From One Bookseller To Another

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.