was the price of Akutagawa’s Life of a Stupid Man.
For more information on becoming a member check out the Rebel Reads website here