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.