DITCHING a demanding pensionable job and taking a leap of faith to realise a dream has all the hallmarks of a best-seller. Surviving two recessions in the retail sector, opening a new premises and winning a prestigious award only adds to a tale that spans a quarter of a century.
Joan Lucey believed the dream could come true when she turned a new page in her life.
“I found my niche totally by accident,” says the owner of Vibes and Scribes on Bridge Street and Lavitt’s Quay. “I was a natural shopkeeper.”
But Joan had to learn how to balance the books as well as learning how to sell them.
“When I opened the book shop in Macroom I did the accounts and the selling as well,” says Joan. “I got to know the business inside out, learning by my mistakes, like not ordering too many copies of books.”
Joan could have been in the dry-cleaning business.
“When I left the bank after 16 years, I looked around the town and saw that it had no dedicated book-shop or a dry-cleaners.”
Books won out.
“My father was a big reader,” says Joan. “When I opened the book shop in Macroom, he said, I’ll have no book left with you! Some of my first lot of stock came from his collection.”
The Lucey house was a treasure trove filled with books.
“My sisters and I grew up surrounded by a houseful of books,” says Joan.
“I loved reading Agatha Christy novels. I remember lying on my bed at night, wondering who did it.
“I loved Enid Blyton too. I was always keen to read, despite being mildly dyslexic. Once I started reading; I never stopped.”
Mr Lucey encouraged his daughter’s career in banking.
“He recommended a pensionable job,” says Joan. “I was good at figures and I enjoyed my time at the bank for 16 years.”
When a voluntary redundancy package was offered, she decided to take the chance to venture out on her own.
“I had an idea of a shop,” says Joan. “But at that point, I didn’t know what I might like to sell. I worked briefly for a friend while she was on a business trip who sold jewellery and antiques. That gave me a feel for buying and selling.”
Joan had a good feeling that she’d make a good shopkeeper and now that she had a young son she had a decision to make on where to settle herself.
“My sister, Maggie, saw premises for sale in the main square in Macroom,” says Joan. “She said she would invest in it, if I would set up in business there. I knew a girl running a book-shop in Midleton. So I contacted her and she agreed to let me work in her shop for a spell. I decided a special price bookshop was what I wanted to do.”
Joan made another valuable contact. Willie Kinsella was in the bargain book trade in Dublin and was willing to offer her some advice about going into the business.
“I remember I got all dressed up thinking I was going to a fancy lunch,” says Joan, smiling at the memory.
“We went upstairs to a canteen where Willie gave me some practical advice and asked me some hard questions, I will always be grateful for his advice.”
Willie was also honest.
“He said it may be difficult to make a living from a book-shop in a small town,” says Joan.
He also pointed out that Joan was a young mother who wanted to spend some quality time with her three-year-old son Rob.
“I remember sitting in the bar of the train station shaking with worry,” says Joan.
But the troops rallied. The Lucey clan and Joan’s friends were willing to row in to get ready for the big opening.
“My child-minder, Nora Cotter, was another great find,” says Joan. “Rob was like a member of their family. He is 29 now and he still visits Nora.”
There was an air of mystery in Macroom before the book-shop opened for business.
“I was terrified that somebody else might come up with the idea of opening one in the town,” says Joan. “I had the windows covered with newspapers in case anyone knew what was happening inside.
“The place was full of boxes of books from wholesalers. I emptied all the boxes and the invoices. One of my colleagues from the bank was passing and she popped in to help out. She sorted the invoices out for me!”
Joan looked the part of the serious businesswoman.
“I got a present of a brief case, which remained empty,” she says. “And I acquired a van that was painted in green lettering saying; Macroom Bookshop. I went to a lot of book fairs in that van. I parked it among all the posh cars!” say Joan. “I was very proud of it.”
The Macroom bookshop was an overnight success.
“The people of Macroom really supported me,” says Joan. They enjoyed the spontaneous gatherings too. “We had fabulous evenings at the bookshop.
“The company of Alice Taylor, Deirdre Purcell, and John A. Murphy, among others, made for wonderful social evenings.”
Business was good. Joan had learned how to balance and how to sell the books. It was time to branch out.
“Willie advised me once more,” says Joan. “We met at a book fair in London. During our chat it came up that perhaps I may not afford much time off work just staying with the Macroom shop. If I wanted more time off and more time with Rob, I had to broaden my horizons.”
Bridge Street beckoned. The charming old building beside the River Lee was in sound condition, the right location, and it was ready for new life to be breathed into it. It needed to be funded too.
“I re-mortgaged my house,” says Joan. “Yes, it was during the first recession, but property was cheap. I opened with 800 square feet, gradually opening up three floors taking in 5,000 square feet.
“When the book business expanded, we needed more space, and even more when the online business took off.”
Bridge Street became a trendy spot and a popular meeting place. It was a home for second-hand books, hard ones, soft ones fly-leafed and dog-eared; fiction and fact, fantasy and farce.
“We stocked CDs, videos and LPs,” says Joan. “It was around this time that a patron suggested the name Vibes and Scribes.” The name has a nice ring to it.
“Yes and it became our brand,” says Joan. “The shop was one of its kind.”
But there were testing times.
“Yes, there were a lot of hours involved,” says Joan. “I worked full-time, bringing home accounts with me. Even though at times the business consumed me I never lost the passion for shop- keeping. I was good at it. Everything came naturally to me even during tough economic times.”
Rob showed signs of entrepreneurship as well.
“Once, I was giving out flyers advertising an event at the shop,” says Joan. “I found Rob outside on the street selling a flyer to an elderly man for 1p!”
With Joan’s good business sense, which stemmed from her banking days, her good work ethic and with good people around her, Vibes and Scribes flourished.
The next chapter was waiting to be written.
“The Lavitt’s Quay premises was originally a pension plan scheme,” says Joan.
But retirement was not in the script. Joan laughs.
“Little did I think that the premises would prove to be another viable business,” she says.
“I knocked two units into one, concentrating on art, architecture, photography and fine-art interest. It was during the height of the Celtic Tiger. When the next door came up, I purchased that. The book business was tightening up with online options. So I got a brainwave and put in some millinery and fabric.”
The mixture was a pot-pourri of swathes of colourful materials and an irresistible variety of beautiful books, making the shop ideal for mooching.
“The craft side of the business really took off,” says Joan. “I took the decision to move all the books to Lavitt’s Quay and to dedicate Bride Street to Arts and Crafts. It worked well.”
Joan sells a combination of new and bargain-priced books in Lavitts Quay.
Meanwhile, you can have a hands-on experience in Vibes and scribes.
“Yes, we run a knitting group and we run classes in crochet, millinery and quilting,”says Joan.
“The regular events held in both shops are always well supported.”
Vibes and Scribes was named Retail Shop of The Year for 2015 and it received an award from the Cork Business Association. Its shop-front was given the honour of appearing on An Post’s 1916 commemorative postage stamp.
So does Joan have more me-time and time for Rob?
“I like to swim and go hill-walking for leisure,” she says.
“My mother, who is 87, swam with me in the sea over the summer.”
“He is a Chartered Accountant,” says Joan.
Joan is glad she took a risk way back when she was at a crossroads.
What would have happened if the re-mortgaging of her house hadn’t paid off?
“I told the bank manager that I’d live upstairs if it didn’t work out,” says Joan.
Like all happy endings; it seems the girl from Sandy Hill made good.