David Torrans - A Bookseller's Alibi

Writer Ian Sansom talks to No Alibis' owner on bookselling, book loving and becoming immortalised in print

The latest event at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry features David Torrans, owner of everyone’s favourite crime bookstore, No Alibis, in conversation with writer Ian Sansom.

‘Why would any sane person start a bookshop?’ the avuncular Sansom asks by way of introduction. Having an esteemed critic question one’s sanity would probably be enough to unnerve most people, but not Torrans.

‘We all have dreams in our lives about what we want to do, and those fortunate enough to get an opportunity to do it,’ the bibliopole explains of his life and work.

Casually dressed in jeans and top, a sharp sartorial contrast with his interlocutor’s tweed jacket and heavy undercoat, Torrans is relaxed and talkative throughout. His passion for books, he explains to a captive audience, comes from his childhood. 'We were avid library readers. Dad was always appearing with bags of books.’

After attending Queen’s in his mid-20s, Torrans graduated with a degree in history, and soon found himself working in the university’s bookshop. ‘But there was always this desire to do something on my own,’ he comments.

Torrans' big break came when two former lecturers he remained friends with – ‘we loved the same books, films, jazz’ – approached him with a surprising offer. ‘I was sitting in the bookshop at Queen’s when one of the lecturers phoned. He said ‘if myself and Steve (the other lecturer) were to give you £10,000 each as a loan would you start up a bookshop?’

A week later Torrans accepted the offer, and No Alibis was born. Sort of. It took two years of hard work and development before the now iconic store finally opened its doors on Botanic Avenue in 1997. ‘We had a massive party, my dad was the barman – it was great,’ recalls Torrans.

Sansom speaks fondly of his first trip to Torrans' cosy bookstore, with his three little children in tow: ‘You asked ‘would you like a cup of tea or coffee?’ and I thought ‘I could like this place’.’

The convivial, good tempered discussion also touches on the evolution of No Alibis as it adapts to new technologies. ‘With the internet you can buy any book that you want and have it shipped to your door. We’ve had to change the way we do things to cope with that,’ says Torrans.

One of the ways No Alibis has done that has been with instore musical and literature events (even, on occasion, mixing both). Torrans reminisces about the first international writer who visited the bookstore, the crime novelist Lawrence Block.

‘He was, and still is, a major first in the genre.’ Although the store was then smaller, Block’s reading attracted more than two hundred people. ‘We had to set up a PA out the back,’ he laughs.

Having met many crime writers Torrans suggests they are distinct from more literary types. 'There doesn’t seem to be that ego with crime writers. They are easy going and down to earth people,’ he declares.

Probed about the authors he would ‘take to the grave’ Torrans hesitantly selects Patricia Highsmith and Richard Ford, though interestingly there is no mention of a certain Northern Irish crime writer… Colin Bateman.

No Alibis, it seems, is about to be immortalised in Bateman’s new novel, Mystery Man. And the protagonist of the story? Yes, it’s the owner. Torrans laughs off the suggestion that the main character was based on him. ’Though I must say it’s easily one of the weirdest things.’

Bateman is back been at No Alibis on May 1 at 7.00 pm to launch Mystery Man, while later in the month No Alibis will host a reading by the international bestseller Michael Connelly at the Waterfront.

Ada Cruz