RIP: Macleay Bookshop in Potts Point, Sydney. Photo: Tamara Dean
Earlier this year, the Macleay Bookshop in Macleay St, Potts Point closed down after sixty years as the book providore of choice to Australia’s most bohemian neighbourhood. It was a genuine neighbourhood tragedy, another big chunk carved out of a suburb that’s losing its character as fast as it gains yoga studios and artisan olive oil emporia.
It was a small space packed tightly with books and, most of the time, locals - the kind of place where you could easily imagine first clapping eyes on one’s literary paramour there, as Louis Nowra and Mandy Sayer did. When I was a resident a decade ago, the Macleay Bookshop was a regular weekend stopover and my first choice for last-minute presents, and I couldn’t wander past without stopping to inspect the latest additions to its carefully-curated window.
The Macleay Bookshop was the kind of store where you could easily browse for at least half an hour at a stretch, despite its small size. There just always seemed to be another interesting book to check out, and indeed, another interesting section. The overwhelming impression was that every book had been chosen carefully, and that by implication, every other book had been considered and rejected as not appropriate for the space.
Great neighbourhood bookshops have an essential quality which cannot be replicated by any other means of book purchasing: taste. Looking across the impeccably neat piles of books arranged just inside the door of an excellent bookshop, and you will see dozens of utterly enticing books, with delightful covers and intriguing premises. You mightn’t have heard of the authors before, but in many cases, you soon will.
This is because good booksellers not only know what weare reading, and what wemight want to read, but what we should be reading. They put their favourite books out in prime positions, because they believe in them and hope somebody will discover them. More often than not, this is because they’ve actually read them themselves, and fallen in love with them.
I’ll take a knowledgeable bookseller’s suggestions about books that I ought to like over Amazon’s calculations anyday. Websites like that calculate their recommendations based on mathematical analysis of our previous purchases, and while that’s useful when it tells us the latest book in our favourite series is out, it’s also disconcertingly creepy, as though their databots were peering over our shoulders as we read. And in practice, I don’t think these recommendation engines have ever served up something I’d never heard of and went on to buy.
But many of my favourite books and authors I originally discovered simply because a bookseller put them in a good place. Many years ago, Alexander McCall Smith’s No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency caught my eye, for instance; and before I knew it I’d read eight of them. That’s also how I discovered Carl Hiaasen, Hari Kunzru, Maria Hyland and many other favourite writers. In a good bookshop, there are more books you are tempted to buy than you can afford, or even carry home.
There is a place for the giant 'category killer' bookshop, and I’ve mourned their closures as well. I used to love wandering around the ridiculous behemoth that was Borders, and the provision of cafés, children's zones, stationery sections and other novelties made the experience enjoyable. And of course a large range is a fine thing. The difficulty these stores face, of course, is that the internet bookshops have much lower rents and much bigger ranges again. But some survive, like the Sydney CBD branches of Dymock’s and Kinokuniya, and long may they do so. There are some pretty big independent stores too, like the original Gleebooks, and Readings outlets. They both seem to be in rude health, and have blossomed into chains.
Your favourite local bookshop is the most precious, though, if you’re lucky enough still to have one. They’re the ones whose faces and names we know, and who know us in return, and we must support them. Sometimes it's worth paying more for friendly staff and a really well-chosen selection. We mustn’t begrudge them the few bucks we could save downloading an ebook (and I’ve already written about why I prefer print books), and if in doubt, you need only imagine life without them.
The video rental stores I used to visit on a weekly basis have just about disappeared, replaced by downloads, streaming and vending machines. And even record stores are well on the way to vanishing now. As a teenager. I spent countless hours using their in-store CD listening posts, trying to work out what to buy and, simultaneously, what kind of grown-up I wanted to be.
I remember buying Siamese Dream by the Smashing Pumpkins after listening to it in the shop, and half expected someone to bar the exit and say "hey, nerd - you aren't cool enough to listen to that". "It's about being different and misunderstood," I planned to squeak as they snatched it from me. But nowadays, I mainly listen to a streaming service and can listen to music as trendy or as daggy as I like. And it all means so much less.
I, like many of us, have pretty much stuck a dagger through the heart of some fantastic local video and record store proprietors. For this, I truly apologise. But I'm determined not to do the same to booksellers. Because as clever as they are, Amazon’s boffins will never write a computer programme that can enthuse about an incredible new book they just finished last night, and that I absolutely have to read. And so, I’ll keep frequenting bookstores while they remain in business. I urge you to continue to support these inviting, stimulating temples of fine literature. And I haven’t already convinced you, they offer free gift-wrapping.