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Word perfect

24 January 2018

How to navigate the streets of Melbourne using its bookstore brilliance (and lots of coffee)

Melbourne is a city in love with words. Anointed a Unesco City of Literature in 2008, it has the largest number of bookstores in Australia and is home to two-thirds of the country’s independent publishing industry. It also has the oldest public library and the highest concentration of community book clubs in the nation and, unsurprisingly, the highest consumption per capita of books, magazines and newspapers in Australia.

“There is a strong bookishness about Melbourne and that’s underlined by the number of quirky, subject-unusual independent bookstores we have,” says Tim White, president of the Australian Booksellers Association and owner of Melbourne culinary specialist store Books for Cooks. “Books and literature represent a particular cultural thread that holds Melbourne together.”

Quirky, specialist, committed and amazingly diverse, Melbourne’s bookstores offer real insight into what makes the city tick.

Books for Cooks

It’s entirely appropriate that the best culinary bookstore in Australia occupies a shopfront facing the oldest fresh food market in the country: the Queen Victoria Market. The proximity to history and food plays out inside the shop too where Amanda and Tim White have a collection of around 30 000 titles, new, second hand, vintage and antiquarian, displayed in well-ordered, tightly packed timber shelving. It has the air of an undiscovered treasure, despite being colonised by a steady stream of browsing customers, their bags and baskets full of fresh produce from the market.

Tim and Amanda have owned the shop for 18 years. “We bought it an hour after seeing an ad in the paper,” says Tim. “I was working as a lawyer and Amanda was a professional cook but we’d both been cooks and bibliophiles for years – it was a standing joke in our families that this is what we should do. It was one of those things: the world’s worst business plan but the world’s best decision.”

There’s an emphasis on cookbooks, shelved by author, cuisine, country or technique at Books for Cooks but there are also great sections on food history, sociology, politics and fiction.

First editions by Elizabeth David, Patience Grey or Jane Grigson sit alongside original hardbacks from Jamie Oliver’s back catalogue and there are books, pamphlets and ephemera, some marked with cocoa or butter, that can date back to the 1700s. It’s a fascinating store, even for those with no interest in cooking. As Tim says: “Food is a good window into history.”

129-131 Therry St, Queen Victoria Market, Melbourne, Australia. +613 8415 1415 booksforcooks.com.au

Post-Browsing Pitstop: Pickett’s Deli
Expect great coffee, rotisserie meats, fantastic salads and favourable wine at this dark hued newcomer to the Queen Victoria Market.
507 Elizabeth St, Melbourne. +613 9328 3213 pickettsdeli.com

Kay Craddock Antiquarian Bookseller

There’s something distinctly Harry Potter-esque about Kay Craddock’s gorgeous second hand and antique bookstore. The space helps – a semi basement in the neo-gothic Assembly Hall building on Melbourne’s prestigious Collins Street – as do the owls, nearly 1,000 of them in all shapes, sizes and colours, sitting on shelves or in the glass display cabinets massed on rafters. Classical music plays quietly, the floors are carpeted, the shop assistants are well-dressed and well-spoken.

But it’s when you start to browse that the magic really happens. There might be a book of photos by Michael Cooper of rock stars in the 1960s and ’70s, signed by the artists themselves – the Rolling Stones, Leonard Cohen, Carly Simon, Marianne Faithful. Or perhaps a collection of literature that arrived on one of the first English ships that came to Australia, or rare books of military history, poetry and children’s stories.

Books here have been sold for $250,000. But a four-dollar tray has also been a long-standing feature. Anyone who loves books is welcome here.

Craddock started the business as a second hand store with her parents in 1965 but then refined her focus to books before moving to Collins Street in 1990. The store became renowned internationally and people approach her with their valuable book collections. She’s happy to stock anything, as long as she likes it and it’s in good condition.

“We treat all the books with the same respect – that perhaps is the secret to our success,” she says. “The condition has to be good, even with rare books. We go through every page of every book and that sets us apart. And I love the books I stock – even when they’re not valuable. I still get excited by people’s collections.”

156 Collins St, Melbourne. +613 9654 8506 kaycraddock.com

Post-Browsing Pitstop: Neapoli
A stylish two-level cafe and bar serving an excellent coffee, cold pressed juices and a range of super healthy, super tasty salads.
30 Russell Place, Melbourne. +613 9650 5020

The Little Bookroom

The Little Bookroom has been selling children’s books since 1960, which makes it, according to current owner Leesa Lambert, “definitely the oldest children’s book store in Australia but perhaps also in the world too, we think”.

