Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Recollections of the Book Trade

The outing to the Melbourne Rare Book Fair, brought back fond memories of my years working in the book trade.

Although I ended my working life in the public service, I originally spent many years working in various bookshops, starting with Collins Book Depot in the May 1972.

 collins book depot
Collins Book Depot – 115 Elizabeth Street, Melbourne

I was placed in charge of the children’s book section, which suited me fine. The bookshop was very popular with the Melbourne establishment. I remember that Barry Humphries was a regular customer at that time and was fawned over by management.

However, I was not what you would call a biddable employee in my early years of working, so drew the ire of management and was dismissed after about a year on the job. Despite my degree, I had no desire for a proper job, so went on unemployment benefits or the dole as it was, and is still, known.

Flash Memories

  • The horrible Mr Mac, an elderly man (I believe he was about 90 years old) who had inherited his job for life. He was in charge of the till and guarded it like a fierce dog. To the customers he was a marvel, but to us junior staff he was an ogre.
  • Mr Craven, the manager, who was bald, but mysteriously had a container of brylcream in his office. There was a rumour going around that he was having an affair with the lady manager of another branch of Collins and we speculated that the brylcream came into play in their relationship.

In those days when on the dole, you were obliged to rock up to the nearest employment office every week and be interviewed and see what jobs were on offer. The dole at that time was about $20.00 a week, but surprisingly you could survive on it, as the cost of living was cheap.

The Dole Office eventually sent me off to Halls Book Store in Chapel Street Prahran. 

Hall’s Book Store was cheese to the chalk of Collins Book Depot, and I had the privilege of working under noted bibliophile and book dealer, Jack Bradstreet

He was a wonderful person to work for and the section of Hall’s of which he had charge was a book-lover’s haven. It sold both new and second hand books – there were thousands of them, on shelves, in drawers and stacked on tables. Jack ran a searcher service for hard to find titles.  When one of the sought after books came in, we had to ring the requester and tell them the good news. Some were delighted and amazed, but others denied all knowledge of the order, as on some occasions they had placed the order years before and forgotten about it.

Whilst I was at Hall’s I did acquire a couple of what are now valuable books – a first edition of The Dalkey Archive by Flann O’Brien, an early edition of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Secret Garden and a rare Jack Kerouac book, Visions of Gerard & Tristessa, all for a few dollars.

When Hall’s Book Store closed in 1975, Jack Bradstreet acquired the second hand book stock and set up his own shop in Hawthorn.  I used to see him quite often when he came into the city. He used to drop in at Space Age Books where I worked to say hello. He eventually sold his shop, Bradstreet Books, and it is still in the same business under the new owner. They had a stall at the Rare Book Fair.

Flash Memories

  • There was an old derelict bag woman who would drop into the shop every so often and give Mr Bradstreet a present of mouldy vegetables, which he would graciously accept and thank her for, then chuck them in the bin.
  • One hot day in summer, when we were all feeling the heat Mr Bradstreet suggested we all take it in turns go to the pub up the road and cool down with a few drinks.

I left Hall’s in December 1973 after being offered a job at Space Age Books, a bookstore I had been long wanting to work.  It turned out to be one of the best jobs I ever had. All ex employees of Space Age Books would agree that working for Space Age spoiled us for other employment.

*A very poor quality photo of Space Age Books – yours truly is pretending to be absorbed by a book on spectacular movies. The original photo was taken for an article in the **The Sun in 1975.

Space Age Books was one of the most interesting independent bookstores in Melbourne during the 1970s. It was started by Merv Binns in 1971 with the backing of millionaire Science Fiction enthusiast Ron Graeme and it was Melbourne’s (and Australia’s) first Science Fiction bookshop. It was situated in Swanston Street, across the road from the old Queen Victoria Hospital.

Naturally, with a name like Space Age Books its main trade was Science Fiction and Fantasy, most of it imported from the USA. It also had a large section on cinema and a good collection of counter cultural literature, whole earth stuff as well as books on astrology, tarot and such. Art books and posters (I still have a large collection of art posters I purchased from Space Age), were also on sale along with comics, contemporary fiction, records; in fact just about everything a discerning alternatively inclined citizen could desire.

The 1970s was a golden age in terms of fine book publishing. With my staff discount I built my personal library, which I have been displaying  on my other blog Eye Candy for Bibliophiles.  Yes, I know it is over a year since I last updated it, but I’m psyching myself up to putting new content on it soon.

It was great fun working at Space Age and unlike the Public Service I made some good friends whom I still see occasionally. We all felt like part of a family, in fact Merv’s dad, Ernie, was part of the scene too and used to give me fresh fish and yabbies that he and Merv had caught, and also dahlias. Ernie grew dahlias for show, so you can imagine the glory of a bunch of them. 

The bookshop patrons were a mixed bunch, ranging from the very eccentric to celebrity figures. Film critics Bill Collins and Ivan Hutchinson were regulars and very pleasant gentlemen to deal with.

Space Age closed in 1985, but I left voluntarily in 1976 or ‘77, then returned in 1979 and was made redundant in 1983 due to the shop suffering financial difficulties, but it was without animosity and I continued to purchase books there until it closed for good.

Flash Memories

  • The first time I heard Bob Marley & The Wailers and reggae music, early in the morning whilst dusting the books.
  • The excitement occasioned by the arrival of new books – boxes and boxes of them.
  • The weirdo who used to come into shop dressed as Dracula.
  • The Star Trekkies who met upstairs on Friday nights. 
  • Attending the preview screening of Blade Runner and being blown away. It is still one of my all time favourite movies

I did work in two other bookstores after Space Age, briefly part time for a shop called Book Masters which had a small store in Little Bourke Street, and The Little Bookroom, after which, being tired of the incertitude of employment in the trade, I joined the Public Service and settled down to earning some long service allowances.

I never regretted not returning to the Book Trade, but I have mostly happy recollections of my time as a bookstore sales assistant.

* I discovered this photo on Technicolour Yawn. It is part of a larger image of a newspaper article, which I cropped.

**Sorry to disappoint you Ms O’Dyne. In the interests of accuracy I have ascertained that the article for which the photo was snapped, was published in The Sun, and not the Nation Review, in 1975. However it has some cachet, the article being written by Anti Football League founder Keith Dunstan.


Ann ODyne said...

Great post Catwoman. I knew Merv Binns from the 1972 Science Fiction and Fantasy Film Club. Meetings were on the 4th floor walkup of the storehouse building in the lane behind McGills (which later became the lane behind Au-Go-Go).
Mr Bradstreet sounds like the most gorgeous man, and Sharon Gray did him proud in her piece. With regard to their silverfish hints, I do like to put the blowdryer over the pages or tops of books to flush out the dust.
Thanks for the links.

Ann ODyne said...

forgot to mention how impressed I am that your photo was in the legend that was Nation Review. We used to rush round the milkbars on sundays trying to get a copy.

Anne S said...

Thanks Ms ODyne, you seem to have haunted the same terrain as me back in the 60s & 70s.

BTW Sharon Gray is the pen name of my best friend at boarding school. I'd lost touch with her for over 50 years, but I made contact after I'd sussed that Sharon Gray was indeed her. We send greetings to each other at Xmas these days.

Nation Review was a great publication, nothing since has matched it for brilliance.