Bookshop of the Month – August 2021: No Alibis
What was the shop before he moved in? ‘It was a dry cleaners.’
Bit of a refit then?
He laughs. ’Very much a refit. We built most of the bookcases ourselves. I sold a lot of my first editions at the time to raise money. Raymond Chandlers’s Killer in the Rain paid for quite a few bookshelves. Some early Lawrence Block. A couple of early Ian Rankin which I wish I’d kept now, but there you go. I hired myself out as a labourer because we didn’t want to pay too much money but even back then it still cost me the guts of thirty grand to set the place up.’
It was Torrans’ knowledge of genre fiction that got the shop up and running.
‘When we opened, sixty to seventy percent of the shop was crime, but one thing I realised was that Belfast was not big enough to have a shop like Jakubowski’s Murder One in London.’
The shop has expanded over the years in the range of material it stocks, with crime now making up roughly a third of the stock, but there’s still an expertise at work in the shop that he’s proud of.
‘We knew pretty quickly there was no point trying to compete with Amazon. What we can do is provide insight and experience. I can tell someone who likes Val McDermid or Michael Connelly about books I know they’ll like which might not even be crime fiction.’
Alongside the bookshop, he runs the imprint No Alibis, whose first title was Gerald Brennan’s locally set novel Disorder, which is typical of the kind of book Torrans champions; a book inspired by Dashiell Hammett yet which doesn’t quite fit into the crime genre.
Lockdown was a test of No Alibi’s adaptability. It was particularly crushing for Northern Ireland. ‘We weren’t even allowed to do click and collect.’
What he learned from the long episode was the loyalty he had built over the years. ‘We found that people were coming to us instead of going to Amazon. They were very supportive. And when we re-opened, there was a palpable sense of joy. “Oh my goodness. We can meet the people we were speaking to on the phone.” You don’t get that looking at a computer screen.’
Its legendary book events at the shop are sadly a thing of the past for now. The last was Jane Harper, just before lockdown.
‘She was absolutely fantastic, amazing. We used to have sixty people in the shop. We were full at every event. That’s what made it so exciting. But that’s just not going to happen, not for a while.’
Of all the crime writers he’s met, who is his favourite?
‘So many of them. You know the old adage, never meet your heroes? Not the case. In all honesty, I have never been disappointed.’
No Alibis, 83 Botanic Avenue, Belfast BT7 1JL
Tel: 028 9031 9601
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