to all the bookshops i’ve loved before ~ national bookshop day 2012

I remember the first time I stepped into a Borders store.

I grew up in a little country town in Victoria with absolutely nowhere to buy books. When I first stumbled into Borders South Yarra and was presented with shelves and shelves of books…I didn’t quite know where to begin browsing. Libraries excluded, I’d never seen that many books in the one place. It was my idea of paradise.

More than ten years later, and an entire state away, I visited Borders for the last time. My local Borders was a few suburbs away from me, near the train station. I’d often visit on my way home from work on Thursday nights, or on weekends.

The last time I went to Borders, it wasn’t so much the books that I noticed, but the people looking at them. The place was packed with families. I sat, leafing through a collection of Zadie Smith essays, while metres away, a boy of around eight was sitting on the floor, entranced by a brightly-coloured graphic novel. A teenage girl browsed the sci-fi section nearby, her long, straight black hair falling over her eyes as she plucked a Scott Westerfeld novel from the shelves and read the blurb.

Children and their parents were everywhere that day – and I found myself wondering where all those kids would go to just sit and read books when the store closed. There’s one other book store in the same mall, but it doesn’t compare.

I bought the Zadie Smith book, said thank you to the lovely staff working that day, and I left. In the weeks that followed, the remaining books became even cheaper and everything that wasn’t bolted down was being sold – but I didn’t return. The thought of seeing a bookstore like that kept me away.

I live in Sydney’s outer western suburbs. It’s a densely-populated, economically-disadvantaged area. There’s a McDonald’s on every corner, but not one bookshop. You can buy books from the newsagent; from Big W or Target, but that’s about it.

We desperately need a good bookshop out here. Not one of those depressing discount concrete-floor outlets that sell poor quality books for kids and remaindered novels. I’m talking about a decent bookshop, where children can sit and read while their parents have a coffee. Where teens can move awkwardly around each other in front of the acres of black-spined young adult books. Where people of all ages and backgrounds and descriptions can begin their love affair with words.

The library out here has a great selection of books, and I often see kids walking proudly through the mall with stacks of books in their arms to take home…but still, there’s nothing quite like the feeling of having books of your own. As a child, I had a mental catalogue of all the books we owned. They were special to me. I could take them from the shelf and read them whenever I liked.

Yesterday was Australia’s second annual National Bookshop Day. We drove to the inner western suburbs to visit one of my favourite bookstores – Shearer’s Books on Norton Street, Leichhardt. It was an awful, windy day outside, but inside it was lovely. The staff were all dressed up as characters from children’s novels and the place was filled with the sound of people reading aloud, children talking, conversations flowing. It made me smile, to see such a busy bookshop. When I went to leave, there were still people pouring in through the door with windswept, bedraggled hair.

Eventually, I bought four books, then we wandered down the road for an amazing lunch at a nearby café I’ve never visited. We drove quietly, thoughtfully back home to our bookshop-deprived suburb.

My National Bookshop Day purchases!

Though I’ve lived in Sydney for years, I don’t consider myself a native yet. I’m still exploring this city; getting a feel for it. I’m still discovering the best places to buy books, to eat, to sit and talk with friends.

After a disastrous day at work, you’ll find me smiling amongst the shelves of Gleebooks in Glebe. They’re open late on weeknights – perfect for those nights I feel like taking the long, long way home. There’s just something about their tall, tightly-packed shelves that I love.

Berkelouw Books in Norton Street is another of my favourites. The only reason I didn’t visit them yesterday for National Bookshop Day was because I’d already blown my entire book budget at Shearer’s. Oops.

Back in Melbourne, I was rather smitten with Readings in Carlton. I secretly harboured dreams of working there. I think I even handed my resume to the poor person behind the desk when I was a student. Also, there was a sci-fi and fantasy specialist bookstore near Melbourne Central called – I think – Slow Glass Books that I could happily have moved into, if they’d have let me.

