My first job, when I was fourteen, was as a bookseller for Angus and Robertson, saving for my first overseas adventure, and throughout the odyssey of my teens and twenties I continued to work in bookstores, up until the start of my PhD. Throughout those years I would come and go, travel and study, but always return to bookselling. I worked for Dymocks Burwood, on and off, from November 2000 to January 2012.
Like all jobs, bookselling can be exasperating and exhausting. It can also be thrilling and inspiring. Every day I would discover authors and stories I might otherwise not encounter, and learned something from each colleague and customer. Usually something good! But not always. There were some – colleagues and customers – I knew across a decade, and each store furnished my world with friends for life. After all, with a few memorably unsavoury exceptions, those who visit bookstores have one precious thing in common: a shared love of words. A good place to start. Indeed, one colleague who left Dymocks to work in a health food store explained how even the most banal bookstore chit-chat surpassed the most dynamic discourse about diarrhea for human interest.
Although it can be frustrating at times, surrounded by all that competition, working in bookstores is an excellent training ground for writers. At the end of the day, it’s where we all want our books to be, nestled hopefully on a shelf somewhere, waiting for someone to take them home. Yet in the bookstore, the romance of the writer’s life collides with the reality of commerce. To work with books is to be surrounded by inspiration, true, but it’s also in a bookstore one learns that books are physical things to be unpacked from boxes. That need to be stickered and shelved. That need to be sold.
At times my heart would break as perfectly wonderful books languished, whilst others seemingly leaped into the hands of readers. Often, a book would sell only because of the mystic chemistry between book, seller and reader. Indeed, the passion of a seller could save a book from being returned to the publisher, unsold. And the passion of a seller can transform a life, both of the reader … and an author, so many miles away! All good lessons for writers to learn.
It’s true, sometimes booksellers can become cynical. It’s not easy to share every customer’s enthusiasm for their favourite series or genre or author, although it’s worth trying to cultivate respect for writing we might otherwise avoid. Easier said than done, of course. When I read Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying I was stunned how little the ‘types’ of booksellers and readers had changed. And the last few years I worked in bookselling were especially hard, as all around us stores closed, and half the customers seemed to want to know where to buy a Kindle, or picked our brains for the best advice, before unashamedly boasting they would buy the book more cheaply somewhere else. Usually online and overseas. But since then, I think, something has changed. There is an energy in bookstores again, as the world falls in love with paper and ink anew. On my regular Sunday afternoon stroll through the bookstores of the city, there are children everywhere buying novels. Meanwhile, local online retailers, like Booktopia, developed a voice and vitality of their own, and are drawing customers back from overseas.
In early 2015 I made my first appearance as a soon-to-be-published author, introducing Empire of the Waves: Voyage of the Moon Child to a gathering of booksellers at Penguin-Random House in North Sydney. Although I was anxious speaking about the book for the first time, I knew I would be among friends. And in a very real sense, I was. Managers from not one, but two of my old bookstores were in the room! It felt like a shared victory, a culmination of all those years spent unpacking and shelving and selling. And all sorts of strange things besides, like that time I dressed as Selby the Talking Dog when Duncan Ball came to Dymocks Burwood for a signing and I almost fainted inside the suit.
The author’s apprenticeship is a long and winding road… but there are few academies and schools of life so precious as the local bookstore.