For an author who spent his formative years in bookstores, their demise is a sad thing indeed. Peter Robb remembers the glory days.
I've spent more time in bookshops than in libraries, and I like them more. Always I remember where and when I bought what.
Booksellers, like writers, live on the raw edge of commerce - the struggle to survive - and it keeps them alert. A bookshop's customers, unlike the anxious, driven souls who haunt institutional libraries, are looking for a good time. A quiet and sedentary good time, but still. Money talks.
The first money I ever had went on a book. Several shillings paid for a Biggles book, bought in a newsagency in Melbourne's Glenferrie Road between my first and second school years. Summer of 1952. Title forgotten, jacket's expanse of bright blue sky remembered. The sky was somewhere in the Far East, quite near Australia. Maybe Singapore or Malaya or Burma. Biggles and the others were doing their bit to keep the Empire together after the War.
More than the Biggles book's story, I recall the intoxicating smell of a small sun-filled shop full of freshly printed wood-pulp paper on an Australian summer afternoon. You can still catch it if you walk into an un-airconditioned bookshop with a big stock of fresh paperbacks. The cheap wood pulp Australian publishers use smells like nothing else on earth when fresh, before it yellows and curls. When I was six, wood pulp smelt of freedom.
My father had bought higher-quality books from Mr Spencer at the Hill of Content, near the top of Bourke Street - The Oxford Book of English Verse and long trudges around the edge of empire. Mr Spencer is long gone, but the shop keeps its name and some of its old distinction.
Then older relatives began sending meticulously wrapped books once or twice a year from The Bookshop of Margareta Webber. I was at Miss Webber's as a child and went back in 1964. It seemed unreal then and is unimaginable now. Several floors up in Flinders Lane - she moved a few times over the years - it was in later years like a vast and silent private library, lined with glass-fronted mahogany cases containing carefully selected wares. Newer titles of particular interest were laid out on huge tables of matching polished mahogany.
Melbourne was a great city for bookshops, but not the only one. All through the antipodes we were privileged. Hands up who remembers Robertson and Mullens in Melbourne? Paul's Book Arcade in Auckland? Grahame's in Sydney?
England's bookshops in the early '70s were a terrible anticlimax. No money didn't help. The dealers of Charing Cross Road - more specifically, Cecil Court - had a few and wonderful treats. I got a terrific early Gibbon in eight volumes from the library of Lady Jane Strachey, mother of Lytton and James and 11 others. A 40-volume quarto Cambridge Shakespeare, one of 500 copies on rag paper, bound in pinkish cloth with spare spine labels tipped in.
I still have the Gibbon and the Shakespeare, a bit knocked about after 40 more years and several circumnavigations of the globe. Book buying when you have no money means every purchase is so deeply considered that its when, where, why and how stays impressed in your mind forever.
Paris bookselling in the early '70s meant François Maspero, whose shop La Joie de Lire in the Latin Quarter was open around the clock and always packed with French revolutionaries and political refugees from elsewhere. The refugees were mainly from Chile, Argentina, Colombia, Brazil - Paris itself was full of Latin Americans in those thrilling and terrible times. There were other bookshops, too. The arty La Hune and the ancient Galignani, where exiled Byron bought his books and which looked, with its gleaming dark wood and glass, like a larger and less private Margareta Webber's. There was a wonderful little place on the Boul'Mich in which there was barely room to stand, whose shelves reached the ceiling and which sold only philosophy.
Naples in the '70s was full of scruffy little bookshops dispensing random wares, new, used, remaindered and fallen off the back of a truck.
The Libreria Minerva was on a crooked little street leading down the hill from the Spanish Quarter to the port. Its owner was the enigmatic Dr Giordano, a gaunt and taciturn man who used to appear in Ray-Bans and cashmere jacket for a few minutes every six months or so to check out his business.
One day Dr Giordano disappeared and the Minerva's several floors of weirdly cramped and asymmetrical spaces were refitted in festive red on green as the outpost of the publisher Feltrinelli in Naples. Nearly all of the young staff, who were my friends, stayed on, and Rosario was elevated to be director.
Thus I met, on their more frequent but no less rapid visits, both Inge Feltrinelli and her son Carlo. Inge was no longer the glamorous blonde photographer who had fished big game off Cuba with Hemingway and photographed Picasso, Kennedy, Churchill and Greta Garbo. She was the redoubtable widow of the formidable Giangiacomo, the Milanese publisher who had brought both Doctor Zhivago and The Leopard into the world. Inge would charge into the bookshop, rearrange the display, bark orders for a taxi and head for the airport. Many years later, I found myself sitting next to her at a dinner near Florence. Of course, she didn't remember those days in Naples.
At the end of the '60s, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli had gone into hiding, fearing a neo-fascist coup in Italy and his own imminent arrest. Two years later, his body was found near Milan, blown apart by explosives. The official version was that he'd killed himself while preparing an act of sabotage. A lot of people believed he had been murdered. And still do.
Inge kept the show on the road, energising the Feltrinelli imprint and bringing modern bookselling to Italy through a chain of bright, fresh shops and cultural happenings. Carlo grew up, became a director and wrote a memoir of the father he'd hardly known. It was called Senior Service - after Giangiacomo's favoured cigarette brand - and was widely read in English.
Back in Sydney in the '90s, I covered the waterfront. Mostly, I hung out in Ariel in Oxford Street. It's a beautiful bookshop and staffed by smart people. It's one of the few that understands the principles of selection and surprise in bookselling. It was not like Bob Gould's Third World Bookshop, remembered from the '70s, whose proprietor harangued you on politics near the door on Goulburn Street, by the piece of string that kept minors out of the adult section.
At some point I stopped visiting bookshops. You can say it's the internet, and it partly is, but it started earlier. I was buying obscure books, out-of-print books, antiquarian and foreign-language books. Not what I found in shops. The thrill of the new was gone. In its place, a feeling of oppression, noise and nausea.
Age is not all of it. Neither is it electronics. Bookshops are in crisis because they make the same mistake big publishers make, of thinking success comes from producing a stream of material, badly written, unedited, shoddily designed, nastily produced, made to be ignored, remaindered and pulped. As these books inevitably are.
Among the trash, buyers' caprice finds a few titles to make fortunes and justify immense waste. Publishers gamble without instinct or taste. Booksellers follow the same mad logic - irritable, panicky, filling their shops with crap, doomed losers trying to compete with Amazon. The lost arts of choice, guidance and seduction await rediscovery.