Originally opened in Melbourne’s CBD, the store recently moved to the inner-city suburb of Carlton but took all the original shelving and furniture with it, neatly preserving the link to its history.

It still does what it’s been doing since day one – selling books for children aged 0-12 – though it does stock some YA fiction and a small section of adult books to give the parents something to browse as the kids make a selection. There’s an emphasis on local authors and illustrators, something Leesa says “is pretty easy to manage in Melbourne because there are six local independent publishers producing hardcover picture books so we have a range here that you won’t find anywhere else in the world”.

The store also acts as a kind of meeting place for parents and kids with a section of the store set aside for regular story telling events.

“I think of the shop as being a community hub, a third place between home and work and home and school where people come and hang out and we can share our passion for books and our love of reading,” says Leesa. “We don’t think of ourselves as selling stuff, we think of ourselves as matching kids with books and helping people find gifts that are going to keep giving.”

759 Nicholson Street, Carlton North. +613 9387 9837 littlebookroom.com.au

Post-Browsing Pitstop: Babajan
A modern Turkish cafe and bakery serving excellent pastries, salads and good coffee.
713 Nicholson Street, Carlton North +613 9388 9814

The Paperback Bookshop

A beautifully small haven for bibliophiles, The Paperback is also a great example of the timelessness of clever design. The compact shopfront store opened in the 1950s with a fit-out created by the original owner’s husband, an architect. The design – all whitewashed brick walls and dark timber shelving – is virtually unchanged nearly 70 years later and it’s fascinating how, in a shop this small, the placement and structure of the shelves allows space for around 7,000 books and for several nooks and crannies that afford peaceful browsing.

Current owner Rosie Morton has owned the shop since the mid-’90s and her brother Bill is a manager. The size of the place, he says, is integral to the selection of books on the shelves here.

“We cater to the dedicated well-read reader, the kind of people who really love their books,” says Bill. “We are extremely careful about how we choose our stock because we have such a small space so we’re not really appealing to the mass market simply because we don’t have room for it.”

There is a Tardis-like quality to The Paperback – comprehensive classics and poetry sections, the back catalogue of well-known authors as well as their current releases, books of biography, politics and sociology imported from the US and the UK, even tiny, beautifully curated sections of children’s and cook books.

But it’s the intimacy of this shop, the personal, hands-on feel of the selection that is the draw here; its own little world, lined with books.

60 Bourke Street, Melbourne. +613 9662 1396 paperbackbooks.com.au

Post-Browsing Pitstop: Pellegrini’s
One of Melbourne’s original espresso bars, Pellegrini’s has been dishing up coffee, panini and lasagne since the 1950s.
66 Bourke Street, Melbourne. +613 9662 1885

Readings

Readings is the largest independent bookseller in Australia with seven stores in Melbourne. The original store in Lygon Street, Melbourne’s Little Italy, is its spiritual home.

Mark Rubbo has owned Readings since 1976. He worked for the original owners and bought the store from them at a time when Australian publishing was in the throes of a renaissance.

“I think our success is due to the fact that we started when Australian publishing started, when people wanted to read about Australian stories told in Australian voices,” he says. “It was always my vision that Readings should be integral to that, so we’ve become embedded in the promotion of Australian writing and publishing, with deep roots in that culture and society.”

Located a couple of blocks away from the University of Melbourne and situated on a street that had become the centre of bohemian and artistic life in Melbourne in the mid-’70s, Readings was ideally placed amidst of a crowd hungry for new voices. It has stuck diligently to its mission statement, and now even runs an annual writing prize with three awards for new Australian fiction, young adult fiction and children’s fiction.

The Lygon Street store boasts an expansive collection of Australian fiction and non-fiction writing, but it also stocks an expertly curated selection of music (including an expanding vinyl section) and movies, hefty poetry, philosophy and history sections and a strong selection of cookbooks. Then there’s the Readings Bargain Table, one of the best places in the city to find great books for a song.

“We just do the things we like,” says Rubbo. “It’s the way we stay connected to our community.”

309 Lygon Street, Carlton. +613 9347 6633 readings.com.au

Post-Browsing Pitstop: Brunetti
A Melbourne icon, Brunetti is a Roman-style coffee and pastry behemoth that operates from breakfast through to supper every day.
Lygon Court, 380 Lygon Street, Carlton. +613 9347 2801

Words: Michael Harden
Images: Vincent Long

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