One Question Quiz
Lisa Jean O’Reilly (Image: Tina Tiller)
Lisa Jean O’Reilly (Image: Tina Tiller)

BooksApril 17, 2024

‘Coffee table books or Dune’: Secrets from the bookshop floor

Lisa Jean O’Reilly (Image: Tina Tiller)
Lisa Jean O’Reilly (Image: Tina Tiller)

Welcome to The Spinoff Bookseller Confessional, in which we get to know Aotearoa’s booksellers. This week: Lisa Jean O’Reilly, bookseller at Unity Books Auckland.

The weirdest question/request you’ve had on the shop floor

Last week a couple came into the store, holding hands, and asked if we stock any practical sex books. I handed them How To Think About Sex by Alain de Botton, which they were disappointed with, it was too literary for what they wanted, and asked if I had anything more “hands on”. I ended up giving them the Kama Sutra and wishing them well.

Funniest thing you’ve overheard on the shop floor

Probably the man who came in asked to order in some very specific books about murders and hiding bodies. If anyone goes missing in Auckland soon I’m sure you could find him through our ordering system. We were all pretty freaked out :’)

Best thing about being a bookseller

Spending every day around books and going home feeling fulfilled. And the staff discount. And that we have dogs in the shop. There is so much to love. 

Worst thing about being a bookseller

That sometimes you are reminded that this is a retail job. Sometimes there are so many things to do and the priority is serving customers in front of you, and there can be a queue the length of the shop and you lose a receipt and your colleague is in your way and all you want to do is be lying horizontal watching Married at First Sight in your bed in Grey Lynn.

Most requested book/s 

At the moment it is Dune. But we do get a lot of requests for specific “coffee table” books on obscure topics like Scandinavian Knitting practices or the building of the America’s Cup team boat for Italy, specifically. I would say yeah, coffee table books as gifts or Dune are the most requested books. 

Most underrated book

The Pages by Hugo Hamilton. The owner of Unity, Jo McColl, recommended this book to me a couple weeks ago and I haven’t put it down since. I wasn’t so sure about it at the start because it is narrated by a book itself, which I thought would be trippy and kind of fantastical, but actually it is a phenomenal tool to get multiple perspectives in a linear way that makes sense to read. It is so underrated, the writing is enthralling; it is a work of genius!

What would you recommend to someone looking for comedy

David Sedaris or Michael McIntyre, they are both so funny. I was given out to a lot in school for reading the Michael McIntrye books at the back of the class, it’s actually laugh out loud comical. He’s gas.

What would you recommend to a tourist ‘looking for something from NZ’

We get this a lot from tourists who come in on the cruise ships from the viaduct and friends and family that have visited me in New Zealand and have come into the store (I’m from Ireland). I usually recommend Patricia Grace or Witi Ihimaera, especially Bird Child & Other Stories and The Whale Rider. Oh and also the Penguin New Zealand Anthology of Short Stories that reaches back into the last 50 years of stories in NZ. And that one also has a pretty cover.

From left to right: One of the books recommended for those seeking a ‘hands on’ guide to sex; the most underrated book according to O’Reilly; and one of the books recommended most to tourists from out of Aotearoa.

Favourite bookshop that isn’t your own

Hodges Figgis on Dawson Street in Dublin, Ireland. I couldn’t have chosen a location that is further away, but this big green bookshop is wonderful and has been around for a very long time. I used to visit the shop (for hours) between my lectures in Trinity College nearby, reading and compiling a long long to-be-read list. Hodges Figgis was even referenced in James Joyce’s Ulysses. “She, she, she. What she?” he asks, and answers: “The virgin at Hodges Figgis’ window on Monday looking in for one of the alphabet books you were going to write. Keen glance you gave her.” And Sally Rooney (my favourite author ever!) has a scene in Hodges Figgis in her novel Conversations with Friends.

Favourite encounter with an author

That would be meeting Sally Rooney in the above book shop at a book launch. It was quite embarrassing actually, I was sick with nerves when I saw her and I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t say hi, tell her how much I admire her. So I did, but when I opened my mouth nothing came out and I welled up. I think I managed to tell her that I’m a fan (what a silly word for how much her writing has positively impacted my life!) before I descended into a very public, very quiet panic attack. It was awful. And as she comforted me all I could think was “Sally Rooney is comforting me”, which I soon realised was making things worse. Eventually I managed to calm the eff down, not before her husband and a friend had come over to see if I was OK, and she gave me some really amazing advice for writing and was so lovely in receiving how much I admired her as a person and author. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that day, meeting my idol was definitely memorable.

The book I wish I’d written

Well, surprise surprise, my answer to this has to be Normal People by Sally Rooney. I think that books are as much the person who writes them as anything, so I never could write a Normal People because I am not Sally Rooney, do you know what I mean? I could try, but it would only meet my intellectual ability and technical skill, not hers. But damn am I trying anyways, I have been writing a novel about four students in a student house in Dublin for almost four years now, so hopefully my favourite authors have influence on my book in their own special way. I would be in a good spot if it was even 1% of how amazing Sally Rooney’s work is.

Everyone should read

A lot. Because I believe storytelling is so important for maturity, for comfort; it’s so good for your mental health, and it fosters empathy. Besides, you get super smart reading about different perspectives and ideas in the world. I think reading makes you a better person. 

The book I want to be buried with

Maybe And By the Way… by Denise Deegan because it was the first book I ever loved fully. It is about a lonely female protagonist at school who has lots of friends, but her own inner struggles. This resonated with my younger self, and it is special for that reason, so I reckon that book. And I only said that because Normal People can’t be my answer again.

From left to right: One of the books that O’Reilly would read forever if she had to; the book she’d be buried with; and the book she’s reading now.

If you could only read three books for the rest of your life they would be

Normal People (sorry), Room by Emma Donoghue, and Ulysses by James Joyce because it would keep me amused for decades.

What are you reading right now

Stoner by John Williams. It’s really enjoyable, I like his writing style, it’s mellow. Next will be a Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, because it’s time to tackle one of those big lads. 

Keep going!