it’s Literacy Day. What better time to talk with former journalist and editor Corrie Perkin about her love of the written word and why she opened a bookshop when bookshops across Australia were closing.
I asked a dentist recently why anyone would want to be a dentist. I could ask you why anyone would want to be bookshop owner given the closures of so many bookshops across Australia …
Pretty crazy, I know. It’s true that each year we say goodbye to bookshops that, for years, have served their communities with enthusiasm and dedication. Perhaps it’s an arrogance thing. I thought I could start a bookshop in a suburb that had never had one before, in an area where the demographic has changed considerably over the past decade. At the time, I truly believed there would be a slow U-turn back to the book-as-object rather than something you access on an electronic device.
I thought I was capable of creating a little oasis and a community hub. And from that I could earn a living. The weekly wage isn’t great, but we have certainly become part of our village fabric. I think if we closed our doors there would be a protest march.
You are a highly respected journalist, the first female reporter permitted into AFL club rooms, an editor of the AFL Record, an associate editor and columnist at The Age, a communications executive for the National Gallery of Victoria, so why the foray into business? And especially a bookshop?
I started at The Age at 17. I never went to university and I have no qualifications. I have had many lows and highs in my life, and lots of professional and personal shifts. The one constant since I was a little girl has been the written word. Whether I’ve read it, written it, edited it, published it, I think man’s greatest capacity to change the world in which we live is through the written word. Why not a bookshop after 30 years in journalism?
I had wanted to own a bookshop since I was about 35. The timing was finally right in 2009. I had just spent two weeks covering the Black Saturday bushfires and their aftermath for The Australian. Our team had received accolades and awards for our coverage and I’d notched up 30 years in journalism. It seemed the perfect time to leave – on a high, feeling energetic and positive, and just before newspapers started laying off staff via massive retrenchment programs.
I also wanted to be my own boss. There is nothing so liberating, or exciting and courageous.
Your proudest moment as a journalist?
The Australian’s Black Saturday coverage. Our head office in Sydney couldn’t grasp the enormity of the story, although it insisted on sending down its senior people. We rejected that idea, and our small team of reporters and photographers worked through the day and night to take the tragedy to the nation.
And as a bookshop owner?
I have them every day. Austin, one of our young customers, started coming to us as a kindergarten child. He is now in year five and is an avid reader who treats the shop as home and our staff as family. His teacher sends home glowing reports about his language and reading skills. Once a reader, always a reader,
One night, we had an event at the shop to celebrate Shakespeare’s 400th birthday. Four magnificent speakers, including an academic, an actor, a director and Barry Jones, the former federal minister and a keen Shakespeare fan, chatted about their love of the Bard’s work. About 110 people turned up! It was a freezing May evening but they came along, and you could have heard a pin drop for an hour-and-a-half.
And the most challenging moment as journalist?
Too many. The young reporter would say being the first woman to cover AFL full-time and turning up to my first of everything – first training night, first match, first after-match press conference, first night game …
As a senior journalist, I would say editing a big story you know will make fur fly, attract criticism toward the paper and possibly incur legal action, but having to trust your journalists that they are right. It’d be okay if you were writing the story yourself but trust you must and trust you do.
And as a bookshop owner?
Coping with seven prime ministers in 10 years, plus federal and state elections. Business stops, people become nervous and you still have to pay the bills. I have had an unreasonable number of these anxious moments since 2009.
Do many people come into the bookshop, read and leave empty-handed?
Not many. We are lucky, we have a good conversion rate because we offer great service and have so many beautiful things. Even if it’s a $5.50 greeting card, people find it hard to leave without spending something.
What are the demographics of your customers?
On weekdays, it’s mainly the 45-plus. On weekends, that age group is still well represented, especially by the empty-nesters who have moved to the Hawksburn-South Yarra-Prahran area for an inner urban lifestyle. But our customers are more diverse: lots of kids, lots of Millennials who really love their books-as-objects and the whole experience of chilling in a bookstore, plus heaps of people buying gifts for 21sts, weddings, birthdays.
You stage events with authors promoting their new books. Who have you had? Any anecdotes you’re able to share?
Since we opened, we have had more than 500 events in the shop (we had 105 in 2016 when we had our big event space at our old Toorak Road store). Our very first guest was twice-winner of the Miles Franklin literary award Alex Miller. Our last event was Jock Serong and Chris Womersley, two brilliant Victorian writers. From public intellectuals like Julian Burnside, Don Watson, Marcia Langton and Robert Manne, to award-winning journalists such as David Marr, Andrew Rule, Nikki Savva and Sarah Ferguson, gifted fiction writers such as Christos Tsiolkas, Elliot Perlman, Tom Keneally, Favel Parrett and Heather Rose, plus many politicians – Bob Brown, Steve Bracks, Lindsay Tanner, to name a few. But the most memorable moment was when the late Gurrumul Yunupingu gave a performance of five songs in the shop. Through a friend we were able to host this event at very short notice. It was booked out by our Friends of My Bookshop in 20 minutes. Just 45 people and one of the world’s finest voices. Nothing will ever compare to that.
Are tablets/digital reading devices banned in your house/shop? Have they hurt authors or helped them?
I can’t stop people reading books on electronic devices and I think sometimes it encourages people to actually buy the book after they have enjoyed a book digitally. My feeling is: in this crazy, electronic-driven, phone-obsessed, screen-fatigued world, do yourself a mindfulness favour; at the end of the day, or first thing in the morning when you’re in bed with a cup of tea, read a few pages of a beautiful book. No screen, no ‘read me’, no ‘you’ve got mail’, no Instagram. Just you and the book.
What trends in buying/customers/patronage have you noticed over the 10 years of operating the bookshop?
People are buying fewer cookbooks as a recipe access. They get them online, I guess. But they still love to give cookbooks – and they are still an excellent gift for someone who loves cooking. Illustrated non-fiction for kids has boomed in the past two years – a brilliant way of getting reluctant little readers engaged. And many more re-releases of books that have been made into Netflix offerings or a film. So many people now see the show then want to read the book – a very good thing,
Who is your favourite living author and why? And of all time and why?
Favourite living author? I have four. Two are internationals: Ian McEwan and Rose Tremain. And two are locals: Alex Miller and Favel Parrett. I will walk across hot coals to get advance copies of their books. They are like old friends and when they publish a new novel, I feel like my friend has dropped in for a visit.
Your top five fiction and non-fiction books ever?
In no order …
Crossing To Safety by Wallace Stegner
The Children Act by Ian McEwan
The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain
Past the Shallows by Favel Parrett
Journey to the Stone Country by Alex Miller
Honorable mentions: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard, Warlight by Michael Ondaatje, The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton
The First Stone by Helen Garner
Patrick White by David Marr
The Hare With The Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal
This House of Grief by Helen Garner
My Life by Katherine Graham
You have three adult children and two granddaughters. Your father died at 45 and your mother worked into her 70s. You’re 58. What are your hopes for your 60s?
Health, time with family, lots of books, three days a week in the shop and one day writing, and a better golf game.
What’s the one thing in the week that you look forward to the most?
Coming home. It has always been my sanctuary. I prefer to be at home more than anywhere else. A perfect Saturday night is to be at home.
* Janelle Ward is Corrie Perkin’s sister-in-law.