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.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Bibliophile Heaven – The Rare Book Fair

This past week in Melbourne has been Rare Book Week and today I went with a fellow bibliophile to the Rare Book Fair which was held at Wilson Hall in our old alma mater, Melbourne University.

book fair 001
Sculpture above entrance to the Ian Potter Museum on the outskirts of the University.

It has been decades since I last set foot in the university grounds, so before going to the fair we took a trip down memory lane to our old haunts…

old law_1

The Old Law building, which leads via a colonnaded cloister …

book fair 006

…to the Old Quadrangle…

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…and from thence to the Old Arts building, where we both attended lectures and tutorials back in the 1960s.

old arts2 

The Arts Tower Clock was a handy point of reference in terms of making the aforementioned lectures and tutorials on time.

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Back in the 1960s I didn’t appreciate the wonderful photogenic architecture of the old law and arts sector, and today was very impressed with the beauty of these old buildings.


This tree, a Morton Bay Fig, has been part of the University grounds for decades. It was old when I was student, so I’m glad it’s still alive. I vaguely recall someone doing a Yosarian (from Catch 22) impression in it way back when.

But on to the Book Fair…

book fair 019

Though I wasn’t tempted to purchase anything, it was a fascinating exhibition of old books, prints, maps, postcards, posters etc. I was most interested to see if any of my precious modern first editions were on sale and at what price they were being sold. I noticed that there was a rare rice paper edition of The Lord of the Rings, of which I have a copy, on sale for $500 and also an edition of an obscure Michael Ende novel titled The Grey Gentlemen selling for $100. I have the same edition in my personal library.

The most notable modern first edition on sale was The Great Gatsby which would set you back almost $200,000.

book fair 020

So there were treasures aplenty for a dedicated book lover to lust over, but there were no bargains to be had; the books I fancied were way beyond my price range.

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Australiana – worth big bucks these days.

Today was the final day of the Rare Book Fair, so I’m glad I was able to attend, as I only found out about it on Thursday last week. Apparently it’s on every year, or since last year so far.

Rather than go home bookless, we decided, after trooping around the fair and seeing everything there was to see, to drop in on a second hand bookshop close by. There I found a terrific history of the Melbourne Cup (up to 1971) and a omnibus paperback edition of the first three novels in Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time sequence. Amazingly I do not possess a copy of Powell’s masterpiece, but I have read the entire twelve books, which were loaned to me by a friend. I rather fancy rereading it sometime or other so will endeavour to acquire the other three omnibus editions second hand at a reasonable price.

Bibliophile heaven indeed.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

War & Peace – Cat Politics: The State of Play

Blue note – Talya caught napping

As I write this post both cats are asleep on the bed - at opposite ends of course - Talya at the foot, and Willy on my pillow in his accustomed spot.

Yes, the state of cat politics has changed once more. A truce appears to have been called and they are tolerating each other most of the time.

Who would have thought  a month ago that the following situation could occur…


B is understandably looking apprehensive with both cats occupying different parts of his person. Not exactly B’s knees but close.

It all happened when Talya jumped up to sit on B the other night. Willy was out and about, so she felt confident in draping herself on B’s chest. She doesn’t curl up on a person’s knee, but is a draper, spreading herself across the upper part of a person’s body.

Willy turned up and saw B sitting in situ, but didn’t initially notice Talya occupying part of his person until he had a closer look. This took him aback, but you could see him considering how to dislodge her.  He took the plunge and for a time both cats were practically nose to nose. We waited for the fireworks, but they didn’t occur, with Willy turning his back and settling on B’s knee. Talya maintained her position and all was well with the world.

So things are looking more positive as far as the cats are concerned. If there is argy bargy it is more likely to be Talya making a fuss, or trying to provoke Willy by stalking him. He’s attempting to be a gentleman about the state of affairs, and goes out of his way to avoid conflict with her. I tell her she’s only making trouble for herself if she carries on so, but she ignores my advice and persists with her aggressive behaviour. There are hopeful signs that her attitude is thawing and that she is willing to consider a truce.

Other News

Spring is just around the corner, and of course that reawakens my enthusiasm for horse racing.

At Caulfield today is the last meeting of the 2012/2013 racing season, and the feature race is the Group 3 Bletchingly Stakes, a race that I regard as the first group race of the new spring season.  It has been won by some classy horses – Apache Cat, Shoot Out , Super Elegant for instance - but this year the field is rather ordinary. I just watched it and the 2013 winner is Second Effort.

The big racing news this week was the announcement of Black Caviar’s chosen mate for her first breeding season – Exceed And Excel is the lucky boy. He’s quite a good looker, so the resulting foal should be a beauty.

Meanwhile I wait with keen anticipation for the first Group One of the 2013 spring carnival which happens to be the Memsie Stakes at the end of August.  The race has only recently been upgraded to group one, it being a group two race up to now.

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Tesla Effect

tesla effect2

At about this time last year, I was eagerly following the progress of a Kickstarter project for a new Tex Murphy game.  The producers, Big Finish Games, reached their target with some to spare, so production of the game is in full swing and the game is likely to be released by the end of this year.

On Nikola Tesla’s birthday, 10 July, Big Finish Games released a video teaser, that thrilled the pants off this old Tex Murphy addict and announced the title of the game at the same time. It is Tesla Effect – A Tex Murphy Adventure. (see video below)

Very few details of the new game have been released, for which I am grateful. I want to be surprised, wowed and amused when I finally have the game installed on my computer, though I gather that it will be full FMV (full motion video) with an immersive 3D environment and involve multiple narrative paths ala Pandora Directive.

What Tesla has to do with the story remains a mystery, an intriguing one at that, but it got me to go and check him out. Here’s a great overview of his life and work in comic book form.

