By Jasmine Crittenden
Readers used to travel a long way to visit The Book Collector. Before closing in July 2008, it was Parramatta’s busiest secondhand bookshop. Among the 10,000-strong collection, customers ferreted around for first edition Biggles novels, out-of-print war diaries and antiquarian Australiana.
“I remember people actually shedding tears on the last day, bringing us chocolates and flowers and cards. One lady was sobbing,” says Bill McLennan, who had co-owned and managed the business with his wife, Barbara, since 1993. “But it just wasn’t viable anymore. We were continually facing rent increases, which the landlord didn’t feel the need to justify. The last time it happened, we decided to pull up stumps.”
Mr and Mrs McLennan trucked the best of their goods to their home in Castle Hill, from where they now sell via online marketplace AbeBooks. “We miss the customers – getting to know their likes and needs – and the excitement when they’d come across something unexpected.”
Australia’s secondhand bookshops are disappearing. It’s not only exorbitant rents causing booksellers to struggle to survive, but also the fierce competition enabled by the Internet. AbeBooks alone lists more than 100 million titles. This means both cheaper prices and the proliferation of books previously thought rare. Finding a first edition of To Kill A Mockingbird is merely a matter of typing a few words into a search engine.
John Tipper, editor of Collecting Books and Magazines, says, “Initially – in the late ‘90s – the Internet pushed prices to astronomical heights, in respect of rare children’s titles. But, by 2006, eBay led to a flow of books, which grew rapidly due to the number of collectors, dealers and ‘runners’ (non-collectors, whose sole interest is buying valuable items cheaply and selling directly to dealers) rummaging through deceased estates, op shops and church fairs.
“Now, once-considered-scarce books are available online at reasonable prices in their hundreds, or indeed, hundreds of thousands.”
Then, of course, came the e-book and the growth of reading online.
“It’s the chaos that I miss,” says Peter Saw, whose local secondhand bookseller, The Bowral Bookmen, moved into cyberspace in March 2014, after 24 years on Bong Bong Street, Bowral.
“It was like a scene from Aladdin – people coming and going, the eccentric bookseller, the feeling that I might make a discovery. You can go into a new shop, or online, and order something you want, but in a secondhand shop, you don’t know what you might find. Sometimes the hunt is just as exciting as getting your hands on the book.”
Mr Tipper says all his favourite haunts have closed down except for Lamdha Books at Wentworth Falls and Cooks Hill Books in Newcastle.
“My most missed shop will always be Neil Duell’s on Liverpool Road. I miss being able to browse through the latest arrivals while talking to a friendly dealer. And I worry about younger people, who might never know the pleasures of the secondhand bookshop.”
However, he points out that the rise in online sales has its benefits. “For most buyers and browsers, it’s easier to use the web to find what you want. Because so many more books are available, there’s never been a better time to collect the favourite books of your childhood.”
And, even though Mr and Mrs McLennan miss their customers, they don’t miss the long hours. “We were tied to the shop, six days a week. It made it hard to get away on holidays or weekends. But on AbeBooks, you can take a break easily. You just hit a link on the site and your books disappear for a spell,” Bill says..
Barbara adds, “We have a campervan and we’re not tied to anything anymore, so we can pop off whenever we want to. Last winter, we spent seven weeks in Queensland.”
They’re also able to spend more time at home with their private collection, which numbers 5,000 books. Mr McLennan’s books line all four walls of a sun-filled study, divided into his four categories of interest: cricket, rugby, African and Indian wildlife, and Biggles.
“I started collecting books when I was given a Biggles at the age of 12. I now have more than 450 of Captain W.E. Johns’ books of my own. And I’m probably the largest seller of Biggles on Abe.” Mrs McLennan’s biggest loves – textiles and Elsie J. Oxenham’s Abbey series – are in the room next door.
The double garage, converted into one large space, houses the 7,500 books that make up the commercial collection.
“As soon as they arrive, we sort, label and place them. I never stock more than two copies of any title. It’s a waste of space. If I ever make a mistake and buy extras, I become very annoyed with myself. Organisation is the only way to do it.
“A friend of ours died last year and his house was filled with books, from one end to the other – boxes and boxes and boxes that had never been opened or touched or read. For some people, it becomes a disease – hoarding and collecting aren’t the same thing. When I get an order, I know exactly where to find the book. I parcel it up and take it straight to the post office.”
Meanwhile, young booksellers are finding new ways of making old models relevant. Nick Patrick and Kate Treloar, a couple living in the heart of Adelaide, bought Chapter Two, a secondhand bookshop in Stirling in the Adelaide Hills in 2008.
But by 2012, they wanted to work closer to home. So, on a mid-winter’s night, they dragged two chairs and a crate of their favourite books onto King William Street and spent the next 12 hours talking to passers-by about reading. Their business, Adelaide’s Pop-Up Bookshop, was born.
Rather than settling into a permanent spot, they sell their books on a “pop-up” basis – in streets, in temporary spaces and at boutique markets.
“Most book shops are tucked away down side streets. But these days, people are less likely to make the physical effort to go searching, because they know everything’s available online. So, we put ourselves in the front line, right in people’s faces. We want to remind them of how important and how wonderful it is, to have just a small number of really good books.”
The idea was inspired by a trip to Europe in 2011, where Mr Patrick and Ms Treloar noticed that fashion labels and big brands were using pop up events to promote products.
In Sydney, Kings Cross’s renowned Bugden Books has received a new identity. Paul Bugden founded the shop in Victoria Street in 1997, before moving to 220 William Street, just a few hundred metres from the iconic Coca Cola sign, in 2002. Tamara Kennedy and Tom Hespe, a couple in their early thirties, bought the business in September 2013, gave it a face-lift and renamed it Grand Days, after Frank Moorhouse’s heroine Edith Campbell Berry.
The shop retains all the elements of tradition – from a large classics collection, which “sell very well”, to the owners’ relaxed, welcoming attitude towards browsers.
However, Ms Kennedy and Mr Hespe offer more than just books. “We listen to our customers,” Ms Kennedy says. “And Tom and I are very eclectic. We’re collectors ourselves, so the shop is a reflection of our personalities. I’ve freshened it up with lots of plants and flowers. We have plenty of bric-a-brac and interesting, quirky things.
“At the moment, I have little handmade, knitted baby jumpers, because we found them on our travels somewhere and thought they were cute. People like something out of the ordinary, that has a bit of soul to it.”
A back room is dedicated entirely to vinyl. Visitors are welcome to dip into the collection and spin records for as long as they like. “We want people to feel that they can try before they buy. Some get lost in there for hours,” Ms Kennedy says.
Mr Hespe has put all the bookshelves on wheels, so they can be moved easily to make space for special events. The first was a Q and A with Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC.
“We invited two previous drummers from the band, so there were lots of die-hard fans here. And it turned out it was the day the current drummer got arrested. It was interesting timing,” Ms Kennedy says.
In her view, the future of secondhand bookshops is still bright, despite the numerous closures.
“Many independent shops are closing down, but people still need places to go. When I first opened, a man came in and gave me $5 and said, ‘Thank you, just for being here.’ So many people have said, ‘Please, whatever you do, stay open.’
“People love coming here, even if they don’t buy anything. They love the smell of it. They love being surrounded by books. They like something tangible. You can’t live your whole life online,” she says.