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Melbourne by the Book – Eclectic Bookshop Tour, Melbourne Writers’ Festival 2010

August 16, 2011
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Shelley Cohney will host the Eclectic Bookshop Tour for Melbourne Writers’ Festival 2011 on 27 and 28 August and 3 and 4 September.
For more information go to http://www.mwf.com.au/2011/?name=program-walks.

It’s common knowledge that these are difficult days for bookstores. The collapse of Borders/Angus & Robertson, the rise of online outlets and the growing dominance of e-books all prompted Minister for Small Business Nick Sherry’s notorious comment that ‘in five years … other than a few specialist booksellers in capital cities we will not see a bookstore; they will cease to exist’. But judging by the popularity of the Eclectic Bookshop Tour – part of Melbourne Writers’ Festival – support for those specialist bookshops is not to be underestimated.

‘We have a lot of bookshops that are tucked away into little corners’, says tour guide Leeane Fiedler. ‘Melbourne just seems to like books more than anywhere else, and I’m not sure why that is, but I’m really glad I live here’.
The walking tour is the brainchild of Fiedler and Shelley Cohney, who also runs Melbourne Tours 101. Taking participants through obscure specialty bookshops in Melbourne’s CBD, it has sold out two years in a row and is set to return for the 2011 festival. Today’s selection is just the tip of the iceberg, Fiedler says. ‘There are a lot of bookshops in Melbourne but they’re not within walking distance, and it’s very hard to put 20 people on a tram in an afternoon’. Nonetheless, we’re in for a packed and energetic three hours.

We begin at Kay Craddock Antiquarian Books (156 Collins St), the kind of place where you might stumble across Harry Potter shopping for a spell-book. Heavy wooden furniture, lush red carpets, woodcuts of literary luminaries like Victor Hugo and Robert Browning, glass cases displaying numerous owl figurines and, of course, the musty old-paper perfume savoured by booklovers. This is a shop with enough obscure treasures to keep hard-core collectors happy, but with an atmosphere guaranteed to charm, rather than intimidate, novices like me. I flip through The Book-Hunter in Paris: Studies Among the Bookstalls and the Quays, but all too soon Leeane shepherds us out, urging us to return another day for a more leisurely visit.

The next stop is a complete contrast. We descend from street level into a slightly grubby, harshly-lit basement with worn grey carpet and cartoon-bright red and yellow shelves. This is Kill City (119 Swanston St) which according to Leeane specialises in ‘Crime, blood, guts, murder, mayhem!’ In other words, true crime. Stock is second-hand and typical shelf divisions include ‘Mass, Serial Murders’ and ‘Drugs, Sex Industry’.

From this den of iniquity we ascend into the more rarified air of Collected Works (Level 1, Nicholas Building, 37 Swanston Street), a ‘poetry and ideas bookshop’ according to its business card. Proprietor Kris Hemensley was part of the 1984 founding group of the shop for ‘non-mainstream literature, specialising in small press’. It stocks fiction, drama, philosophy and especially poetry. Photographs of poets are taped to the relevant shelves, arranged according to nationality from America to Zululand. Flute music glides from the radio. Wooden chairs are placed throughout for those with time for an extended perusal. Hemensley presides over this tranquil atmosphere from his high desk beside the hanging-bead door. ‘Being a lazy person’, he says, ‘it’s a place where I can sit at the desk and do my own thinking, my own work … It’s the easiest job in the world’.

We proceed from Flinders Lane through Scott Alley and into the Port Phillip Arcade, where Leeane points out Cake Deco ‘where I get all my Christmas cake icing cookbooks’, and The Word, a Christian bookshop. We emerge onto the cacophonous corner of Flinders and Collins Streets – home to Kill City’s more highbrow sister bookshop Flinders Books (248 Flinders St) – and take the pungent stairway down into Campbell Arcade. This is home to the Sticky

Zine-makers get Sticky

Institute, internationally unique zine outlet and workshop. Zines are handmade – usually photocopied and stapled – magazines on the subject of anything and everything. You might think blogging’s convenience and immediacy would have killed them off, but today the shelves are well-stocked and the table is lively with twentysomethings (the zine scene is largely a youth subculture) writing and stapling their creations. It seems that for some there is no substitute for cutting and pasting the old-fashioned way.

We emerge from the station and continue to Mag Nation (88 Elizabeth Street). As its title suggests, this is a magazine store with over 1000 titles on offer. Nonetheless, tour participant Bronwyn can’t find the camcorder magazine she wants. A few of us choose to skip this stop; we’re here for books, not magazines! ‘It doesn’t all have to be literary’, says Leeane, ‘we try to have a wide range here’.

As if to prove her point, the next pit-stop is Minotaur(121 Elizabeth Street).

Comics fan Chris Hwang geeks out in Minotaur

Like Kill City, this is a basement shop, but a very different kind; think The Simpsons‘ comics store The Android’s Dungeon but on steroids. It’s a purple neon pop-culture emporium of comics, graphic novels, board games, computer games, DVDs, figurines … oh, and books. Comics fan Chris Hwang is in his element. On holiday from Singapore, he’d already located Minotaur before the bookshop tour began. ‘Twenty-four hours after I touch down in any city I will find a comic book store, whether I’m looking for it or not.’ Asked to list them, he reels off eleven cities across three continents. He picks up a collector’s doll from the 1980s fantasy movie Labyrinth. ‘How can you resist David Bowie in tight tights dancing around and singing?’ he asks Bronwyn, who looks dubious.

A Rendezvous with romance

Our next assignation is Rendezvous (359 Lonsdale St), a specialty romance bookshop. The atmosphere is unapologetically girly: chandelier, flock wallpaper, rose potpourri, Norah Jones on the stereo. Titles like Inferno, Whisper Kiss and Promise Me Tonight. Paperback covers featuring lacy-frocked heroines languishing against buff male torsos, or tasteful black-and-white close-ups of lingerie-clad limbs. Romance fiction isn’t my cup of tea, so I admit to judging these books by their covers. To each her own.

From one brand of fantasy to another: the Strand Arcade houses Of Science and Swords (Shop 11, 250 Elizabeth St). Like Minotaur it specialises in fantasy and science fiction, but in this small, neat and sparsely furnished store, the focus is very much on the books.

Last on the list is art bookshop Metropolis (Level 3, Curtin House, 252 Swanston St).

Lost in Metropolis

Sunlight spills onto the polished wood floorboards of this airy, spacious shop whose range spans painting, photography, graphic design, architecture and interiors. This is where you’d locate an exquisite coffee table book for the aesthete in your life. It’s also where I finally break down and buy a book; The Gashleycrumb Tineys, Edward Gorey’s delightfully morbid illustrated alphabet.
By now it’s after 4pm, time for some well-earned complementary coffee and cake at Della Nonna café in QV Square. We compare purchases and discuss our motivations for coming on the tour.

‘Discovering all these little nooks and crannies, it’s a real joy for me’, says Chris Hwang. ‘The thrill of finding something a little bit obscure. Sometimes, you just want something special. Elite. It’s silly, but it’s human nature to desire these things’.

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