• Julia Roberts in Notting Hill. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
Bookshops are a special kind of magic and that hasn't changed for me as I got older.
By
Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen

10 Aug 2018 - 2:29 PM  UPDATED 21 May 2021 - 1:07 PM

As a kid, I spent nap time at preschool reading – curled up under a blanket, whispering to my teddy bear, sharing stories with him. I complained to the teachers that they needed more books because I’d read them all. I burrowed into my doona at night, losing myself in fantastical stories. 

Bookshops and libraries were my happy places, and that didn’t change as I got older. They felt holy – walking into them, I could feel the weight and knowledge of thousands of years bearing down on me. I could pull a book off the shelf and disappear into an imagined world, or discover the innermost thoughts of strangers, maybe long dead. These places were homes for possibility; I never knew what I might find by grabbing a book at random off the shelf and flicking it open to any page. 

A year ago, I fulfilled a childhood dream and started working in a bookshop to supplement my freelance income. My work is a dreamy little place – tucked into a corner on the ground floor of a large suburban shopping centre, it’s all grand arches, wooden ladders and cosy reading nooks, like something out of a storybook. White pieces of cardboard adorn the shelves, with handwritten love letters from each of the staff to the books that captivated us. Records and DVDs line the middle of the shop, and each of the thousands of books has been handpicked to order, then touched and stickered by our team – nothing is there by mistake.

These places were homes for possibility; I never knew what I might find by grabbing a book at random off the shelf and flicking it open to any page. 

One of the great joys of bookselling is being able to share what moves me with strangers, and having them do the same. I’ll never forget the time a teenage girl asked me what she should read next, and I suggested Jessica Townsend’s Nevermoor – a magical story about a cursed girl who gets a surprising second chance. She returned the next day just to tell me that she ripped through the 400-plus pages of the book in one night and adored it. Or the time a colleague and I jovially debated with a shy male customer, in the dying retail hours of a Friday night, about which Bob Dylan album is the best (it’s Nashville Skyline, for the record). Or the eighty-something woman who raved to me about how much she loves young adult fiction.

These days, it’s easy to get books from Amazon or Book Depository, often at prices cheaper than retail. Just a few clicks and they’re on their way, and you don’t even have to leave your bed. But there’s a certain charm in bookshops that can’t be replicated – whether it’s the physical sight of stacks of books, or the smiles of the people around you, or the conversations you can have behind the counter and in front of it. I’ve witnessed perfect strangers talking to each other about the books they’re buying, and recommending similar titles. It’s a conversation I’ve had all my life with anyone who’ll listen, and being paid for it now is something I feel extremely lucky for.

Bookshops also build community. My work holds a book club once a month, where eager readers gather to drink wine, eat cheese and chat about the intricacies of a particular title. Children gather for story time every Friday morning, listening to strange and wonderful tales that spark their imaginations. I have attended countless launches and events at bookshops all over the world, and the feeling is always the same – a radiating love for the written, printed word. As a writer myself, this inspires and comforts me.

I have attended countless launches and events at bookshops all over the world, and the feeling is always the same – a radiating love for the written, printed word. As a writer myself, this inspires and comforts me.

Specialist bookshops (think Hugh Grant’s travel store in Notting Hill) are run by people with a passion for a particular genre, and as such visiting them is a joy. One of my favourite places in the world, All Star Comics in Melbourne, has a staff so knowledgeable and friendly that I don’t want to buy comics anywhere else, even though I’d save a lot of money online.

As for secondhand bookshops – I could write a thousand books about them. Another of my all-time favourite places is Gould’s in Sydney's Newtown – a sprawling shop stacked floor to ceiling with all sorts of weird and wonderful treasures. Picking up a secondhand book and seeing an old inscription written on the inside – birthday presents, gifts from lovers – creates an incredibly intimate connection with someone you’ll never otherwise know. The yellowed pages, that addictive musty smell - a secondhand bookshop is a time machine, a treasure trove.

Contrary to popular belief, the internet, audiobooks and e-readers are not killing literature or reading, they’re improving access to it and creating more pathways. But physical bookshops are a special kind of magic, and without support, they will dwindle. If your local bookshop doesn’t have what you want in-store, rather than going to Amazon, ask them to order it for you – chances are it’ll arrive as quickly as something you order online anyway, and demand creates supply.

So for Love Your Bookshop day on Saturday, pop into your local and have a chat to the booksellers. Have a look on the shelves and take a chance on a title you’ve never heard of, or pick up a new copy of an old favourite to gift to someone else.

In the immortal words of The Smiths: there’s more to life than books, you know, but not much more.

Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen is a freelance writer. You can follow her on Twitter @gisellenguyen.

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