Needless to say I am keenly awaiting the completion of  Tesla Effect aka Project Fedora and really look forward to playing a new Tex Murphy game after 15 years of waiting.

Monday, July 15, 2013

A Good Read – We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

fowler_beside ourselves

Karen Joy Fowler is well known as the author of The Jane Austen Book Club, but she has written six novels in all, and several collections of short stories.

I have read just about all of them, and each has been different to the others. So you could say, that when I notice that Karen Joy Fowler has new book out, I make sure to read it.

Her latest novel is We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, and I can assure you it is as good if not better than any of her earlier novels.

However, it is a hard novel to review without revealing the most important point of the plot. So here’s an outline without spoilers…

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way

The main character is Rosemary Cooke who when we first meet her is at college, in what she terms the middle of her story.  She tells us she is a quiet and lonely young woman and that she used to be an annoying chatterbox in her childhood.

Something happened when she was five years old. Her sister Fern disappeared from her life, and her brother Lowell ran away from home seven years later ostensibly to search for Fern.  So she is in mourning for both of her siblings, and distanced from her parents. Although she has learned to suppress her memories, they refuse to be denied.

The quote above from Anna Karenina applies to Rosemary’s family. Fern’s disappearance tore the family apart. They are all traumatized by the loss of their sister/daughter.

Slowly, slowly the novel reveals the secret at the heart of the novel, moving from the middle and back to the past. It is a stunningly clever novel, wonderfully plotted, and the surprise when it comes, about a third of a way through the novel, makes perfect sense after what has been revealed before.

I must admit, I was aware of the surprise, having read a review that gave it away, so it’s best not to read spoiler reviews, but OK if you do, as I found it didn’t spoil my pleasure in the novel, as after the secret is revealed there is so much more to find out about what became of Fern and how it all ends. The cover gives you a clue.

In any case I highly recommend that you read it. It is an engrossing,  intelligent novel that approaches the subject of unhappy families and memory in an original and interesting way.

Friday, July 05, 2013

Edward Whittemore in the 21st Century

I have mentioned the novels of American writer Edward Whittemore previously and indeed for 12 years have maintained  Jerusalem Dreaming, a Whittemore tribute website.

So I was pleased to learn that new eBook editions of his five novels will be published on 23 July 2013 by Open Road Media.

Whittemore_QuinsShanghai_ebook_m Whittemore_SinaiTapestry_ebook_m Whittemore_JerusalemPoker_ebook_m
Whittemore_NileShadows_ebook_m Whittemore_Jericho_ebook_m EWa

Above, cover art for the new eBook editions and a photo of Edward Whittemore taken by his life long friend Carol Martin.

Edward Whittemore is best known for his Jerusalem Quartet, a series of novels set in the Middle East, composed of  Sinai Tapestry, Jerusalem Poker, Nile Shadows and Jericho Mosaic. Quin’s Shanghai Circus was his first published novel and is set in Japan and China. It was published in 1974 and the Quartet followed, its four novels being published over the period 1977 to 1987.

Edward Whittemore died in August 1995 of prostate cancer, but his literary work lives on, though even now is not all that well known. He remains an obscure and mysterious writer, but deserves to be a household name.  The books are quite wonderful in the truest sense, full of marvellous and strange events - a secret history of the Middle East no less - funny, humane, wise and beautifully written.

I readily admit that the novels of Edward Whittemore changed my life. When I first discovered Sinai Tapestry back 1979, I became obsessed by it and eagerly looked for any further books by the author. Eventually Jerusalem Poker was published in a UK paperback in 1980 and I realised that the two novels were part of a series.  The later volumes of the Quartet were only available in US hard covers, so I went to great lengths to acquire copies. This was before the Internet and the books were impossible to find in Australia, so they had to be specially ordered.

When I finally acquired Internet access in 1997, one of the first things I searched for was Edward Whittemore novels, whereupon I learned of his death.

As there was very little information on Edward Whittemore on the Internet, it occurred to me that someone should create a website for him.  That someone was me.  I had  long been wanting to create a website after learning how to use Dreamweaver, so this tribute site was the ideal opportunity. It has gone through three designs in the 12 year period it has been online, and still remains my favourite of all the sites I have created or managed. And it still serves its original purpose; to be a repository of Edward Whittemore information, and a lasting appreciation of his literary oeuvre.  I’ve had lots of help over the years with contributions of articles, photos, ephemera etc. donated by people  across the world.

In the process of creating the Jerusalem Dreaming website I came to communicate with several people who had been personally acquainted with Whittemore, and eventually that led me to attending the launch of his reissued novels in New York in 2002. It was quite an adventure for the sedentary creature I was at the time, and I enjoyed the experience immensely.

gotham invite

I also wrote a long essay on the novels, which was published by the New York Review of Science Fiction in January 2003 – my one claim to publishing glory.

Though my essay was published in the NYRSF, Edward Whittemore’s novels are not in any way Science Fiction, though they have their fair share of magic realism.

It’s good that Open Road Media has taken on the task of publishing the eBooks, as their list is pleasantly catholic, with diverse genres represented. Whittemore is in good company, along with authors such as Barbara Pym, Michael Chabon, Pearl S Buck, Frederick Forsyth, Carl Hiaasen, the list goes on.

Naturally I have quite a large collection of Whittemore books, even though he only had five published, so they represent multiple copies of each of them. I have hard cover first editions, a complete set of the Old Earth Books paperback editions, and others in various languages – French, Dutch and Russian. I’ll no doubt add the eBook versions to my Kindle, so I’ll be able to read them at my whim.

So if you’re looking for books to escape into, books that might even change your life, or make your soul grow – as one Whittemore admirer averred – search no further.  The wonderful books of Edward Whittemore will be readily available again very soon in the most popular eBook formats.