Sure, you can walk around Circular Quay, taking selfies with the famous Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. You can take your togs down to Bondi Beach and enjoy the sun and sand. You can even cuddle a koala. But why do that when you can trek around some of Sydney’s most iconic bookstores? Just make sure you bring an empty suitcase for all your new purchases.
Missing out on the title of oldest bookstore in the country by about 35 years, Dymocks opened its doors in 1879. It has since become the largest bookstore chain in Australia with over 65 outlets, but its original flagship store is without doubt its best. Occupying three floors of an Art Deco landmark building the family built in the 1920s, it is spacious, well thought-out and houses over 300,000 titles. Non-fiction upstairs, fiction and stationery in the middle, and kids books downstairs, there is even a Lonely Planet Hub, and a fantastic system of recommendations.
Just around the corner from Dymocks is a slice of heaven for fantasy and science fiction fans. Galaxy Bookshop, co-located with Abbey’s Bookshop and the Language Book Centre, has all your geeky requirements – I once found a boxset of Spaced that I had been in search of for months. Score.
If second-hand books are more your thing, Sydney is no slouch here either. Take the 426 bus towards Newtown and explore Goulds Book Arcade. Like an artefact from a world gone by, it is a two-storey maze of books, plays, comics, CDs and vinyl records – you could wander the shelves all day and not discover everything it has to offer. The shop was founded almost thirty years ago by the left-wing activist, Vietnam-protestor and badass book addict Bob Gould, and he ran the shop until his death in 2011. Now it’s operated by his daughter, Natalie. Bob estimated that he read 80,000 titles in his lifetime (don’t I feel like a slacker). Posters adorn the doors and entryway, including one spruiking a left-wing political candidate in the recent Australian election. The staff couldn’t possibly keep an inventory of the whole store, but they do know how to point you in the right direction. Alternatively you can follow the handwritten signs in each aisle.
All you really need to know is that it smells like books.
As I wandered through an aisle that housed biographies and Marxist books, I saw one of the two staff members re-housing a book by doing the splits across the shelves of an aisle further up. Parkour for second-hand bookselling! But all you really need to know is that it smells like books. And if there are hundreds of thousands of titles on the shelves, imagine how many more are piled up in the boxes under the stairs…
If you prefer your used books a little more orderly, a stroll up King Street will bring you to Elizabeth’s Bookstore. Charmingly small on the inside, you’ll have to squeeze past other patrons in search of a bargain, but it is wall-to-wall books with friendly staff.
Its best feature is ‘Blind Date With A Book’. Wrapped in brown paper with just a few key words to guide you, Elizabeth’s has made it impossible to choose a book by its cover in the hope of introducing readers to new adventures they wouldn’t otherwise have taken. They’ve even started an online store if you’re itching for your own blind date.
Last but not least: Berkelouw Books is a hop, skip and a jump across to Leichhardt. The Berkelouw family have been selling books in the Netherlands and Australia for six generations. Their Leichardt store has two levels of books to explore as well as a Reading Studio for young ‘uns aged 2–8. Reading Studio was founded by the Berkelouw family and is supported by early childhood academics and teachers.
The real magic, however, is to be found at their Berkelouw Book Barn in Bendooley Estate, about an hour and a half drive from Sydney. Formerly an actual barn and boasting an inviting renovation and stone fireplace, there are tens of thousands of new, second-hand, rare and antiquarian books plus the extra special Rare Books Collection just down the path.
It doubles as a function centre and, when I attended a friend’s wedding last year, it was quite something to watch the shop close and the book shelves slide away to line the walls of the dining room. Each table at the wedding was named after a famous title (I was seated at The Great Gatsby) and being surrounded by books and love was a perfect marriage for the start of a marriage.
I’ve barely scraped the surface of what Sydney has to offer the book lover, so you best come and see for yourself.
Alicia Rich is a writer, cinephile and cynophile, who is waiting for her call-up to be the fifth Ghostbuster. Find her on Twitter at @AliciaRich.
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Vaguely literary things we’ve been enjoying
FutureLearn works with unis and cultural institutions around the world to create courses on some pretty interesting topics – all for free – from the comfort of your laptop or smartphone. They’re super accessible and are a great way to intro yourself to or brush up on subjects when you’re short on time and juggling other projects. I’m currently enjoying their course on Hans Christian Andersen with the Uni of Southern Denmark. Next up on my list is their Shakespeare course run by my old uni lecturer Jonathan Bate.
Roald Dahl had one. Virginia Woolf had one. Thoreau went to one to live deliberately. Hemingway had one over his garage with a bridge to his bedroom. Now I’m building one too. Sandwiched between the chicken yard and the sheep pen on my friend’s farm, I’m wrapping up the exterior work on an 80 square foot writing cabin. It will have a bed, a desk, and a bookshelf — simple living for weekends. It’s no Walden, but I do hope that the peace and quiet (not counting the crowd and bleats of the barnyard) will help me finish my chapbook projects.
One of my very favourite podcasts, Book Fight—subtitle: “tough love for literature”—is an irreverent and often hilarious show about books and writing from two of the editors at Barrelhouse magazine. If you like the sound of a podcast which successfully couples insightful literary analysis with the occasional half-hour tangent about erotic fanfiction, this one’s for you. Just don’t mention The Sliver Linings Playbook.
>> Check out the VLTWBE archive here.