Sick of supermarket-sized chain book stores? Around Melbourne many small specialists are thriving. Mi Fon Lew reports.
"NO ONE running an independent niche bookshop is in it for the money," says The Haunted Bookshop's owner, Drew Sinton. "If you want to earn money as a bookshop owner, you do what Angus and Robertson does, all books for all people."
Sinton remembers walking out of a client meeting 10 years ago. He left behind a six-figure salary and 13 years in advertising to set up The Haunted Bookshop in McKillop Street in downtown Melbourne.
A large sign down a quiet lane indicates the bookshop's curtained doorway, and atop the dim stairway a skeleton greets you.
"I can tick all the things wrong about the shop that people have pointed out," the ex-creative director says gleefully. He lists no window displays, the gloomy, uninviting space, and the '70s-inspired decor with velour drapes, scattered skulls and pine bookcases crammed with paperbacks and occult paraphernalia. But this is exactly the way Sinton had envisaged it as a child.
"I didn't set this up for anyone else. I set this up for me, a place I feel comfortable in, that reflects my mood and who I am." Dressed all in black, he wryly points out he is not exactly the happy, cheery angel-shop sort.
Running a haunted bookshop may be unusual, but the decision to make a career and lifestyle change by running a niche bookshop is far from unique.
Tim White was a lawyer and his wife a cook when they, too, opted for a book change. Now they run Books for Cooks on Gertrude Street in Fitzroy, seven years after responding to a one-line newspaper ad.
"We pulled out the credit card and an hour later we were the owners of a bookshop," says White. Taking over the name and some stock, they turned it into the fully fledged food specialty bookshop of their dreams.
"Ultimately kitchen work is hard," he says. "So for all the wrong reasons we jumped in with blindfolds over our eyes and we've had fun ever since."
Working every day at the bookshop with his wife and two young daughters, he says, "In a sense it's a good family business. I get to talk to people passionate about food. It's incredibly rewarding."
White loves the form and history of books. "While it is a very mild drug, it's a lovely drug to have," he says, sniffing the bouquet of a paperback.
Mirna Denic, co-owner of romance bookstore Rendezvous, is no less coy about her own addiction to the romance genre.
"My colleague Christina Hazel and I just wanted to feed our own book habit," she says, grinning. "Basically, we could get in all the romance books we wanted."
Six frenetic weeks later, the two ex-Dymocks staff opened Rendezvous in Elizabeth Street's Strand Arcade with about 2000 romance titles. Now their Lonsdale Street bookshop stocks more than 4000 titles.
"That comes from being young and dumb - no, unaware," she says. "We didn't have commitments then and it was easy to take the risk."
In contrast, crime bookshop owner Hilda Hinton had already been running her father's general second-hand bookshop for 10 years when she and her father bought Kill City Crime Books in Prahran a year-and-a-half ago.
"When you are just a general shop, it's hard to focus resources and time on one subject and grow it to a point where you can be a specialist. So when the chance came up we jumped at it."
They set up the specialist second-hand crime bookshop alongside their older business on the same Swanston Street basement premises. Hinton's personal crime collection, including 5000 Australian true-crime titles, ended up on the shop shelves.
"Murder's still all the rage really," she says.
Passionate as they may be, these owners know that running a niche bookshop, or any small business, is hard work. Too many businesses open in feverish excitement only to close when the passion and coffers dry up.
"You need a bit more than passion to get anything up and running," says occult specialist Sinton. "A lot of people think it's a good idea at first but they run out of steam and get bored, so the survivors are those with passion as well as discipline."
In the teething years, he gave tarot card readings, conducted classes and haunted tours among other things to pay the bookshop's rent, but not any more. Now The Haunted Bookshop is McKillop Street's oldest business.
"Most people thought I wouldn't have lasted more than two or three years," he says. "Many are still surprised."
With low overheads and no staff, he earns enough for the rent with a bit left over. "I've got regular customers, so when I go through days of not selling anything, it doesn't matter. There'll be days when I do."
Anne James and Anne Haddon, owners of
Books Illustrated, have recently sharpened their focus, moving from their Gasworks Park shop front after 15 years, to a gallery and showroom space where they will exhibit original children's book illustrations as well as selling a selection of books such as signed first editions.
James says she and co-owner Haddon have cut back on the book selling side of their business to pursue a passion for children's book illustrations and will also curate exhibitions both in Australia and overseas. They will also sell original illustrations through their website, booksillustrated.com.au.
Haddon says in the early years of the business it quickly became clear that sales alone could not keep their doors open. Without their educational programs for school groups, gallery sales of original artwork and prints, or James' income as an illustrator, Haddon says the business would never survive on its own.
Haddon, an ex-teacher-librarian says, "there isn't the margin in children's picture books. And with two highly reputable general book shops nearby, The Avenue and Readings, Books Illustrated struggled to survive.
"We keep it going because we want to," says James. Their accountant still wonders why.
Crime fan and bookseller Hinton remembers being worried when Borders came out. "But I don't think it's done us any harm. Because we deal predominantly in out-of-print books we are not really in competition."
As cookbook specialist White observes, "There are better places to invest money than in a small bookshop. So how do we make a living?
"We're specialists and we stock things that aren't as easy to get."
He estimates his stock of some 22,000 food and wine-related titles is probably 10 times the number of individual titles on the shelves of most large chain bookstores in Australia.
"We don't attract eat-to-survive customers," he says. With books ranging from the El Bulli volumes on molecular gastronomy to hand-written and hand-bound vellum manuscripts from the 1700s to Steve Raichlen's The Barbecue Bible, White's selection is idiosyncratic and personal.
Of Science and Swords owner Jonathan Tan greets his regulars by name and knows their individual tastes in science fiction and fantasy genres. "In their experience we give good advice and recommendations, so the trust we build brings them back."
With mailing list and online sales making up 30 to 40% of sales, Tan also takes special orders at no extra cost. "It's a little more work for us," he says, "but I don't think you have to charge people for it."
At Books for Cooks, a table is stacked with an assortment of new and second-hand books, special orders.
"Usually the table's full," says White, who sells his books worldwide. The only continent he has not sent any to is Antartica.
"In five years' time, we'll probably have double the stock," says the owner of Australia's only specialty food bookshop. But he is adamant about not having a cooking school or cafe, or opening a second bookshop. For him this would be "a sell out".
For Rendezvous owner Denic, one bookshop is enough. "None of us at this point want to make a bigger commitment in terms of time, accountability and responsibility." And she cannot imagine selling it either: "Because we can't see ourselves doing something else."
The Haunted Bookshop's Sinton would agree. "I don't want that oppression (of running a big business). I get what I want out of life. I'll stick with it and it'll be there for me when I get old."
Pulling out a deck of tarot cards, he lays out the suit of Wands, which signify career or business. "If I were to turn this bookshop into a Wands model, I'll be turning it into a franchise." Or selling it to Borders when it made him an offer some years ago.
Instead, the professional tarot card reader and former Church of Satan grotto master carefully deals out all 10 cards of the Cups suit which signify art and passion: "This bookshop is for me an expression of art which is also a business."
He flicks open and taps the last card, Contentment, with his finger.
"And this is where I am now," he says.