When the favourite bookshop of my childhood finally closed, I was devastated.
I spent my formative years as a boy living in Hong Kong and Swindon Book Co Ltd – in Lock Road at downtown Kowloon – was seminal to my bookish boyhood.
I wrote about this in my memoir, The Kowloon Kid, recounting how even now I can still smell the aroma of new books as I browsed there.
It was to Swindon that I went regularly to buy my Hardy Boys detective books or, later, the The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis or novels by H. Rider Haggard, Aldous Huxley and others.
And each time I visited Hong Kong I would make a pilgrimage there. I was devastated when the physical store in Kowloon closed down during the pandemic. There was an outpouring of grief in the Hong Kong diaspora I am connected to via Facebook.
Swindon meant so much to so many of us. Bookshops are important places for those of us who love books and writing.
So, I was pleased and fascinated to discover Brisbane Bookshops, edited by Anne Richards and Matthew Wengert, released this month by small Brisbane publisher AndAlso Books.
Brisbane has been my adopted home city since 1986. I have haunted the bookshops of this city since then, so I was very familiar with many of the stores featured in Brisbane Bookshops, many of which are no longer with us.
In particular, I’m thinking of Folio Books, my favourite bookshop in the CBD, which weathered the storm of Covid only to be killed off by rapacious development. In fact, there’s a picture of Folio Books on the back cover of this new book and a whole chapter dedicated to the shop, written by Brisbane poet and academic Jane Frank.
Due to my love of Folio Books, I turned straight to that chapter where Frank has given us a nice little potted history of the store. In fact, even though I was a regular to Folio Books and knew co-owners Angelos and Jenny Kakoulidis, I didn’t know the back story, which Frank fills in quite beautifully.
This shop, in several locations, was a haven for us downtown. It was impossible to visit without purchasing a book, which is as it should be.
Folio Books became part of my life in the same way Swindon had been part of my life as a boy. Now I grieve the loss of both, but I’m also thankful for the experience.
Frank reminded me that it was here that I first came to know the flamboyant Peter Beiers, a Folio Books stalwart who later made his mark managing the QAGOMA bookstores.
Beiers was the loveliest man. He had a penchant for interesting headwear and was such a friendly bloke. He died too young some years ago and I remember the sadness that rippled through the literary and arts community at the time.
Frank, who also worked at Folio Books in her younger years, pays tribute to Beiers in her chapter. Later in the book there’s an entire chapter dedicated to him, written by arts writer and curator Louise Martin-Chew.
This is a book about people as much as bookshops, because it’s the people that make them. There’s Fiona Stager and Kevin Guy of Avid Reader and Suzy Wilson of Riverbend Books. We also hear from quite a few of the booksellers themselves in this volume.
One of our favourite second-hand bookshops is Bent Books in West End. There’s an interview with Bent’s Kat Mulheran, the current owner of West End’s oldest second-hand bookstore. That’s followed by a chat with Yarran L. Jenkins of The Book Merchant Jenkins, also in West End.
Anne Richards and Matthew Wengert have diligently researched the history of bookselling in Brisbane. Wengert’s early chapter, Brisbane Bookshops 1840s to 1940s: A Selective Summary, is fascinating and comprehensive.
David Malouf offers a brief recollection of his own and tells us how he used to browse in city bookshops after lessons at Brisbane Grammar School. He and a friend (Bill K.) used to wander down to the city after school:
“Our shared pleasure each afternoon, after a malted milk in the Winter Garden foyer or at the Pig ‘n Whistle, and before we caught the tram home – he to Auchenflower, I, in the early days to South Brisbane, later to Hamilton – was to spend an hour or so in the city’s bookshops.
“Barkers in Edward Street, and in the laneway opposite, the EF and G, the Ballad Bookshop in Adelaide Street, but especially the second-hand bookshops: Reeds on the corner of Ann Street which was rather cramped and dark with shelves so high you had to use a ladder; and Lloyds in Elizabeth Street.”
Malouf’s piece and so many chapters are sentimental journeys to bookshops that no longer exist. Other chapters pay tribute to those that still do.
This is a charming and quite comprehensive book that will serve as a wonderful companion piece to your literary life. It will also make you feel nostalgic. I’m sure there will be the odd tear shed.
Brisbane Bookshops, edited by Anne Richards and Matthew Wengert, is published by AndAlso Books and Paradigm Print Media, $35
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