Finding links to community in the bookstore

woman reading book

Let me start with a disclaimer – I’ve been living in Melbourne for the last year and haven’t been able to visit my local bookshop for a very long time. Our bookshops have all had to move to online sales and local deliveries. As a result, our book-buying practices and reading habits have had to change a bit. But one thing these changes have shown me is how our local bookshops care about us as much as we care about them.

Bookshops are communal, familiar, comforting – a space where readers can find their footings in literary communities, find a good new book, learn new things. They are a place where stories are valued, shared, and stand literally on the highest shelf. While they sit within the distinction of culture and commerce, bookshops are central to nurturing communities of readers, creating events and book clubs and other spaces where we can gather to talk about books.

I grew up all around Australia and overseas, and while cultures changed in different places, bookshops were always safe spaces where I could get lost in the blurbs of my next YA fantasy romance novel. For me, bookshops are a unique space in Western retail environments.

When I was about 14, my best friend and I would spend our Friday afternoons at our local bookshop, hunting for the best new series we could find, and inevitably buying them and reading them together. One of our favourites was Unearthly by Cynthia Hand, an angsty YA angel romance.

I grew up in a family of non-readers, and so, sure enough, I was the only one who enjoyed going to the bookstore. It is strange to have formative experiences happen in a commercial environment, but nevertheless, here I am shouting about my love of bookstores. I think, in a way, they reminded me of being with my grandma – the only other person in my family who enjoyed reading. I remember sitting at a bookshelf in the hallway, reading the blurbs of all the interesting books she was reading – she loved historical fiction. She would tell me about the stories in these books, and why she loved them, and promised that one day I might be able to read them.

I’m from a military family so I never knew how long we’d be staying in one place. Only two things were certain – the smell of packing tape and old books. Changing schools, houses and states, mixed in with angsty teen social anxiety, meant I was always too shy to join a ‘real’ book club, or go to events, but it’s something I always wanted to be a part of. Instead, my friendship group when I was 14 solved this problem – we all read the same books and shared all our thoughts and frustrations of whatever series we had read. I think this is what inspired me to go to university and study English Literature – to find ‘my people’.

At the start of this year, I moved from Tasmania to Melbourne to study for my Masters in Publishing and Communications at the University of Melbourne. I visited Readings Carlton, a few shops in the city, and explored my local bookshops – Mary Martin Bookshop in Port Melbourne and Avenue Bookstore in Albert Park. Only able to visit for a short time before we went into our first lockdown, I cherished every moment I was given in these bookshops this year.

I have been supporting my local bookshops as much as I can, making an honourable purchase of about ten books in the space of a single week in June – when things were looking up. Admittedly, I haven’t quite got through that stash of books just yet, but they’ve been tacked on to my never-ending pile of books to read. I spent more time in bookstores in June than any other retail space at all throughout this year. But that ended pretty quickly.

Most sectors – especially the arts – are struggling this year, but we are adapting. The move to online-only retailing has proven how resilient our bookshops are, and how dedicated the readers of Melbourne are. It’s no coincidence we hold the title of the City of Literature.

This year’s Melbourne Writer’s Festival was an example of how successful literary events can be – even online. The event attracted over thirty-thousand people, including national and international attendees. The festival was a welcome event for the literary community.

The MWF associate director Gene Smith had this to say:

‘The support from our community – attendees, donors, partners, and writers – has been astounding. That support not only showcases how important MWF is to Melbourne and its readers but reinforces its place as a major international literary event. We hope that being part of MWF Digital has been a much-needed balm to this challenging time.’

Another great initiative which has adapted to lockdown measures and online literary communities is #AustraliaReadsAtHome, a literacy program which is working together with the Australian Bookselling Association. On their website, they state:

‘Now that we’re staying in, it’s a good time to get reading. Books – in whatever shape, size, or form – are a great way to unwind, to learn new things, discover new stories, and feel all kinds of emotions.’

People are reading more in lockdown, so it is more important than ever that we continue to support our local bookshops and maintain links to the literary community.

Without spaces like these to create communities of readers, print and bookish culture would be lost – without places for writers to share their work, our Australian literary landscape would change completely. While book sales have been increasing overall in the Australian book industry, the effects of the pandemic have been felt especially hard on inner-city Melbourne bookstores, and smaller publishers. As spaces that nurture our readers and writers, bookshops are fundamental in ensuring a future for Australian readers, a space where community can flourish, and where people like me can find common ground with friends in the book-lined walls of a brick-and-mortar bookshop.

We need to stick up for our local bookshops, and make sure they’re still around when we can finally go back to them.

Chloe Agius is an editor, avid void-tweeter, and passionate book-buyer. She is studying a Masters of Publishing and Communications at the University of Melbourne.

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