The melodic tune of a live jazz band floats out through the doorway and onto the nighttime street below. A bunch of fresh roses sits on a table in the window beside an aged copy of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.
And the clinking of cutlery on dinner plates, accompanied by spirited chatter, is in tune with the music.
Inside, there is a distinctive smell. Paper. Ink. Books. That’s right – books. This is not a restaurant or bar. This is a bookshop.
All may not be well in the retail landscape, but bookshop lovers have no need to fear impending doom; bricks and mortar book retailing appears here to stay.
And it’s all thanks to two things.
The first thing is the innovative store owners who are committed to offering more than paperbacks for sale. They’re creating community hubs designed as places to meet, learn about and share a love of literature and books.
Rachel Margolius, who opened Urchin Books in Marrickville three and a half years ago, says, “We love to think of the bookshop as a great gathering of minds. It’s a place where writers, readers, and thinkers can come together and discuss ideas that are of interest to them.”
Urchin Books offers not only a couch and a cuppa made by Ms Margolius herself, but philosophy evenings, writing classes, UFO and paranormal meetings, film nights and monster drawing workshops for children plus the more traditional book club evenings.
“Part of having a bookshop is not just about selling books, it’s about being a part of the community. Recommending books, sharing your passion, and inspiring people to come and share in the joy of reading,” she says.
Anna Low, owner of the Potts Point Book Shop, says, “The bookshop has become a really pivotal point of the neighborhood. People meet here.”
She even offers a community herb garden in front of her store.
Berkelouw’s has been in David Berkelouw’s family for over 200 years. He now runs 13 bookshops, situated between Bowal in Sydney’s Southern Highlands and Eumundi on the Sunshine Coast, as well as an online store.
He says, “Really the big thing, in terms of our business, is that we view bricks and mortar bookshops as social places. And that’s something that bookshops in Europe in the early 19th and 18th century really were – very much social spaces.”
The second thing is the books themselves.
As Rachel Margolius says, “Books are beautiful in and of themselves. There is physical beauty attached whether it be the front cover, the binding, the paper, or the feel of a book in your hands. A book ignites your senses.”
Often bookshops will source limited edition and rare volumes that are not distributed locally. “It’s really about service and knowledge and the ability to have that conversation with people about what they are looking for,” Anna Low says.
Her bookshop is staffed by five people who have 80 years of bookselling experience between them.
“Everyone who works here reads widely,” she says. “It’s a prerequisite. A big part of our business is relationships with the locals and knowing the customers and what they like.”
Similarly, David Berkelouw says, “We’ve always dealt with fine books, vintage books, and rare books as well as nice quality new books that you want to keep. But the main reason people come in to a bookshop is to discover what they don’t know.
“If you know exactly what you want today, it’s all on your smart phone. Coming into a bookshop such as ours is about finding a topic you are interested in, going to that section, and finding things you didn’t know you wanted. It’s that discovery that people enjoy.”
And enjoying it they are. On a recent evening at Berkelouw’s three-storey Paddington store, almost the entire second floor was full of small groups enjoying wine and a snack while listening to the live jazz band.
But bookshops aren’t always bustling hives of activity. Often designed as a refuge for the mind, they can be as quiet as libraries, and a place where customers will shelter for whole days at a time
“Certainly you can come in here, grab a book, and go. But we do offer a space where people enjoy lingering and spending time and we encourage that.”
Tough times in retail and the rise of e-commerce can’t be ignored. As Anna Low says, “Post GFC there was definitely a big change. People used to pile up five books at a time. Now they come in and buy one – and then come back for the second. They’re much more considered in their purchase.”
But Rachel Margolius sees opportunity. “Certainly bricks and mortar retail is going through a transformation, but that can be quite a beautiful thing. It allows shop owners to really focus on people – and people are wanting to buy locally, and to shop locally, and to support local business”
David Berkelouw agrees. “I don’t think bricks and mortar retail is ever going to go away. But I do think some traditional retailers will if they don’t adapt and realise that retailing today is about much more than having product in a shop. It’s about having an experience.”