Also, it has to be said – even though this post is a love letter of sorts to the physical bookstore, Booktopia is my favourite place to buy books online. While I complain about the lack of a local bookstore in my suburb, at least I can get in the car or on a train and find myself wandering amongst the shelves within an hour. Not everyone’s as lucky – and for those people, Booktopia is the perfect local bookstore.

Unlike other gargantuan online bookshops, Booktopia is an independent, Australian-owned bookseller. They do a lot to help Australian readers and writers – and me! Booktopia has been instrumental in helping me track down some of the strange books I’ve read for Book to the Future, as well as deciding what to read in the first place. John’s Twitter recommendations are always spot on.

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I’m saying all this not as a matter of consumerism, but because I genuinely love books and bookshops, and I think they’re an integral part of the community. This isn’t about owning things. You can give your books to friends when you’ve finished with them. Donate them to the library. Leave them on a park bench and let someone else pick them up. Whatever makes you happy.

But if you don’t support your local bookshop, you run the risk losing it. It’s really that simple.

Author: Michelle

Reader, writer, wannabe. Literary critic (with training wheels on). Blogging my way through the 20th century's classic novels in chronological order.

8 thoughts on “to all the bookshops i’ve loved before ~ national bookshop day 2012”

  1. Well, I think you must know my opinion about supporting book stores – they are important, just like libraries are. Let’s hope they don’t disappear completely. Now that would be a sad day…

  2. Thanks Jeremy. I thought of you when I wrote briefly about libraries!

    Libraries mean a lot to me too – my Mum has worked as a volunteer in various school libraries since I started school, so I spent a lot of time hanging around libraries as a kid – which is possibly a post for another occasion.

    1. I was in and out of libraries all the time as a kid as well – it’s no wonder I ended up working in one!

      How are the reviews coming along? I’ve been struggling to get the time myself.

      1. I wish I’d thought of working as a librarian! For some reason, the thought never occurred to me when I was younger.

        I’ve been struggling for time too lately, but should have my final review for the 1950s online very soon. I hope.

  3. I also grew up in a country town where books were only available via the newsagents or variety aisle of the supermarket. It wasn’t until I hit my mid-teens and was granted permission to hop the train to a major city that I saw my first bookstore.

    Being pre-internet days, the delicious anticipation of what books they might have in stock, how many I might be able to afford, or what outta-left-field title might be recommended by an interested staff member, was life affirming stuff for someone from a place where the only thing people read were footy scores and sheep prices.

    I recently found myself wistfully sharing this moment of nostalgia with a friend’s bookworm daughter, who was dumfounded as to why, in these days of internet pre-order everything, I would travel half a day just to be surprised (or possibly disappointed).

    As cheesy as it sounds, I still think that’s half the magic of bookstores, which conveniently justifies my need to ‘check’ every bookstore that crosses my path!

    1. Yes! I can’t walk past a bookshop either!

      I moved to Melbourne when I was in my late teens, and I still remember the stress of not knowing how many books I could afford so well! I also remember the second-hand bookshop at my uni fondly – when I couldn’t afford new books, I’d go and get something from there.

      Thanks for commenting, Lee. Your response is actually more eloquent than my original post!

  4. I live in the western suburbs too, and while we do have one proper bookshop fifteen minutes away, the staff is so unfriendly that it’s never fun being there – which is sad. As small-town as this sounds, when I first started commuting to the city to study, I was amazed by how many more bookshops there were, and it began to annoy me how deprived my area was in that respect. Sometimes I wonder if things would be a little less bleak for kids growing up here if there were more decent bookshops and places that encourage reading. Sounds a little wanky, I know, but I’ve always thought reading gives you so many opportunities you wouldn’t have otherwise. Anyway, this is a beautiful post and I love the look of your blog – I’m going to trawl the archives now.

    1. Good bookshops out in this area would go a long way to helping the next generation get the best possible start in life.

      I completely agree that a love of reading and books allows children a huge advantage in education and life…although, having been a reader all my life, perhaps I’m a little biased.

      Thanks for visiting Manda!

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